IMAX and the tragedy on Everest

May 21, 1998|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

The casting couldn't be better. There's a strong, spirited beauty from Spain, a soulful young man of the Far East following in his father's heroic footsteps, and a honeymooning mountaineering stud from America, with his anxious bride waiting at base camp.

The scenery's not bad either -- wide-screen shots of the world's highest mountains. And the story line of man vs. nature is as elemental as they come.

But the ingredient that has turned the 44-minute IMAX film "Everest" into a cinematic sensation is a stroke of ill fortune neither scripted nor wanted by the filmmakers. It is the blizzard that swallowed 23 climbers from other expeditions, killing eight, while the IMAX team was on the mountain in May 1996.

That disaster, recounted in Jon Krakauer's best-selling book, "Into Thin Air," has helped "Everest" break initial attendance records at every IMAX theater it has played, and officials at the Maryland Science Center expect nothing less when the film's full run opens there tomorrow.

Part of the appeal is morbid fascination: What is life like in the "death zone" above 26,000 feet, where brains addle and bodies slow to a crawl on ridges where one false step can take a life? There's also a longstanding curiosity about people who attempt such obsessive ventures.

But the film's most compelling attraction is its offer of vicarious participation in real-life adventure. In a time when millions of Americans navigate urban streets in vehicles better suited to the rugged paths of Tibetan yaks, along comes "Everest" with this enticement: Get up close and personal with frostbitten heroism, merely by climbing a flight of stairs to your seat.

Helping frame "Everest" and its 76-year backdrop of climbing expeditions is the story of Jamling Norgay, a Sherpa whose father, Tenzing Norgay, was with New Zealander Edmund Hillary in 1953 when they became the first two to reach the 29,028-foot summit.

"I grew up literally having dreams about climbing Everest," he said in an interview Monday in Baltimore. "It was like a spiritual journey, more like a pilgrimage, paying homage to my father."

But by the time his chance came in May 1996, Everest had become an adventure-travel phenomenon, sometimes drawing climbers with more money than experience, people willing to pay $65,000 a head for a well-guided shot at the summit.

The burgeoning Everest industry produced record numbers of climbers and fatalities. In 1996 alone 15 climbers lost their lives, equaling the total number who died during the first 43 years of Everest climbing (1922-1965). Such losses have hardly stemmed the flow of climbers. This Monday, 19 climbers reached the summit from the north side, while 30 more were forced to turn back while approaching from the south. The frozen body of a climber who died last week was retrieved, but only after being snapped in half to fit into a Sherpa basket.

The Buddhist approach

The dollars-for-thrills aspect of some of the '90s expeditions isn't what Norgay had in mind.

"We approach the mountain not to conquer it," he said, reflecting his Buddhist belief in the mountain as a spirit in its own right, named Jomolungma. "You don't conquer Everest."

Norgay's reverence is a major focus of the film, culminating in a stunning shot of a Buddhist temple where he celebrates the climb by commissioning the lighting of 25,000 yak butter lamps, in a flickering geometry of light.

The motivations of Araceli Segarra of Spain -- also a central focus of the IMAX film -- were not as elevated, but her emotions about Everest also have little to do with thrills.

"It is hard to explain," said Segarra, a physical therapist and the first woman from Spain to reach the mountain's summit. "I would need a whole day to understand myself, the way I'm feeling when I'm there. I'm trying to think a little bit more about how I am or how I can be better. When you come back home you see that you do not have as many problems. I open the tap and water comes out. You turn on the light and there is light. Those kinds of simple things, you really appreciate it."

Norgay and Segarra were in Baltimore this week as ambassadors for the film. Both are trim, personable and self-effacing, whether addressing an invitation-only crowd on Tuesday night or during an interview Monday, appropriately atop the Clarion Hotel with its summit-like views of downtown. With a distance of two years and 29,000 vertical feet standing between them and their climb, their judgments about Everest sound reasonable now, as if climbing the mountain is almost a rational act.

Segarra talks about knowing your limits. Or knowing how to keep your head at that "critical moment when your heart says you've got to keep going and your brain says it's time to get out of here." She has turned back during mountain climbs, she said, including her first attempt on Everest, in 1995.

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