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R: ARCHIVE, S: MOVIES, D: 03/12/1998, B: Jeffrey Gantz,

It's the top

Everest takes the IMAX experience to new heights

by Jeffrey Gantz

EVEREST, An IMAX film directed by David Breashears. At the Mugar Omni Theater in the Museum of Science, through the end of August.

"EVEREST: ROOF OF THE WORLD," A new exhibit at the Museum of Science, through the end of August.

The Tibetans call her Chomolungma, the "Mother Goddess of the World." To the Nepalese she's Sagarmatha, "Head of the Sky." The rest of the world knows her as Mount Everest. And for all that humankind has put men on the moon and discovered signs of possible life on one of Jupiter's moons, the fascination of the highest point on earth continues. It's our chance to meet Nature at her most extreme (walking on the moon is a stroll in the park by comparison), our chance to draw closer to God -- or to look inside ourselves. Now the mountain has a movie as big as she is: Newton resident (and accomplished mountaineer) David Breashears's flabbergasting 45-minute IMAX film Everest, which opened last Friday in the Museum of Science's Mugar Omni Theater and is already playing to sellout crowds.

The story of how Everest got made is a movie by itself. Breashears, a Chomolungma veteran (he's climbed it four times), argued that there was no way to haul the standard 85-pound IMAX camera to the top, and no way to design a lighter one that could withstand minus-40 degrees F temperatures for 24 hours and still operate. IMAX proved him wrong, coming up with a 25-pound body that, even with lens and film magazine, weighed in at 48 pounds. That didn't mean Breashears's task was easy: not only does a 500-foot magazine of IMAX film weigh almost five pounds, it lasts only 90 seconds. What's more, it proved impossible to load the camera while wearing gloves. That meant loading barehanded on the 8848-meter (29,028-foot) summit.

Why bother? Because IMAX film has 10 times the surface area of your standard 35mm film. (Imagine Titanic on IMAX.) The degree of resolution beggars the imagination. And Breashears isn't just a mountaineer with camera. At one point we see a climber crossing a crevasse in the Khumbu Icefall on a shaky-looking aluminum ladder -- standard shot. But the next moment the camera, now mounted on the climber, is looking down between the ladder's rungs and into the bottomless crevasse. It's a dizzying moment because, at this size, there's no way for us to distance ourselves: we're the climber, and eternity is only a misstep away. Breashears also got the camera hit by an avalanche (a special protective box was constructed) so that we could feel what it's like to be buried by tons of snow.

Everest focuses on three IMAX members: Jamling Tenzing Norgay (son of the Sherpa who first reached the summit of Chomolungma, with Edmund Hillary, in 1953); Ed Viesturs, who has climbed Chomolungma five times and has reached the summit of the world's six highest peaks, all without supplemental oxygen; and Araceli Segarra, a Catalonian rock climber. To the voiceover of Liam Neeson, we see them training in such places as Utah and Baja; Viesturs, who's just gotten married, quips, "I figured Everest would be a cheap place to honeymoon." (Later he muses, in all seriousness, on the delights of "lightly sautéed Spam.") We're taken to the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu, where they stay at the Yak and Yeti Hotel; we watch Norgay spinning prayer wheels; we visit the Buddhist monastery of Tengboche, at 13,000 feet. The IMAX team arrives at Everest Base Camp on April 2, and we're made to understand what a long acclimatization period is necessary prior to the assault on the summit, during that brief, unpredictable period in May after the jet steams have moved north but before the monsoon arrives from the south.

Everything is scaled down to those three climbers when in fact Breashears, Austrian Robert Schauer, and six unnamed Sherpas apparently also reached the summit. The music, by Steve Wood and Daniel May, with contributions by George Harrison, extols the triumph of humankind in grand Western style (some of it's even Irish -- go figure); there's no concession to Buddhist sensibility. And Everest puts a gloss on the horrors of May 10 and 11, when eight climbers died, five of them from commercial teams led by New Zealander Ron Hall and American Scott Fischer. The film doesn't even mention Fischer, who froze to death, and it suggests that a freak storm was responsible when in fact bad judgment was the primary culprit. (Some engagingly frank views are offered by the Museum of Science's honorary director, 87-year-old Bradford Washburn, in the "Perspectives" column of this month's Climbing magazine.) Breashears wants to leave the impression that Everest is climbable -- and it is, if you have the money (as he did) and make intelligent decisions (as he did and others didn't). But you need luck, too. Everest tells us that you have to ascend slowly to avoid pulmonary edema, but in fact pulmonary (and cerebral) edema can strike without warning. At Everest's press-screening conference (where the IMAX team got a little testy that we were asking so many questions about the disaster), Viesturs and Norgay, both new parents, said they weren't going back to Chomolungma. Good for them. Their challenges lie elsewhere.

Breashears also admitted that, following his 1997 Nova documentary on extreme altitude, he'd had enough. You can quibble about Everest: there's little acknowledgment of the unnamed Sherpas who do most of the work for relatively little money (the last image, though, is of smiling Base Camp cook Chyangba Tamang); no acknowledgment that Nepali Colonel Madan Khatri Chhetri actually made two hazardous helicopter rescue flights; no acknowledgment of how reluctant Norgay's wife was to let him continue; no acknowledgment that more than three climbers (including Breashears) were on the summit. And no one ponders the mystical pull of "highest," even though the world's second-highest mountain, Chogori (K2), is technically more difficult, or reminds us that less than 200 years ago (think of Shelley's "Mont Blanc") Westerners saw peaks as more than granite, ice, and snow. Of course, you can do only so much in 45 minutes. (The accompanying National Geographic Society book, Everest: Mountain Without Mercy, is a masterful presentation -- see "Climbing higher," left.) And the simplification isn't always self-serving. When the Hall and Fischer expeditions came to grief, the IMAX team (with the approval of the project's sponsor, Malden Mills) offered oxygen and manpower to the other teams, putting its own objectives at risk. Breashears's actions have been described everywhere as extraordinarily generous, yet the film makes no mention of them.

Moving images abound. The 25,000 butter candles that surround the Great Stupa of Bodhnath in Kathmandu, Norgay's thanksgiving offering to the gods. The sight of climbers making the final ascent, points of light in total darkness. Segarra breaking down when trying to talk about the climbers who died. And, unforgettable, four Base Camp tents, lit, solitary yet linked, in the shadow of Chomolungma, in the aftermath of the disaster.

The Museum of Science could have rested (and profited handsomely) on its laurels with this film, which it co-sponsored. But when you consider that Bradford Washburn directed the definitive map of Chomolungma, it's not surprising that there's more. "Everest: Roof of the World" is as big as the movie: a 12x15-foot foam scale model relief (it took a year to build), complete with an exhaustive climbing history -- you can feel you're on the mountain. It's accompanied by sections on geology, mapping, and climbing, including a computer station that's a model of information and the chance to look at high-altitude stereoscopic shots. I was pleased to find a photo of Chomotseringma (Gauri Shankar), not the highest mountain you'll ever see, but one of the most beautiful. Yet the winner here is the full-wall-length photo of four of the world's five highest peaks: Chomolungma, its neighbor Lhotse, Gangchhendsönga (Kangchenjunga), and Makalu. Like Everest, they're alive with the sound of God's creation.

Climbing higher

You saw the movie (the number to call for the necessary reservations is 723-2500, and you may need to be patient), you walked through the exhibit -- now it's time to read the book. Broughton Coburn's Everest: Mountain Without Mercy (National Geographic Society, 256 pages, $35) is as spectacular as the film, with many images from Breashears's movie and a much fuller account of how Everest was made, how the IMAX team reached the top, and why Breashears's team emerged unscathed and successful whereas the commercial teams of Rob Hall and Scott Fischer met with disaster. Not the least of its treasures is the series of interspersed, separately written articles: "The Elusive Height of Everest," "The Great Stupa of Bodhnath," "The Sherpas," "What Happens at Altitude," "Where the Himalaya Come From," and much more.

For those who want to know more about the Black May of 1996, there's Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air (Villard, 296 pages, $25). Already a bestseller, this engrossing, terrifying piece of journalism from a writer who climbed to the top with Rob Hall's expedition is as lucid and objective as you can expect given the hypoxic state of the participants. The Climb, by Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt (St. Martin's Press, 256 pages, $25), is more narrowly focused, being dedicated to justifying the controversial actions of Boukreev, who was one of Fischer's guides (despite his attitude problems, he performed the best of the guides on Chomolungma that day), but it points up the sometimes huge discrepancies in the accounts of what happened. Even off the mountain -- just compare Into Thin Air's account of a phone call between Krakauer and climber Martin Adams (pages 219-220) with The Climb's (pages 214-215).

The Mountaineers, a Seattle press, has a pair of gorgeous books on the history of climbing the world's two highest mountains: Everest: The History of the Himalayan Giant and K2: Challenging the Sky (144 pages and $35 each). Cloudcap, also in Seattle, has Reinhold Messner: All Eight-Thousanders (248 pages, $40), the story of how the world's greatest mountaineer has climbed all of the earth's 14 peaks over 8000 meters, without oxygen, and, my favorite, Over the Himalaya (108 pages, $40) -- aerial views of the world's highest range. When I was a child, I'd spend hours looking at the Himalaya in National Geographic: each peak had its own shape, its own personality. Now they have mystifying new names like Chogori and Jo'öyu Ri and Gangchhendsönga, but they're every bit as magical.

Finally, the Museum of Science gift shop has a home-video version of Everest. It's not the IMAX experience, but the warmth, the humor, and the courage of Breashears's team still come through.