I recently watched the movie Everest, which is based in large part on Jon Krakauer’s excellent non-fiction book Into Thin Air and depicts the tragic events that unfolded on the slopes of Mount Everest in May 1996. Krakauer, who was covering the commercialization of Everest for Outside magazine, is in his own right an accomplished mountaineer and while originally intending to stay at “base camp” (the primary staging area for mountain expeditions) to write the story, he took the opportunity – with some encouragement – to attempt to reach the summit peak along with his subjects.
Everest is an engaging, linear account of what proved a horrific event. What precipitated Krakauer’s magazine assignment was the blossoming of commercial (that is, paid) excursions to the summit of Everest led by professional guides in the early-mid 1990s. One concern, among several, was that those who were paying to be aided to the top of the mountain were not capable of doing so safely, even with professional assistance. Their inabilities, even if they ultimately succeeded, could have a ripple effect on the safety of other climbers. This ripple expanded, with dire implications, as the mountain became more clogged with inexperienced climbers emboldened by the company of a professional guide.
Following the first successful ascent of Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953, one in four people on average who attempted the summit in the years that followed (prior to 1996) perished in the effort. Many of them were experienced mountaineers, yet still fell victim to their pursuit of the peak. With the advent of commercial expeditions to the top – some costing as much as $70,000 per individual climber – the feeling of purchasing away the inherent dangers of the undertaking inevitably crept into the psyche of some customers, even if vocally dissuaded by their guides from such notions.
Into Thin Air and Everest focus primarily on two expeditions: the Mountain Madness team led by American Scott Fischer (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and the Adventure Consultants team led by New Zealander Rob Hall (portrayed by Jason Clarke). The two men were both friends and rivals and, as Krakauer aptly points out, their expedition names were reflective of their respective approaches. Hall was far more experienced on Everest than Fischer, and more tempered in his approach. Fischer had not yet summitted the peak in May 1996 and was eager to do so to cement the viability of his firm.
What followed in the early days of May were a series of decisions that were individually lacking in prudence, but in the aggregate were ultimately lethal. Hall made a decision to press on to the peak past their designated turnaround time – although his decision probably stemmed from a laudable empathy – that proved tragically ill-advised. Fischer made several misjudgments, and Krakauer was swept up in a series of cascading events outside his direct control that threatened his life.
One of the great strengths of Into Thin Air is the fluid assessment of the character of the climbers. Krakauer’s viewpoints of his fellow mountaineers changed with time and were nuanced, rather than reactively based on quick impressions (note: Internet comment board scribes would do well to read the book). The climbers were neither two-dimensional nor black-and-white, and for the most part their actions were studies in shades of gray. The movie does its best to convey this character complexity within the limited narrative window of a feature film.
For its part, Everest hews fairly closely to Krakauer’s classic (with some notable exceptions) and Hollywood’s propensity for nonsensical detours from the facts is largely and thankfully absent. Although Krakauer was not pleased with the screenplay – and it is fairly easy to pick out what he would not have cared for once you’ve read the book – viewers should on the balance enjoy a stunning visual depiction of the events described in his account.