Standing majestically on the border of Nepal and China is Mount Everest, the tallest mountain on Earth. At 29,029', it peaks at just about the normal cruising altitude of a commercial jetliner. Those who endeavor to make the climb spend weeks to months acclimating their bodies to deal with the lethally thin air they will ultimately contend with at 5 1/2 miles above sea level.
In May 1996, an unusually large team of climbers gathered at base camp and began an ill-fated ascent. Among them were Imax documentarians Ed Viesturs and David Breashears, journalist Jon Krakauer, and veteran Everest guides Rob Hall and Andy Harris. A freak storm hit as the team arrived at the summit, resulting in the death of eight people, including Hall and Harris. The climb was later recounted in the books Into Thin Air by Krakauer and The Climb by Russian mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev, and is now depicted in the feature Everest, directed by Baltasar Kormákur.
“I wanted to do everything possible to be as authentic and real as I could be,” Kormákur says. “I read all the books and I met with as many people as I could who were survivors or family of the survivors. We took several trips to Everest to get a better idea of what it is like.”
The Icelandic director grew up in a cold climate and is used to mountainous treks, but he had never encountered a natural challenge quite like Everest. Kormákur knew he needed someone who was wholly up to the task to help him bring this epic and harrowing story to the screen. “I needed somebody who had a worldly quality in both their persona and their work,” the director says. “Obviously, I wanted a great cinematographer, but I also needed someone who had dealt with movies of a certain size and logistical challenge, as well as someone who was physically and emotionally equipped to work in these extreme elements — like shooting in -30° Celsius [-22°F] on actual mountain cliffs at very high altitude. If your body isn’t physically prepared for those kinds of conditions, it doesn’t matter what your passion is, you’re not going to make it.”
After meeting with several candidates, Kormákur sat down with Salvatore Totino, ASC, AIC, and the two quickly hit it off. Totino embodied all that the director was looking for in talent, physical ability and drive. “Sal and I went up to Everest twice during prep — once as high as 24,000 feet in a helicopter to get us as close as possible,” recalls Kormákur. “It’s very dangerous to do that. People spend months acclimatizing their bodies for that kind of altitude. I asked the pilot if we could go higher, and he said, ‘No.’ He showed me that he was trying to gain altitude, but the helicopter wasn’t going any higher because the air was so thin that it couldn’t create the downward pressure to go up anymore! We went up with oxygen masks and almost got closed in by a big cloud. If we had gotten stuck up there, it would have been a lethal situation. The weather changes so quickly at that altitude that weather reports don’t really work. It just happens so fast. It’s a very, very dangerous place!”
“Baltasar really wanted to make this film feel real,” Totino confirms. “A lot of it was done real world. We shot in Nepal — Kathmandu, Khumbu Valley, over one of the bridges, and up to the [Everest Memorial] at 15,000 feet, [which honors] the climbers that have died on the mountain.”
The 1996 team took the traditional climb up Everest, from the Nepal side of the mountain. Base camp for this route is set up on the southeast side at 17,700' — 3.35 miles up. At that altitude, it takes the body several weeks to acclimate to the environment; the body has to produce twice as many red blood cells to compensate for the lack of oxygen in the atmosphere.
The first leg of the climb goes over the Khumbu Glacier, dubbed the Icefall. The glacier moves as much as 4' per day, which results in a constantly changing topography. The only way to traverse the terrain is with the aid of aluminum ladders, which are used as temporary bridges to cross over the ever-shifting abyssal crevasses. Above the Icefall is Camp I at 19,900', after which is Advanced Base Camp — or Camp II — at 21,300', followed by an ascent up the Lhotse face via fixed ropes to Camp III at 24,500'. Camp IV sits at an even 26,000'. Climbers often need to ascend to one camp and then descend to the previous camp multiple times to acclimate. From Camp IV, climbers enter the “death zone,” where they cannot physically endure more than two or three days in the oxygen-deprived air. Before reaching the summit, they must face sheer rock walls, heavy avalanche zones, and a multitude of life-threatening obstacles.
No insurance company would allow the production to film in that kind of environment, but Kormákur was insistent on shooting in actual locations. “One of the things that was quite important to me was to feel the immenseness of the mountain — to feel the volume of it throughout the film,” attests the director. “It’s not just a case of showing big shots of Everest, but getting closer to it and really feeling every aspect of it, and how small you are and how overwhelmingly powerful nature is. That was our plan. It couldn’t be done entirely in-camera, but we needed to find a way to shoot as much as possible in the real world and deal with the limitations we were given. You can’t just go into space to shoot a space movie, and it’s the same with a film like this. We had to make concessions to reality.”
Totino agrees, noting, “Baltasar wanted to put the audience in the moment, and I like to do that with all my films. We wanted to put the camera and the audience into the [environment] and make the viewers feel like they’re the ones climbing the mountain. That meant a lot of location work, long lenses and handheld operating.”
After scouting sites across the globe, the production settled on the Val Senales ski resort in the Dolomites, near the Austrian border in Italy. The location was chosen primarily for its natural light, which came closest to matching that of Everest. “At the altitude of Everest, the light is very [distinct],” submits Kormákur. “For a while I thought we might be able to shoot in Iceland, but the light doesn’t match. In the Dolomites we could get the crisp, blue sky that was closest to what you see at Everest.”
“We were prepping for the film at the end of September and the beginning of October, but then we lost a portion of our financing and we shut down and went back home,” recalls Totino. “When new financing was secured, we started back up and were shooting within a month with very little prep. We just dove in head first.”
The Dolomites stood in for segments of the ascent and descent at Camps I, II and III, but even the lower altitudes of the Italian mountains (topping off at 10,968') were fraught with peril. “One night we had to evacuate the mountain because a bad storm was coming,” recalls Totino. “That storm completely buried our camp set, and we had to dig it out the next day.”
Working on mountain peaks and cliffsides required the crew and cast to be harnessed at all times. “It was not easy moving up and down that mountain,” Totino continues. “It was very challenging — just the day in and day out of getting up, getting dressed in layer after layer and climbing boots, and going out into below-zero temperature. It takes its toll on you. Everyone moves slower in those conditions.”