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Movie Vs. Reality: What It Actually Feels Like To Climb Mount Everest

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Last Friday, Everest opened to generally positive reviews. The movie is based on the 1996 climbing season in which loose restrictions, mountain crowding, and blizzard conditions led to the death of eight climbers. In the buildup to the release, Jon Krakauer — who wrote about the season of ’96 in Into Thin Air — told the L.A. Times that the movie was “total bull,” stirring controversy and calling the film’s verisimilitude into question.

Considering Krakauer’s distaste for Everest and the constant struggle of Hollywood to effectively capture action sports, we wanted to get a clearer idea of how realistic the movie actually was. We spoke with two Everest experts, climbers Sean Swarner and Nick Heil. Swarner is a survivor of two different deadly cancers. He was in a medically induced coma for a year, had one lung removed, and then started chasing down all of the highest peaks on the planet. In 2002, he summited Everest (after Krakauer publicly questioned whether he was fit to do so). He now tours the country giving motivational speeches and has launched the CancerClimber Association. Heil is a longtime Outside magazine editor who wrote the book Dark Summit about Everest’s second deadliest season, 2006. Though he didn’t summit Everest, he climbed to 23,000 feet and interviewed numerous Everest climbers for his book. Heil also recently wrote a piece for Outside called ‘Hollywood Knocks off Everest at Last‘ in which the actors and producers of the movie shared stories about the mountain and their experiences filming.

So… tell us about this mountain.

Sean Swarner: There are some really technical sections in there, because it’s constantly changing, and you’re wearing crampons, you’re roped up, you’re running across ladders. I guess there’s nothing ‘technical’ about going across a ladder that’s strung across a crevasse, but it takes cajones the size of watermelons. For the most part, summiting is about how your body handles the altitude and it’s also how your mind handles pushing yourself to the limit.

Nick Heil: I was on Everest in ’07. I was actually on the north side, so I haven’t been to the south side base camp, although I’ve been up high on the Khumbu — kind of right next to Everest — so I know that area pretty well. I climbed up to about 23,000 feet, the North Col on the north side, so not quite to the top… but I got a good bite of it.

There’s not much in the way of technical climbing on Everest on either of the trade routes. There’s a little bit of low class-5 scrambling kind of climbing up high on the ridge. You’re on a rope and you’re using crampons and an ice ax, but there’s not much, particularly not by standard climbing criteria. It’s very accessible to people without a high level of technical climbing ability.

WATCH: Sean Swarner cross a ladder over a crevasse during his Everest climb.

So, it’s more about the effect the mountain has on your body?

Swarner: When you’re up above, in the death realm, above 26,000 feet, your brain’s not even functioning very well. Your body is deteriorating and you just can’t even think at that level. What would be simple down here in New York, like tying my shoes, up there would take a half an hour just because your brain can’t even process things that well. You really have to push yourself and be very cognizant of how your body feels and what’s going on, because being hypoxic, oftentimes you don’t even know you’re hypoxic, and that’s one of those things… Bad things happen.

Heil: The really sort of insidious danger on Everest is altitude. It’s about being up in these extreme altitudes and how debilitating that is. I think this is the thing that most people that read about Everest and find Everest interesting and compelling, but who haven’t been to altitude, can’t quite grasp because there’s nothing quite like being up at high altitude. You may not be even fully compos mentis in these environments. In fact, no one is. You’re making decisions based on very compromised mental facilities, and it’s easy to make mistakes.

It’s this diligent process of making sure your body is staying as intact as it can because it’s going to be breaking down no matter what you do, and making sure you have enough energy when you get that summit window — so that you can get up and get down safely. You’re managing your nutrition. You’re trying to keep an eye on any kind of frostbite situation, your equipment, of course, making sure you’re able to make progress up and down the mountain in a steady way. The thing you don’t want to do is park yourself anywhere and stall out for too long because that turns really dangerous.

Frostbite is fairly common up there. I think it’s one of these situations where people get a little bit of summit fever. Your feet may be cold and numb, but hey, that’s sort of part of the game, and you may not be fully aware of just how much damage is happening to your extreme digits. You’re not going to stop and take your boots off. That may happen on occasion where somebody will stop and actually take their boots off and try to warm their feet up. It’s rare, but if they’re really worried about it [losing toes], they might try to do something like that. It may be that your feet go numb and you’re just like, “Screw it. This is my chance. I’m going to try to make it,” and you’re just going to keep marching and deal with the consequences later. It’s not unusual to — if not lose entire toes — to get a little tip of it frozen and gangrenous and have to get chopped off. That’s kind of the price of admission up there, and I think people are aware of it. The equipment has gotten so good now that it’s probably becoming more the exception than the rule, but it’s definitely a risk. It definitely still happens. I’ve seen a fair bit of it first hand.

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And your brain is essentially shutting down, right?

Heil: Here’s a little anecdote: When I was working on my book in ’07, I was interviewing a writer. She’s an Irish writer and she had climbed Everest all the way to the summit. She was handwriting notes in a journal all the way up the mountain, and she said when she got back down, she was reviewing her notebook, and she was looking at not only the quality of the handwriting (which was deteriorating as she went up the mountain), but also the lucidity of the thoughts. She said when she was climbing and actually taking the notes in her mind, she believed that everything was sort of like her standard quality of note-taking and the thinking and the logic of the actual writing that was on the page wasn’t changing. It was only when she got back down to base camp and was looking at this in a slightly more oxygenated environment that she saw just how bad the writing was breaking down and the thinking was breaking down. She wasn’t aware of it when it was happening. I always thought that was a great way of sort of explaining what’s going on with somebody. You’re deteriorating mentally, but you don’t realize it.

 

Your brain, at a chemical level, is another thing you have to take into account. They were having to make moral choices at 28,000 feet, an area where the body does not function. Let’s be honest: when you’re trying to make a functional decision, and justify what your character does at sea level, it doesn’t work. Josh and I went in the [altitude] simulator, and we stayed in there too long because we were enjoying ourselves. We were between 26,000 and 36,000 feet.

Jake Gyllenhaal on Everest to Outside magazine

 

Swarner: That effect on your thinking hits everybody. It’s oftentimes not that apparent because you really don’t know. It’s almost like being severely intoxicated, but not knowing you’re intoxicated. It’s almost impossible to describe, just like the Himalayas themselves are impossible to describe unless you’ve been there. Just go to the bar and sit down, pound about five shots of whiskey then try to go run a 5K. That’s kind of what it feels like.

LISTEN: Sean Swarner talks about his summit approach.


And it’s not a quick trip, right? I mean, it’s not a week in and a week out.

Swarner: For the most part, it’s not that technical of a climb, it’s more of a mental thing because you’re on the mountain for a long time… I got there April 8 and I left May 16, so I was there for almost a month and a half.

Heil: You’re on the mountain for two months or longer, and there’s a lot of personal management that you need to be dealing with while you’re up there. Nutrition is a big one, just trying to make sure you’re keeping calories in your body. Staying composed and quiet and saving your energy because really when you’re making the summit push, you spend a lot of time up on the mountain just kind of hanging out and making a few sort of sorties up higher to let your body acclimatize and adjust to these altitudes, and then the climbing window opens up usually some time in May, and you’re making this dash for the top, and you’re kind of racing against the clock. You get up high. You have a finite amount of bottled oxygen, at least for most people, and you’re just trying to tag the summit and get back down before your oxygen runs out, before your energy runs out because, if you do run out of oxygen and/or energy and you collapse up high, it’s very very difficult to get back off the mountain. A lot of people die that way. They get stuck up there and they can’t move. You can’t really carry somebody. This is what my book is all about. You can’t really get somebody off the mountain from its very highest reaches.

WATCH: Sean Swarner leaves base camp, headed for the summit.

The movie just opened wide, have you seen it?

Heil: I saw it when I went over there to interview those guys in Hollywood. It wasn’t quite finished, but it was mostly intact. They were still doing some of the digital effects and sorting out a few little editing details. It was mostly there.

My overall impression was pretty positive. Having watched the film and then talked to the filmmakers and the actors, I know that they were making a really serious effort to bring a high level of authenticity to the movie. Some things are dramatized in a way that I think people who climb and mountaineer, and certainly people who know a bit about Everest and know a bit about ’96, may find that they’re stretching things a little bit… but, overall, I was pretty impressed. You did get a strong sense of being up there. I was on Everest in ’07, so I do have a sense of what it’s like to actually be on the mountain.

I felt like they did a fairly convincing job of making you feel like you were actually there, and I liked the fact that they were trying to let the inherent drama of the story carry the narrative, and not overdo it so much that it felt like they were taking too much creative license with the storytelling.

Swarner: The movie really made me feel like I was back on the mountain again. Aside from actually climbing, I felt like I was floating and hovering above the climbers because of the angles that they filmed it. It was stunning and it brought back a flood of memories — it made me tear up sometimes, too, because of the emotions attached to it. It shows a culmination of training, mental preparation, physical preparation… It’s the crux of the climbing world.

One thing that the movie mentioned, but didn’t really show was that, in this culture, they believe the mountain is a goddess. It’s called either Chomolungma or Sagarmāthā, depending on if you’re from Tibet or from Nepal, respectively, which means “Mother Goddess of the Universe.”

Before you climb the mountain, you have to go through what’s called a Puja ceremony, and the ceremony is where a Lama — and all the climbers participate in this — where a Lama is chanting and he’s, basically, he talks to the mountain, and asks for permission to climb. Jokingly, that was the first time I’ve heard of it, and I thought to myself, “I went 12 time zones around the world and hiked 14 to 15 days to get up to the base camp, and what happens if we have a ceremony and the mountain says, ‘No, I can’t climb?’

One last note, I actually walked right by Scott Fischer‘s body. He’s one of the guys who passed away on the mountain, and it’s really sobering when you’re climbing a mountain people died on. You often wonder, why? Why would he die and why wouldn’t I? Where’s the separator? Who decides that?

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