For the past two years, as the stream of books (including Jon Krakauer's memorable best-seller Into Thin Air) and TV shows about the May 1996 disaster on Mount Everest—in which eight climbers died in a horrific storm—has become a torrent, people who climb nothing higher than barstools have once again been contemplating the psyches of mountaineers and wondering, What the hell are you guys thinking?
Now they have an answer. This stunning 45-minute documentary demonstrates the powerful allure of a mountain so immense that Sherpas call it Sagarmatha—Mother Goddess of the Earth. Director David Brea-shears and his crew of hypoxic filmmakers lugged a 25-pound, large-format IMAX movie camera to the 29,028-foot summit of Everest. They returned with images that capture, better than any still photography or video yet, the overwhelming scale and indescribable beauty of the Himalayas.
Everest chronicles the efforts of a world-class team of climbers, one of 15 groups attempting to scale the peak during that tragic time in the spring of 1996. Three members of the team are the focus of the film: leader Ed Viesturs, a veteran of four Everest expeditions; Araceli Segarra, who is trying to become the first Spanish woman to conquer the mountain; and Jamling Tenzing Norgay, climbing to honor his father, Tenzing Norgay, who made the first ascent of Everest, with Sir Edmund Hillary in '53.
The now notorious storm hit during the group's ascent, and Breashears's footage depicts the terrifying whiteout and hurricane-force winds that accompanied the alpine tempest; visibility is reduced to the length of an arm, and the sound of tents snapping in the gale is agonizing. Everest recounts the slow death of Viesturs's friend Rob Hall, a guide for another climbing party, caught in the storm near the summit, as well as the astounding rescue of a frostbitten climber who had been given up for dead. In emotional footage Viesturs and his climbers talk about the effect that Hall's death had on their efforts and of their subsequent decision to press on to the summit.
Ultimately, though, this isn't a story about the storm or death. It's about the triumph of three amazing athletes. Everest audiences are more likely to remember the cobalt blue of the Himalayan sky, the shifting ice castles of the Khumbu Glacier and the touching summit offering Ten-zing leaves to the Mother Goddess of the Earth. When they do, they'll have their answer about why climbers head to the mountains.