Everest Reflections & Observations: Background Information for the Film “Everest: The Other Side”
While we were actually at Everest Base Camp, a good deal of the downtime was spent thinking about the film and what we would try to say about the experience. Great attention was given to filming as much of the expedition as possible; we never tried to put our focus on any single type of experience or event. The result is 80 hours of footage that, in our opinion, gives a very well rounded look into just what goes into climbing the world’s tallest peak. There have been several theatrical films and television specials about Everest, and many have been very well produced. That being said, we’ve donned our critical hats and have found issue with the formula most filmmakers use to portray what it is like to climb this famous mountain. We’ve seen that there are many misconceptions about an Everest expedition, and we feel these can be summarized as follows:
1. Everest is nothing but a savage, man-eating mountain
2. All Everest climbers are extreme athletes, and
3. Climbing Everest is an every-man-for-himself pursuit
4. The goal of attaining the summit is the only reason for partaking in an expedition on Mount Everest.
We have a great desire to produce a film that is engrossing and entertaining for the audience. Of course, many Everest filmmakers have done exactly that by showing only the “D” side of the experience: Danger, Death and Disrespect. These films are engaging, but they perpetuate the misconceptions listed above. This is not our goal.
When you take the list as fact, it makes it very difficult for the average person to understand why anyone would even try to climb Everest. Can you blame them? There’s very little there for anyone to relate to their own life and experiences. Now, certainly, climbing has been used as a metaphor for life, and in essence it can be a good one: one step at a time, one small achievement after another incrementally moving forward towards a goal. Unfortunately, the reality of climbing Everest can seem much more difficult for the layperson to relate to. This is understandable. Most everyone has seen the pictures of high-altitude climbers, and with their Down suits, oxygen masks and geographical remoteness, they can seem much more like astronauts than hikers.
Our goal for the film, our challenge, is to tell the story of our expedition, and in the process give the audience an understanding of just why someone would travel halfway around the globe to try and stand on top of it. Our experience (and the footage to back it up) challenges the misconceptions about Everest and can easily be understood and digested by an audience. Let’s shed some light as to why we feel our experience can overcome the stated misconceptions.
1. Everest is nothing but a savage, man-eating mountain.
This is one of the most popular misconceptions used to describe Everest to the masses. Now, it is true that many people have died while climbing the mountain. However, we feel that the common death statistics of, say, one out of every ten or eight climbers to attempt the mountain gets far too much attention. When you focus on the death and destruction you ignore all of the positives of any subject. It’s like saying that New York City is only known for the September 11th terror attacks.
Actually go to Everest and you find an amazing place. Our Expedition climbed the mountain’s Northern side, in Tibet. This side of the mountain has a Base Camp (BC) you can actually drive to, yet due to the political situation in Tibet, BC is still very primitive. When you spend time on the North Side, you cannot help but come in contact with the indigenous people that call the high plateau of Tibet home. There can be 100-200 Tibetans living on the fringe of BC at any given time during the climbing season. These people have very little other than their Buddhism and a few meager possessions. However, they’ve managed to scrape out (through our Western eyes) a happy existence in a barren land with an extreme altitude that would be fatal for much of the World’s population. These people have been living at the foot of Everest for so long they are as much “Everest” as the peak that bears the same name.
Within just a few days you come to the understanding that Everest is much more that a gigantic span of rock jutting skyward. To the locals, she is a deity known as Chomolungma, Mother Goddess of the Earth. Although she can be very unforgiving and deadly at times, it becomes clear that she respects those who respect her. We tried our best to show the mountain the proper respect through everything from religious ceremonies to sleeping with our feet pointing away from the mountain. Even without the cultural aspect of Everest, it is quite simply a beautiful place.
Not many people get to walk at elevations above 25,000 feet. Those who are lucky to have done so know that on the right day, Everest can provide some of the most heart-achingly beautiful views from her high flanks. The Himalayan Range, the Earth’s tallest mountains, spread out before you…and you have the privilege of looking down onto the backs of these giants. At times like these, the dangers of climbing can seem far away and you feel that Everest isn’t taking your life, but rather giving you life.
2. All Everest climbers are extreme athletes.
Everest climbers are not all extreme athletes. Yes, some of them are pushing the envelope of the human experience, but most are just regular people. These people are generally in good physical condition, but if there’s any factor that separates them from the rest of us, it should be the fact that they have between $15k and $60k to spend on climbing a mountain!
Everest Base Camp has all types of people who are climbing the mountain. To date, these climbers have ranged in age from 15 to 74 years old and from dozens of countries. Skinny, thick, short and tall, male and female; Base Camp has them all.
Ben Clark is actually a good example of why you do not have to have been born with physical prowess to climb Everest. Take a look at his 6th grade school photo and you’ll see an overweight boy who never envisioned himself scaling the World’s highest mountain. However, it did eventually become a dream, and Ben attained the summit through sheer determination and will as opposed to sheer physical strength.
3. Climbing Everest is an every-man-for-himself pursuit.
This is probably the most misunderstood aspect of climbing the mountain. In fact, before the expedition, we bought into this one as well. Luckily, after arriving at BC and spending a few days getting to know the place it became obvious how wrong we had been. We were expecting BC to be dominated by ego and machismo, but what we found was an international community working together and sharing resources freely.
In the pioneering days of Everest climbing, the method used to get men up the mountain was very much like a military siege. Very few people were interested in traveling to these remote locations, so you had to bring a tremendous amount of men and supplies since you would be on your own.
Today, military-style expeditions are financially prohibitive for the average climber. So, the culture of BC has evolved to meet the challenge. Everyone brings what they can, and all the resources are pooled. For example: we did not have a working electrical generator. However, the Russians did. The Russians did not have a communications technician or a connection to the Internet for sending emails. We did. The British had a doctor with medication, the French had spirit-lifting food and weather reports, the Chinese had a soldering iron and fresh fruit, the Indians had functioning radio equipment…
BC is an interesting sociological experiment that the rest of the world could learn a lesson from. It is a wonderful place where you can form immediate friendships with your neighbors. However, it can be a very lonely place when you are cold and ill and homesick. You also have to battle with the reality that climbing Everest can kill you. Of course, when pushed into these intense situations, amazing things can happen.
We formed amazing friendships and felt a sense of intense cooperation for weeks at a time that most people will get to experience only a few days out of their entire life. Everyone can relate to these phenomena; we’ve all lived through some type of disaster. Maybe it was a blizzard or a hurricane. Maybe it was a terrorist attack or a school shooting. In any case, the community comes together for a brief period and strangers who would never have occasion to get to know each other pitch in and help out to solve a problem or try and deal with a situation. These are times that bring out the best in humanity. Now, Everest climbers volunteer for this stress and intensity, but the emotions are real and just as important.
The other aspect of misconception #3 is that each climber ascends the mountain by himself or herself. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
Dragging your body up Everest requires a plethora of equipment, food, water, tents, sleeping bags, batteries, etc. An expedition also requires a number of camps spaced between the base and the summit. One of the most effective and rewarding strategies for accomplishing an expedition is to hire Sherpa climbers to assist in the logistics of the climb. The Sherpa people are indigenous to the mountainous areas of the Himalayan region. They are renown for their high-altitude climbing prowess and are amazing people through and through.
Typically, an expedition team will consist of at least one Sherpa per climber, and quite honestly, the Sherpas do the majority of the work to get the team to the summit. Without the Sherpas carrying and caching supplies, setting up camps, fixing ropes and cooking the meals, most expeditions on Everest would fail from the start.
Unfortunately, in most accounts of climbing Mt Everest, the importance of the Sherpas is either downplayed or nonexistent. Sherpas are rarely given any credit for being the strongest climbers on the planet. It’s just taken for granted that these people will succeed if given a good window of weather for the summit push. During the third week in May, as climbers were starting to make the summit, if you told other teams that 6 people summitted that day, everyone would get excited. Tell them that 4 of those climbers were Sherpa, and the excitement would be diminished. Sherpas are respected, but their innate skill breeds a lot of climbing envy.
Ben entered this project with a different view. He chose to climb with two Sherpas as equals, not as porters. This gave us the opportunity to document their native culture and personalities. They are a people who live on the other side of the planet from us, and to Americans, they can seem like a truly exotic culture. However, spend time with these men as partners, and you get an understanding that deep down we are all the same. We had 7 Sherpas on our team. Most had families that they missed deeply just like we were missing our families.
Pemba, the BC cooking assistant and Pasang, the high camp cook were brothers. Every now and again the two would communicate over the radio between camps. Although they were speaking Nepalese, you could tell that they were brothers and truly enjoying their chats. The Sherpas were one of the greatest reasons for climbing Everest. They were a large part of what made this expedition worthwhile.
4. The goal of attaining the summit is the only reason for partaking in an expedition on Mount Everest.
We had numerous incredible experiences while at Everest, and many were documented on tape. We became very close friends with many of the other teams and enjoyed learning about the various culture represented at BC.
Everest does have a harsh environment, but there’s much more to it than the weather and the terrain. The human element is ever present. We joined the other climbers in sharing the joys and sorrows, successes and failures. Yes, you are in a very remote location, but there are hundreds of people around. We were invited to dinner at many of the camps. We “went out” for drinks at the shanty pub. We set up a high altitude cinema using a laptop computer and a small LCD projector, and had “movie night” every night for 2 weeks (beer and popcorn included.) We gossiped and told stories in many languages. We sang. We danced. We laughed and cried. We prayed for safety for our companions and ourselves. We even had to say goodbye to friends who became too ill to stay.
We also took the initiative to submerse ourselves in the local Tibetan culture. Ben became friends with the head monk, or Lama, at the Ronbuk Monastery 7 km from BC. This man came to our camp to conduct a blessing ceremony to ask the mountain for permission to climb it. Afterward, the Lama stayed and asked if he could use Ben’s SAT phone to place some calls to family and friends. In return for the phone use, he provided Ben with a packet of seeds blessed by the Oracle of the State of the Dali Lama. He instructed Ben to keep the seeds with him at all times; they would offer him protection and safety while climbing Chomolungma. The Lama also told Ben that he would be praying for Ben’s safety.
A few weeks later a windstorm, the like had never been seen in recent memory, ravaged the mountain and its camps. At Camp 4 (23,000 feet) the winds blew so strongly that many teams’ tents were destroyed. It was rumored that our team tent was blown off of the mountain. Without the cached gear the tent contained it would be pointless to continue the expedition. It was at this point that Ben decided to walk to the monastery and spend some time with his new friend. The two spent the day together looking at the architecture and artistic treasures of the monastery and the monks who reside there. The Lama was taken aback by Ben’s interest in the culture of the monks’ and spent a good deal of the time praying with Ben. Before Ben left the monastery, the head Lama offered him a can of Coca-Cola, an astronomically expensive gift in the remote reaches of Tibet. Ben battled his way through the high winds to get back to BC and just as he arrived a radio call came in from higher up on the mountain at Camp 4. A line of tents had been destroyed, yet one of them was still intact. The lone tent was Ben’s, and the expedition could continue.
Our expedition was also granted use of a high-speed satellite modem provided by CNN. Using this technology we were able to send and receive emails, as well as send our audience audio and video clips. We received over 400 emails while stationed at Everest and Ben or Jon replied to every single one. We made friends over the Internet that we had never met. People from all walks of life, ages and geographical locations climbed the mountain virtually at Ben’s side. The goal of the web casting was to touch people’s lives and inspire them to follow their dreams just as Ben was following his. According to the excitement and kind words in the emails we received, we accomplished that goal.