On May 10, 1996, an unexpected and severe storm pounded Mount Everest, throwing three climbing teams into disarray and ultimately taking the lives of eight mountaineers. Since then, the storm and its aftermath have become part of pop-culture lore. Jon Krakauer, a member of one of the affected teams, made his name as a writer with Into Thin Air, a book-length account of the debacle. Other treatments have included Left for Dead, The Climb, and Climbing High.
If you’ve never been drawn to these accounts, it’s probably because (like me) you aren’t inclined to sympathize with people who embrace risks that seem downright foolhardy. The great strength of Storm over Everest, a Frontline documentary that debuts this Tuesday, May 13, at 9 pm on WGBH (Channel 2), is that it makes this dismissiveness feel cynical and even unethical.
That’s due in part to the film’s stunning cinematography. Director David Breashears — who was on the mountain that day as well, and who aided the rescue efforts — uses an array of sweeping, gorgeous shots of Everest to suggest mountain climbing’s primal appeal. After 10 minutes, you’ll want to go climb it yourself. But the recollections of the survivors interviewed by Brashears foster plenty of empathy as well. As it turns out, the cynical, obvious question — why do it? — has plenty of compelling answers.
Here, for example, is Beck Weathers (who was actually left for dead twice on Everest’s slopes) explaining why he went to the mountain in the first place: “I’d spent most of my adult life in profound depression. And I John Wayned it, so I never let anybody know about it. And I discovered that if you drove your body hard — when you did that, you couldn’t think. And that lack of thinking as you punished your body and drove yourself was amazingly pleasant.”
Weathers still bears the physical scars of his ordeal. Frostbite turned one of his hands into a three-pronged stump; the other hand is gone. His recollections pack a serious emotional wallop, and he quickly emerges as one of the film’s stars. The other — Taiwanese climber Makalu Gau — is more energetic and demonstrative than Weathers, and an even better storyteller.
If you’ve read anything about the tragedy, you may be slightly disappointed. Krakauer has written that guide Anatoli Boukreev was partly to blame for the disaster. Boukreev had climbed to the summit without extra oxygen; this, Krakauer suggested, left him weaker than necessary and led him to hurry back to camp rather than escorting stranded climbers back to safety. Boukreev and his supporters defended his actions; they suggested that Krakauer, who had passed Weathers while returning to camp, was actually the negligent one.
But Storm over Everest doesn’t explore this dispute. Maybe Breashears avoided it because he didn’t want the film to bog down in competing claims and counter-claims. He may also have believed that it was time to put the argument to rest. Still, it’s odd that Krakauer’s name never comes up and that Boukreev (who died in a 1997 climb) is mentioned only in passing.
Instead, we have to content ourselves with a vague reference, near the film’s close, to the Everest disaster’s bringing both the finest and worst human qualities to the fore. Weathers: “Everybody always says the definition of character is what you do when nobody is looking — and when we were up there, we didn’t think anybody was looking. Some individuals come out of that, I think, justly proud of their actions. Others would probably never want anyone to know.” If Breashears had spent more time exploring what, exactly, Weathers is talking about, Storm over Everest would be even better than it is.