In May of 1996, a Texas pathologist, Beck Weathers, was left for dead 29,000 feet up on Mt Everest, the deadliest place in the world and roughly the airplane altitude of a 747. Weathers and several others had made it within 300 yards of Camp 4, the uppermost camp on the Everest route, in hurricane force winds, a blinding snowstorm and wind-chills reaching 100 degrees below Fahrenheit. Virtually blind and disoriented, they decided to stop and wait out the storm, hoping it would be clear in the morning. As dawn started to break around 5 a.m. over the mountains, one of the stranded guides got up, found the camp, and sent help for the five climbers. Weathers and fellow climber Yasuko Nampa were in hypothermic comas and completely unresponsive. At that altitude, where the oxygen level is 30 percent of the normal breathing levels, your body and brain are slowly dying with each minute. Moving yourself takes monumental effort and dragging a body is physically impossible. You might as well be trying to drag a sleeping elephant.
The following day, the rescue efforts were concentrated on other climbers caught in the storm who were still moving and responsive. The front line of this rescue effort were the climbers and guides who had, at this point, been above the 25,000 foot “death zone” without supplemental oxygen tanks for almost 2 days. All were suffering severe hypoxia, a condition caused by lack of oxygen that people liken to being extremely drunk with no ability to complete thoughts or communicate.
That afternoon, Weathers woke up to a vision of his wife and kids telling him to start moving. “I was lying on my back in the ice,” Weathers said. “It was colder than anything you can believe. I figured I had three or four hours left to live, so I started walking. All I knew was as long as my legs would run and I could stand up, I was going to move toward that camp, and if I fell down, I was going to get up. And if I fell down again, I was going to get up, and I was going to keep moving until I either hit that camp, I couldn’t get up at all, or I walked off the face of that mountain.”
The sight of Weathers stumbling into camp could only be described as seeing someone “rise from the dead.” The team bundled him up in sleeping bags, gave him supplemental oxygen, and put him in a tent. The next morning Weathers was again unresponsive and again left for dead.
The tragic events of May 11, 1996, on Mt. Everest were turned into the bestselling and controversial book “Into Thin Air” by author Jon Krakauer, who happened to be on that fateful summit attempt. But this story, much like Weathers, has recently risen from the dead and will be released as the film, “Everest,” on Sept. 18. The movie is not a film-adaptation of Krakauer’s book, but an amalgamation of multiple first-person experiences.
Everest seems to be expertly cast with bona-fide stars including Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson and Jason Clarke. But we’ll also see some of our favorite television series actors such as Robin Wright and Michael Kelly from “House of Card,” and John Hawkes from the underappreciated “Deadwood.”
And by all accounts, the magic of this movie comes from Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, who is an avid outdoorsman and brought that passion to this project.
“This project attracted people of similar minds.” Gyllenhaal said. “You have people who are physical and want to do some crazy (stuff).”
In my college years, we all passed around a copy of “Into the Wild,” which, by the way, was turned into an amazingly beautiful movie (one of the first times I thought a movie was as good as the book). But somehow, I kept putting off reading “Into Thin Air.” A friend fortuitously handed me the book a few days ago, and I started ditching my “to-do” list because I was also on that mountain, through Krakauer’s intense writing, and had to keep moving with those trapped climbers.
For me, the drama of real-life events is much more gripping than even the best fiction, and I love fiction. From the beginning of human communication, stories have directly steered the evolution of our consciousness and our awareness of the human condition.
We have a deep-down, primal desire to know where the edge of human potential lies.
This desire drives the works of Krakauer, and he’s one of the best at bringing it to us on such a visceral level that you have to stop and remind yourself to breathe.
Documentaries, historical and true-story podcasts, and great non-fiction writers willing to live the experiences they write about are at our fingertips in this digital age. Stories have defined human existence from the beginning, and there’s no better time to immerse yourself in the true stories of human potential.