Friday, 25 September 2015


This true-life mountain climbing drama might be a blizzard of clichés, but it’s still an exciting experience

Written by Ben Felsenburg
Ben-Felsenburg-colour-176Throughout most of history we were only too glad to leave the mountaintops to the gods, until the gentlemen of Victorian England put on their boots in search of bracing experience and a scenic view. What draws climbers to risk their lives? ‘Because it’s there!’ the mountaineers in the action blockbuster Everest shout out in laughing unison after one journalist’s predictable query.

It’s 1996: some 40 years after Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay made history to become the first men to conquer the world’s highest peak (the news of their triumph arrived in Britain just in time to garland the Queen’s Coronation Day), the mountain has become big business. Scores of wealthy amateur climbers are paying to be guided up to the summit simply so they can impress their friends back home: ‘For the rest of your life you’ll be a guy who got to the top of Everest!’

Icarus could have told these tourists a thing or two about hubris and heights, and from the outset of this true story you suspect the mountain is going to have the last word. ‘It’s not the altitude – it’s the attitude,’ insists hip young climber Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal), but there’s no gainsaying the cruel reality of the numbers: at more than 29,000ft, the summit is at about the cruising altitude of a 747, and in what’s called the ‘death zone’ – meaning there are only so many minutes you can spend amid such cold thin air before you have to go back down.

Cool-headed Kiwi guide Rob (Jason Clarke) has climbed Everest several times before and knows the odds better than most, but you fear the worst for him as soon as his heavily pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley) bids him farewell at the airport with the words: ‘Just be back in time for the birth!’ Yes, the story is a blizzard of clunking clichés, and Keira can do little besides flaring her nostrils in fraught emotion as she hangs on the phone for news of darling hubby.

Beyond ‘because it’s there!’ we’re never given a satisfactory answer as to why the ensemble of characters have put themselves in mortal danger: I think we’re meant to accept at face value the heroism of their ambition. But then we’re not really here for the script. Here is a simple-minded cinema experience – it’s the sort of big-screen adventure Hollywood first served up in the 1950s to win audiences back from the new-fangled demon that was television.

As an in-flight movie Everest would be an utter waste of time: but suspend your highest faculties to watch it in 3D on an Imax screen and you’ll be taken back to the vertiginous thrill of a childhood fairground ride, as we swoop up to the heights and plunge down ravines, and squirm to see who will survive.

Who knows? If you’re feeling brave you may even be inspired to trek to the Himalayas and see what’s ‘there’. But I’m a lilylivered soul, and when the lights went up I was glad to do nothing more adventurous than climbing out of the comfort of my seat.

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