Making Movies on the Roof of the World

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Spending long hours in the perch exposed Noel to high altitude, and its effects made filming a challenge. As Noel explained to an interviewer, "You have to fight against yourself. Your fingers fumble with a screw, and you drop the screw. You just don't care."

He did care, though, and Noel was able to fight numbing effects of weather and altitude to produce a groundbreaking piece of mountain filmmaking.

Using a 20-inch (58-centimeter) telephoto lens from this frigid vantage point, he could see the entire climbing route—including the summit pyramid of Everest some three miles away.

From his nest, Noel filmed Mallory and Irvine up to 26,000 feet (7,925 meters), from two miles away. His telephoto lens was focused on the summit during their fateful attempt, seeking to spot them "crossing the rock band under the pyramid or going up [the] skyline," as Mallory had written to him in his final note.

Tragically, Noel never caught a glimpse of the legendary pair. He was able only to film the dejected search team as they arranged two blankets in the shape of a cross, the prearranged signal to those below that there was no hope of finding Mallory and Irvine.

Everest Debuts on the Biggest Screen

Over the succeeding decades, several expeditions have tackled the rigors of filming on the world's highest mountain, as media coverage on and around Everest continues to expand.

Perhaps the most famous Everest film was shot during the mountain's most celebrated expedition, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's 1953 first ascent. "The Conquest of Everest," a remarkable achievement by solo cameraman Tom Stobart, was wildly popular and was nominated for an Academy Award.

In 1996 experienced climber and mountain filmmaker David Breashears assembled a team for one of Everest's most ambitious film projects ever. They sought to capture the experience of the mountain on large-format IMAX film—uniquely suited to the sweeping grandeur of the Everest region.

The challenges were daunting. Unlike Noel, David Breashears was an accomplished climber who planned to film his IMAX movie all the way up to the mountain's summit. However, a standard IMAX camera weighs 85 pounds (39 kilograms), far too heavy a load on Everest. So IMAX engineers went to work designing a camera that could be carried all the way to the summit.

Such a camera had to be under 26 pounds (12 kilograms), able to withstand -40ºF (-40ºC) temperatures, and feature large, easy controls that exhausted and/or hypoxic camera operators could operate, even with gloves. It also had to be reliable; the team would be a long way from help if something went wrong.

The camera that IMAX engineers created was put through its paces during blizzards in New Hampshire's Presidential Range, in a cold test chamber, and in the field in Nepal. It passed with flying colors. Breashears recalled in Everest: Mountain Without Mercy, "We've overcome the technical problems. Now, all we needed to do was get the thing to the summit."

When set up with lens and film, the camera weighed 48 pounds (22 kilograms), manageable but still heavier than Noel's apparatus which when fully loaded with film weighed less than 20 pounds (9 kilograms).

While hauling significant loads and fighting the effects of altitude, the crew had to remain sharp and focused on filming correctly. A single 500-foot (274-meter) reel of film weighs about 5 pounds (2.27 kilograms), a lot of weight to carry on Everest. Such a roll of film lasts only 90 seconds in the IMAX format, so numerous retakes were not an option.

Despite the challenges, Breashears and his team succeeded in creating a striking IMAX motion picture, including 90 seconds of panoramic footage shot on the summit.

As Breashears pointed out in Everest: Mountain Without Mercy, however, Everest left little time to celebrate even such a historic accomplishment. "We accomplished something historic, and it was a wonderful moment," he remembered. "But I was also concerned that everyone get down as safely as they got up."

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