Making Movies on the Roof of the World

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
May 23, 2002
Climbing Mount Everest pushes even the strongest climbers to their
physical and mental limits. Simply reaching the top and descending alive
requires total commitment. It is essential to retain a sharp focus on
the task at hand, and on the many dangers involved.

How is it, then, that some climbers have been able not only to survive such a trying undertaking but to film the endeavor at the same time?

Specialized equipment, extraordinary dedication, and exhausting effort are the hallmarks of those who film on the world's highest peak. By their efforts, they afford the rest of us a look at the world's greatest mountain.

Pre-War Filmmaking

The history of Everest filmmaking is nearly as long as the history of Everest mountaineering itself. The pioneer was Capt. John Noel, the official photographer and filmmaker for the 1922 and 1924 British Everest expeditions.

"The ever-present Noel," as his teammates called him, was on hand to record the climbing exploits of an era when pipe-smoking gentlemen wore tweed above 20,000 feet (6,096 meters), and George Mallory and Andrew "Sandy" Irvine vanished into the mists of Everest legend.

Noel augmented his chronicle of the climbs with sequences of local life on the Tibetan plateau, and photographic studies of the dynamics of wind and snow in the mountains.

Working in challenging field conditions brought out Noel's resourcefulness. Because he believed in developing film on site, he processed thousands of feet of film in a base camp darkroom tent. There, rolls of film could be found hanging to dry over a yak-dung stove.

By the 1924 Everest attempt, the seeds of modern media coverage were beginning to sprout. Noel had purchased the exclusive rights to the expedition's imagery, and was filming as a commercial venture. He set up a garden darkroom in Darjeeling, India. Runners delivered film to this lab, from which photos were forwarded on to newspapers who were eagerly covering the climb. Noel hoped that the first successful summit of Everest would make his film a sensation around the world.

In the "Eagle's Nest"

Unlike some modern filmmakers, Noel never intended to climb with summit teams to the upper reaches of the mountain. He did, however, take his specially designed Newton-Sinclair 35mm camera (which boasted a rubber cover to prevent his face from freezing to the camera) to serious altitudes, as high as 23,000 feet (7,010 meters). His main filming base was called the "Eagle's Nest," a dramatic perch at 22,000 feet (6,706 meters) on an eastern buttress of Changtse above Advance Base Camp.

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."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.