Following the recent tragic deaths of at least 13 Nepalese sherpas, Hollywood was quick to announce that their big budget movie Everest, about the previously most deadly accident which killed six men in 1996 including New Zealander Rob Hall, was still going ahead.
A nine-member second unit team consisting of professional hikers and cameramen would remain on schedule to continue acclimating before scaling the summit in May. Directed by Iceland’s Baltasar Kormákur, the film stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Australia’s Jason Clarke (as Hall), though most of the action has been shot in the less treacherous European Alps.
For Peter Hillary, the mountaineering son of Sir Edmund Hillary, the iconic Kiwi who first scaled Everest in 1953, there is nowhere like the Himalayas. “It just dwarfs everything else,” he beams, pointing off into an imaginary horizon. “If you had the European Alps there, and the Andes along there and Kilimanjaro in Africa there, if you put all of them together you wouldn't even notice them in the shadow of the Himalayas. It’s just an incomparable place.”
Having personally summited Everest in 1990 and in 2002, the self-effacing 59-year-old adventurer and inspirational speaker has spoken out regarding the recent disaster, saying there needs to be a better way of moving the logistics up on the mountain to reduce the exposure of the sherpas. He does not advocate cutting down the numbers of foreign climbers as he is keenly aware that the Nepalese people need to make a living from the industry.
It was an honour to meet the man who has carried on his father’s legacy of promoting those monumental peaks and helping the Nepalese people via the Himalayan Trust, which Sir Ed founded in 1960 and led until his death in 2008. We met at the Toronto Film Festival where the New Zealand documentary Beyond the Edge, in which both Hillarys (incredibly) appear, was having its world premiere. Like Kormákur, the film’s director, Winnipeg-born director Leanne Pooley (The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls), who has lived in Auckland for 27 years, knows how to cope in the freezing cold.
“In Winnipeg in winter it’s cold on a level most people can’t even imagine—40 degrees below. If you walk outside in the wrong clothes you can die within minutes. So I have an understanding of the cold and how people feel and move.”
When watching the 3D film I almost felt like I was meeting Sir Ed and his sherpa and co-summiter, Tenzing Norgay, given Pooley’s seemless use of archival footage and extensive voice over from Hillary and other mountaineers plus new footage of actors playing the men (Chad Moffit is the spit of Sir Ed), as she retraces their steps in those death-defying moments.
The film also delivers information we might not have known. When the British Empire was waning significantly, the hugely expensive trip was a last ditch effort to regain the Empire’s former glory. It’s a little like the young royals Kate and William capturing the Antipodean spotlight at a time when rumours of Australia becoming a republic have never been stronger.
Pooley notes how the climb was like a military undertaking with the full force of the post-War British government behind it. Former military Colonel John Hunt was in charge, and 30 British companies were involved in designing the shoes alone.
“The Brits knew they might not get another chance,” she explains. “They’d lost the South Pole and were a bit gutted so weren’t taking any chances here. They were still rationing in England and there was the sense that the Empire was on the wane, so they needed to feel proud. The news of the men reaching the summit came to England on the day of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. When they got back, Ed was the first person she knighted. So they had a connection—but I don’t know if he called her Liz! Still, there was a lot of historical significance. They were calling it the Last Pole.”
Many believe that Tenzing Norgay should have been knighted as well, Pooley says.
“With the Nepalese, the Indians and Tibetans, Tenzing is very, very famous. It’s easy to forget that they might have a different perspective on the first Everest climb in 1953. There was a bit of argy-bargy about who got there first—and I really didn’t want that to be the focus of the film. I was terrified Norbu might have been unhappy, but he was deeply moved.”
Pooley ensures that Norgay shares in the glory in her film. Yet this is not a superhero movie. Rather, it’s the opposite, she says.
“I wanted people to identify with them as ordinary people. Hillary was a real person with lots of insecurities and that’s what’s interesting. He was a lonely child and used to get thrashed by his dad in the woodshed, those kinds of things.”
As an adult Hillary’s insecurities were tempered by his huge drive, two disparate facets of the man Pooley was keen to investigate.
“In New Zealand we tend to see him as this really humble, self-effacing guy, something he made into a religion, but he was actually incredibly driven and ambitious. He also had his demons to deal with. He felt physically unattractive and was completely hopeless with women. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a way to get that in the movie, but he actually had is mother-in-law propose to his wife on his behalf because he was too shy to do it himself.”
As with the details of Hillary’s life, Pooley became intrigued by the minutiae of the environment Hillary had dedicated his life to exploring. Her camera deftly captures their navigating the snow, ice and treacherous crevices in a 3D format like we have never seen before.
“I didn’t want it to feel like a ride,” she says. “Rather than hurl the world at them, I wanted to bring people into this extraordinary world, into one of the most extreme environments. The mountains and the environment are characters in the film, so I wanted them to be present all the time.”
Peter Hillary loves the film. “Leanne is not of a mountaineering background so she was on a steep learning curve and she really applied all the information really well I think. From our perspective, we are delighted with the results she's come up with. She was very good at analysing the whole story and telling it so that a wide variety of viewers could understand it and enjoy it.”
Not unlike his old man, Hillary is not one to keep still. He missed the film’s Auckland premiere because he was on a trip from Lhasa to Kathmandu though he called into the event by phone. It seems he will live to a ripe old age like his dad, who died at 88.
“I don't think there is any doubt that if you're physically active and you're fit, it’s largely got to be a benefit to you. If you look at the population as a whole, I am sure the fit, healthy people live longer than the others.”
Norgay died in 1986 aged 72. What did he end up doing afterwards?
“Tenzing was offered some incredible opportunities. Nehru, the great Prime Minister of India, was so inspired by the climb of Everest that he set up a mountaineering institute in Darjeeling, which was Tenzing's hometown. That is the principal mountaineering training school in India to this day and Tenzing worked there as the chief instructor for many, many years and then he went on and worked in the adventure travel area as I have.
“Norbu and I are good friends. We are in touch a lot because obviously Hillary and Tenzing issues come up all of the time. Dad was in touch with Tenzing throughout his life and frankly I am very proud that both families have stayed so closely in contact.”