‘Everest’ Reality Check: How True Is Jake Gyllenhaal Drama Based on 1996 Climbing Tragedy?

“The filmmakers have sort of cherry-picked some of the most dramatic stuff,” climbing expert Nick Heil tells TheWrap

Last Updated: September 17, 2015 @ 9:25 PM

“Everest” is hoping for Himilayan-size audiences when it hits IMAX theaters on Friday, but director Baltasar Kormakur‘s drama may have already won over one key constituency: mountaineers who are familiar with the real-life 1996 tragedy that the movie depicts.

“They’ve done a good job re-creating a sense of what it was actually like to be on Everest, telling a story that was full of complexities and not over-sensationalizing it so much that it felt like it strayed from actual events,” Nick Heil, contributing editor for Outside magazine and author of “Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season,” told TheWrap.

“It’s fairly accurate,” added Heil, who attended a screening this summer of an almost-finished version of the film, which stars Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin and Keira Knightley.

The movie recounts the devastating blizzard that struck two groups of climbers — led by New Zealander Rob Hall (Clarke) and American Scott Fischer (Gyllenhaal) — who sought to scale the world’s tallest mountain but wound up leaving eight people dead.

Numerous books have been published about the tragedy, including the best-seller “Into Thin Air” by expedition member Jon Krakauer (who’s played by Michael Kelly in the film).

Here, Heil offers his take on the movie’s re-creation of one of the climbing world’s best known stories and just how far the filmmakers might have strayed from the path of truthfulness.

Just how accurately does “Everest” depict the events of 1996?
It’s fairly accurate. They had to take some creative liberty and compress some information and events. There are a few points in the film where certain characters might not have been at a certain place but they had to have people there to have the dramatic action make sense. For most people, I don’t think this is going to be anything that gives them pause whatsoever, but for people that know the story well and follow mountaineering or even participate in it, they might take issue with the fine details in the story.

Are there any examples of liberties that the filmmakers took?
[When] Beck Weathers [played by Josh Brolin] is yelling at Rob Hall, the guide, because he feels that he has been put on a team full of amateurs and that there will be problems. In real life, that exchange never happened. But the producers needed a way to underscore this idea that Weathers was a high-dollar client and was expecting a level of treatment and wanted an opportunity that would assure him getting to the summit … they needed some way to get the message across. It was based on real opinions and real things that were going on, but was a fictionalized moment in the film.

Are there moments were people who aren’t familiar with the story but are experienced mountain climbers will think are off?
Almost all of the details that are re-created in the feature film had, in some way, actually transpired on Everest. There are very dramatic instances where people are plunging off the cliff and vanishing into the abyss. On Everest, these kind of things actually happen.

Did they happen specifically in the narrative sequence of the characters in the film in real life? No. But the filmmakers have sort of cherry-picked some of the most dramatic stuff from climbing Everest and worked it into the film. Will serious climbers take issue with this? Yes, they will, because what they realize is that a lot of mountaineering is in an environment that is often times boring and static, and occasionally super-dangerous and highly dynamic.

What people will take issue with is that not all of these things happened to the characters in real life. “Everest” needs to compete with “Mission: Impossible,” with “Mad Max,” with “Transformers.” They have to figure out a way to invoke the most dramatic stuff that goes on up there.

So, the actual event wasn’t enough for Hollywood?
For the most part, they stick to the actual events of what happened in ’96. It’s incredibly dramatic stuff. One of the reasons most of us write about it is because we are so intrigued … the nature of the storm, the number of the people that were caught, the almost incredible circumstances that unfolded on May 10.

The radio exchange between Rob Hall and his pregnant wife [played by Keira Knightley] is one of the most gripping chapters in climbing history, period. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching, and it’s going to leave a lot of people in tears who aren’t familiar with the story.

For the most part, the filmmakers were trying very much to stick with the story and the actual events of ’96. They were doing their best to let the story tell itself, because it doesn’t need a lot of embellishment. They were also trying to create a visually accurate and authentic and convincing sense of being on Everest, right down to using stills that were taken on the mountain itself. Anyone who has been there would be like, “Oh yeah, that’s Everest.”

Have you been to Everest yourself?
I have. The action on the movie takes place on the south side of Everest, but I’ve been on the north side.

Did you have any problems when you went to climb it?
I suffered from altitude as many people do up there. This is the most challenging, insidious part of a mountain. This is not necessarily a highly technical climb, it doesn’t involve a lot of steep rock climbing or ice climbing, but the extreme nature of the altitude is what really creates problems for people. I struggled a little bit, but not in any way that caused any great incident. It hurts, though.

And the events of ’96 didn’t turn you off from going?
I wasn’t worried about something like that happening to me. A lot has changed … it’s still crowded, but things are a bit safer, at least the way climbing expeditions are run.

“Everest” hits IMAX theaters this Friday, Sept. 18 and will be released wide on Sept. 25.