When studio executives at Universal Pictures were looking for source material for a big-budget adaptation of the 1996 storm on Everest that killed eight climbers high on the mountain, they called Beck Weathers.
Weathers, 49 years old at the time, was a client of the late Rob Hall, a well respected New Zealand guide who led a group of mountaineers, including Jon Krakauer, to the summit just before the deadly storm rolled in. Hall, like his fellow guide, Scott Fischer, and several other climbers, became trapped in the storm and died. Weathers lost consciousness on the mountain above Camp IV and was left for dead by his fellow climbers. Several hours later, he miraculously regained consciousness, picked himself up, and hiked down to camp, his face caked with ice.
Weathers was airlifted off of the mountain and treated for severe frostbite. He lost his nose, part of his right arm, his fingers on his left hand, and parts of both of his feet. Weathers recounts the horror on the mountain and his recovery back in the U.S. in his 2001 book, Left For Dead: My Journey Home from Everest. The book is now the backbone for Universal's latest epic, Everest, starring Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Jason Clarke, and set for release in September.
In advance of the film, Outside spoke to Weathers about what parts Hollywood got right, what parts it got wrong, and how he relates to the tragedy nearly 20 years later.
OUTSIDE: Have you been involved in the filmmaking process?
WEATHERS: Not at all. To a certain extent I’m happy with that. You have no idea if they’re going to make a really good movie or something that's difficult to be associated with. When they started chatting with me years ago I told the guy when he came to my house, "Godspeed, John Glenn, but I’ve never seen a really good mountaineering film.” They always look like bunch of actors on a ski slope standing around yelling at each other.
Did they do a decent job with this one?
All in all I think they’ve done a really good job. People will be impressed. You can get a great feeling from books but there’s a lot to be said for being able to see the event and feel it and experience what it was like. I wasn’t worried that the story wouldn’t hold up to the big screen, I was worried that the filmmakers wouldn’t be able to do the story justice.
You're played by Josh Brolin. That's got to be cool.
I really enjoyed Josh’s acting and depiction of my character. I was pretty stoked when I heard that he’d accepted playing me in the film since that’s probably better than I deserve. He’s also a Texan, which I think helps. I got a chance to spend some time with him when I went out to L.A. He was very down to earth and enjoyable to be around. My favorite part of his character was that he seemed to be friendly and outgoing, and I generally like to approach my life that way. I like to think i like people up front unless they give me a reason not to.
And your least favorite part?
Well occasionally the writing called for him to be a jerk, and no one particularly cares for that. But all in all I was pretty happy with Josh’s portrayal.
Why do you think it's tough to make a good mountaineering movie?
Mountaineering makes moviemaking extremely difficult. On Everest, you’ve got every square inch of your body covered [in cold-weather apparel], and you’re not standing around chatting with each other. You spend most of the time alone. Everyone might be on fixed lines together but when you start moving higher up on the mountain you have oxygen masks on and no one is talking to each other—you couldn’t talk to each other if you wanted to. That doesn’t allow for the interaction and development of characters that’s required to make people care about the characters. You just have to accept that the filmmakers will change some of that, otherwise it would look to the audience like a bunch of piles of laundry moving up a mountain.
“For me on the mountain, when it came to actually dying—I had to get up and move or stay there and accept it—I just really wasn’t ready.”
Are you concerned about the facts of the event making the final cut?
They pointed out to me early on that this is not a documentary, it’s a movie. As such, they make decisions about what’s in there, what’s not, and how to cast the good guy and bad guy. You have to respect their problem of having to make those judgments.
But there are things in there that are jarring for me to see because they are put in there just to advance the story. Some things have been dramatically shifted from what my perception was, but that’s probably true of everyone’s perception.
What kinds of things?
Part of the story in the film is the story from Outside and Into Thin Air, which was about inexperienced climbers who shouldn’t be on Everest showing up in droves. That’s pushed a little hard in the film. There’s an interaction in which I bitch out Rob Hall because we’re having to wait around, and I tell him, “I didn’t spend this money to stand around at Walmart.” It was obviously put in there to illustrate the rich client showing up unprepared, and I get to be that individual. On a practical basis, if I were to have yelled at Rob I could have expected to get a long walk back to Kathmandu. That wasn’t exactly our relationship.
They were also a little tough on Scott Fischer. They present him in a somewhat unflattering light. I think that’ll be difficult for [his widow] Jeannie and his family to see. That bothered me. There are things like that. But you have to put it in context. You have to accept that they won’t make the film in the ways that I saw the event or that other people saw it. It’s how the screenwriter saw it and how the director puts it together all these years later.
It's been almost 20 years since the event. Why do you think Hollywood has waited this long?
The movie waited around for years because they didn’t have the technical ability to pull it off. The only film that could give you a real sense of what Everest looks like is the  IMAX film. That’s the only one I’ve seen that gives you a sense of the scale and makes it look real. Everything else is just a sheet of white. But nowadays they can render anything. That’s pretty incredible: it’s not a mountain, it’s the mountain.
Isn't it kind of ironic that it takes computer-generated imagery to accurately portray of one of the most impressive natural features on Earth?
I understand the deception involved in using the computers and green screens to recreate it but I don’t think they had any choice. There’s no way they could possibly have filmed on the mountain. With the number of people that would have to be there and acclimate and have mountaineering experience, moving equipment around would be completely impossible. There’s no way to physically manage that. On Everest, you’re physically exhausted—that’s your normal state of being on the mountain.
Were there any parts of the movie that were difficult for you to watch?
Certainly one of the most heart-wrenching parts is the call between Rob and [his widow] Jan. You’d have to be made out of stone not to be moved by that. Also the interactions between Rob and the folks down in Base Camp when they know the storm is coming and that Rob is trapped and that they’re helpless to alter the course. That’s pretty difficult to watch.
The part of the movie where my wife, Peach, has received the news about me, and she tells our children that their father is never coming home again, that’s tough. Both Peach and I were pretty seriously moved.
Has your view of the tragedy changed over the years?
As time passes you gain a different perspective on Everest. You get some distance, and life becomes calmer and simpler. At one point, it would have been the most important event in your existence, but that importance fades over time. I’m certainly a lot more at peace with myself than I was 20 years ago. It seems not that long ago to me.
I've worked for a number of years part-time as a keynote speaker. In essence, every time I do a job I relive the event. I think because of that it’s like my Groundhog Day—it seems very immediate. So while my life has gotten a lot more mellow, my interaction with the story remains extremely vivid. Surprisingly it still affects me emotionally and viscerally like it happened yesterday.
Do the speaking jobs help you cope?
They reinforce the lesson that comes out of such an experience, which is to understand what’s important in your life. I love climbing, but I realize that a lot of climbers die young and leave a good-looking corpse. For me on the mountain, when it came to actually dying—I had to get up and move or stay there and accept it—I just really wasn’t ready. That perspective on the importance of the people that you love and those relationships, how that ultimately overrides everything in your existence, is the takeaway I keep with me.
How do you relay that message to people in the audience?
I tell them that my Everest experience, as dramatic as it was, was only three days. The hard part is what you do when you get back home. That’s when the story really begins. And that part generally is never told.