BIFF: Get over your Everest ennui

Two films recall the history and renew the inspiration of the Himalayas

Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

A great plotline is nothing without a character — one that generates an emotional investment, one we continue to care about long after the final pages of a book or final frames of film. The stories of the men — and in this case, one particular woman — who went to Nepal shortly after it opened to tourists in 1960 to pursue its Himalayan peaks offer no shortage of great plot points: daring climbs, emergency bivouacs at 28,000 feet in elevation, even the brazen steering of a VW beetle through the crowded streets of Kathmandu. But more than that, they offer characters much larger than the screens they’ll be playing on over the coming weekends. Two film’s at this year’s Boulder International Film Festival, High and Hallowed: Everest 1963 and Keeper of the Mountains, deliver the stories of those people, now in the twilight of their years, to new audiences before their achievements are forgotten and their living memories lost.

Audacious Americans

Fifty years ago, high-altitude mountain climbing was about doing whatever it took to complete the mission, and when Americans set off, in 1963, to get to the top of the world’s tallest mountain, they took a team of about 20 and a determination that nothing get in the way of the goal: putting an American on the top of the world. It took a month of walking every day and half a million dollars raised over three years to get Americans just to the base of a peak that had seen only nine other men on its summit.

Over the course of acclimatizing hikes, including a sobering trip across the now notoriously dangerous Khumbu Icefall in which one of the expedition’s members was killed, Jim Whittaker emerged as the most likely to succeed in the summit push and he, with a Sherpa, Nawang Gombu, set off on the main objective: reaching the summit of Mt. Everest by the South Col. On May 1, 1963, Whittaker planted an American flag there.

But there was a separate story, a story of two vaguely rebellious hotshot climbers loaded with ambition and vision, Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld, who wanted to tackle a riskier project. They scouted out, and, once Whittaker had completed the objective for the whole team of putting an American on the summit, were able to secure enough resources to pursue their own mission of summiting the peak by the never-before-climbed West Ridge. The route climbs several thousand feet up a steep headwall before attaining the left shoulder and traversing a snowfield to the Hornbein Couloir, requiring technical rock and ice climbing along the way.

The expedition they undertook wasn’t just a game-changer as an ascent of an unclimbed route to the highest summit in the world, it was a revolution in the way climbers thought about climbing.

And that story is the heart of High and Hallowed: Everest 1963.

“I’ve always felt that that story was certainly one of the greats of American Himalayan mountaineering, if not, I would argue, one of the greatest ascents in Himalayan mountaineering of all time and yet, especially to the younger generation of climbers, was largely unknown,” says Jake Norton, producer/director of High and Hallowed. Norton says he’s been mesmerized by the images and stories of Everest’s West Ridge since he was young and credits them among the reasons he got into climbing in the first place.

“At that time and that era, on Everest and the 8,000-meter peaks, the only reason people would do a new route on those peaks was because it was easier than the first ascent route,” Norton says. “So for Hornbein and Unsoeld to deliberately choose a route that was more difficult and unclimbed was beyond belief.

… For us climbers, it really did usher in a whole new era. The West Ridge ascent basically proved that you could pioneer new audacious routes on the world’s highest peaks, and nobody had thought that way before, it was always find the easiest way to get up this thing, and Tom and Willi just said, ‘Hey, that looks like a cool route, let’s try it. We have no idea if it goes. We have no idea if we’ll live. But let’s go for it because this is what climbing is about. It’s about adventuring and stepping into the unknown.’ So I think for climbers it really did mark a huge transition and a new way of playing the game.”

Fifty years later, is there still room left in the world for enterprising climbing like that? “Definitely,” Norton says. “The Himalaya, even Mt. Everest, there are incredible routes that still haven’t been done. You hear people all the time barking about Everest, how it’s washed up and it’s over, there’s nothing exciting there anymore, but I can guarantee that if you get off the standard route, there’s ample excitement to be done. New routes are put up every few years on Everest, and throughout the great Himalaya ranges, there’s a myriad of peaks, big ones and little ones, unnamed ones, ones that have never seen a human boot print before. So there’s an incredible amount still to be done, it just takes a little bit of that pioneering spirit of Tom and Willi and a willingness to cut the cord a little bit.”

As part of the filmmaking, he and David Morton, fellow director/producer, went with Charley Mace and Brent Bishop, son of Barry Bishop, who was on the 1963 expedition, to Everest to attempt the West Ridge, which, like the standard route on the southeast face, crosses the Khumbu Icefall before climbing to the ridgeline. As of 2013, more than 6,200 people had climbed Everest, only 14 completing the West Ridge — and 16 have died while climbing or descending that route. “You have a greater chance of dying on the West Ridge than reaching the top,” Jon Krakauer says in the film.

In 2012, the team set out after the West Ridge in the more contemporary, streamlined, light and fast style, without the support team and crew of sherpas in tow Unsoeld and Hornbein had, a choice that worked both with budget constraints and personal climbing ambitions.

Conditions, however, were not in their favor.

“We knew as we started approaching the mountain that it wasn’t going to be a very forgiving, easy year up there,” Norton says. “We could see immediately that there had been very little winter snow. Everything was melted back to kind of this pre-Cambrian ice, just ancient bullet-proof ice everywhere, and we knew that was going to give us a problem, but thought we still had a chance until we got above Camp Two and onto the route.”

At that point, a stretch of climbing they thought they could complete in a couple days took 10 days of hammering uphill without making it to the ridge itself. It became clear that, as climbers say, the route wouldn´t go. A team from The North Face and National Geographic had already turned back in favor of summiting via the standard route. 

“All of us on our team had already climbed the standard route on the mountain and really had no interest in doing that again, so we figured, we’ll get as far as we can and do everything that we can on the mountain,” Norton says. “For me, as I think of all of us, it gave us even more respect for what that team did in ’63 — conditions and size of team aside, and support aside — what they pulled off on an unknown route, doing things in a totally different way than anybody had ever done anything at that point in the high Himalaya. The audacity and the courage and vision of Hornbein and Unsoeld, especially, who were the driving forces behind it — I think we all walked away just humbled and awed by what they accomplished.”

The woman who made it all count

Elizabeth Hawley was a Depression- Era child, daughter of an often solo mother active in the movement to secure women the vote, a University of Michigan graduate who moved to New York and got a job as a researcher for Fortune magazine. A decade later, bored with covering business, she took off to travel, circumnavigating the globe with stops in Spain, France, Egypt, India, China and Nepal, which had only just opened its borders to tourists.

Once there, opportunity, willingness and timing worked out for her to become a correspondent for Reuters, covering some of the earliest expeditions into the Himalayas, including the first ascent of Mt. Everest by an American.

“It was kind of like ambulance chasing in those days,” Hawley says in the 25-minute film documenting her life, Keeper of the Mountains, which will screen with the Boulder International Film Festival on Feb. 14 and with the Banff film tour on Feb. 25 (in a 16-minute edit). Hawley took the job with Reuters expecting to stay in Kathmandu and cover politics there for three years. More than 50 years later, Hawley is still there, covering expeditions to Himalayan peaks — interviewing the climbers on their routes, the weather, the conditions of the peak and making notes on the ascent for the files with the American Alpine Club.

“She just sort of carved out a niche for herself with mountaineering, even though she never climbed a mountain herself,” says Allison Otto, director of Keeper of the Mountains. “She became the world’s foremost authority on Himalayan mountaineering, and just the fact that she was able to do that and make a living there, and she was a very strong, independent woman at a time when many women weren’t living those kinds of lives, was fascinating to me.”

Elizabeth Hawley has been recording climbs in the Himalayas for 50 years.  Her reports form the basis of the Himalayan Database.

Among a couple trips to Kathmandu to meet with the woman she describes as a combination of Katherine Hepburn and Auntie Mame, Otto spent 10 days in Kathmandu during the spring climbing season in 2012, following Hawley, now 90, to interviews with climbers, and interviewing her at her home about her life, her family and her choice to devote her energy and time for as long as she is able to chronicling expeditions in the Himalayas.

“I just wanted it to be a really intimate portrait of her life there in Kathmandu, seeing as much as possible through her eyes and what she was experiencing on a daily basis,” Otto says.

Hawley’s expedition archives, which include more than 80,000 ascents, are considered one of the premier resources on Himalayan climbing history, despite their unofficial status. They form the basis of the Himalayan Database, the source for those looking for statistics like how many sherpas have died on a certain mountain, or what the most common cause of death is on a peak, or whether a Romanian has made it to the top of Annapurna IV.

“I just hope people enjoy who she is as a person and her character and the way she’s just very persistent about interviewing people. And the way she approaches life is refreshing and inspiring to me,” Otto says. “She just has really lived a very full, independent life, and I think especially for women she’s a great example of, you don’t necessarily have to get married and have children to live a full life, you can do what she did and strike out on your own, and she’s lived a rich, rich life.”

In this, her first documentary film, Otto wanted to present an image of the woman that went beyond the numbers.

“I really wanted it to be a portrait of a woman who lived an uncommon life and I don’t think you can achieve that if you’re just showing what her statistics from the Himalayan Database are,” Otto says.

To that end, she dug into the archives Hawley’s mother kept — while Hawley was tracking and reporting on Himalayan climbers, her mother was tracking Hawley, saving her letters, postcards and clips of her news stories. Otto used the original postcards and even their stamps for images in the film, and Hawley reads letters she wrote to her mother, announcing her arrival in “timeless Asia” and the purchase of a royal blue Volkswagen bug that would carry her all over Kathmandu for appointments with mountaineers.

“I really think it speaks to the richness of the life she lived and the places she’s been. … The statistics from the Himalayan Database speak to her career, but the letters speak to who she is as a person and what her life has been like,” Otto says. “The mountaineers, a lot of them don’t know about her personal life and what she’s done outside of interviewing them and the relationships she’s had and the people she’s loved and the things she’s accomplished.”

To some extent, that’s because Hawley has been an intensely private person. To longtime rumors that she had a fling with Sir Edmund Hillary, who, along with Tenzing Norgay, completed the first ascent of Mt. Everest, she says, no, but anyway, that’s “nobody’s business.”

The film has provided a chance for them to learn those things about the woman usually asking the questions, not answering them. At the premiere screening of the film, during a dinner to honor Hawley at the American ambassador’s house in Kathmandu, Hawley received a standing ovation, and has exchanged emails with Otto since the film’s tour began about where it’s going and who’s seeing it, to “update her resume.” She’s also reported people in Nepal coming up to her and commenting on her work, based on having seen the film.

“I think she was really surprised that people were interested, and that it’s shown so many places,” Otto says. “I think she’s really flattered.”

Keeper of the Mountains also poses the question of what will happen to the work of recording these expeditions if Hawley ever chooses to retire, or when she passes away, and there’s still no clear answer, Otto says. There are assistants on hand, but none seems truly ready. There have been some discussion of an online self-reporting system, but there’s question if those reports would be honest, particularly if mountaineers are under pressure from sponsors — and people forget the details, too, and Hawley helps steer them clear of confusion in these final reports.

“She’s never climbed any of these mountains, and yet she knows all of them in her head, she knows all of the details,” Otto says. “She can smell a lie.”

She knows when someone is saying they reached a summit but isn’t giving the right information on how they got there, or claims to have completed a certain route, but doesn’t have accurate details on the description of it.

Hawley has been a gatekeeper.

Without her to grill these climbers, there would be less accuracy in the records that both recognize the legitimate accomplishments of talented and ambitious climbers, and let those aspiring to reach new heights know more about the summits they attempt and who has been there before them.

“Things are sort of left up in the air,” Otto says. “When she retires or passes on it would be just tragic. It would be a real loss.”

Norton, of High and Hallowed, has known Hawley for “quite a long time,” he says, and he was interviewed for Keeper of the Mountains.

“Like the West Ridge, she’s equally a forgotten chapter of Himalayan history, even though she’s active. She’s truly the keeper of the mountains,” Norton says. “She’s of a unique era that’s disappearing rapidly, and you don’t see who’s going to go today, in this digital world, and decide to live in Kathmandu, document kind of an obscure, when she started, sport and obscure activity, and she still does it by hand today, face-to-face meetings with every single climber who comes in. … I think, to me, why it’s so important that her story and others like it get told is that whether we like it or not, Liz probably doesn’t have all that many years left, and when she passes a lot will go with her, and to me it’s critical that we get those stories and we got those anecdotes and not let them be lost.”

These films are a chance to reach wider audiences than the biography of Hawley also titled Keeper of the Mountains on first print, or the book on the West Ridge climb Hornbein wrote.

“A book about the West Ridge or a book about Elizabeth Hawley will probably be read by a lot of climbers, but a film about either of those subjects is much more approachable to a group of people who may have no interest in climbing and may never have that even after watching it, but there’s still lessons and things to be learned and inspiration to be had from those stories, even if you’re not a climber,” Norton says. “I think film opens that up in a way that the written word can’t always do.”

The real hope is that people will learn or re-learn these otherwise oft-forgotten stories.

“But more generally or philosophically, I hope people take away a little bit of Tom and, posthumously, Willi’s approach to climbing and to life,” Norton says. “What we try to bring out in the film is that all those guys, but especially Tom and Willi, didn’t embrace risk just in the mountains, they embraced it and lived it in everything they do, and Tom Hornbein, at the young age of 83, is still out there climbing routes in Rocky Mountain National Park and getting after it every day. He brings a zest for life and a willingness to accept risk into everything that he does, and I think that’s made his life incredibly rich as a result, so our hope is that this film will appeal to climbers and non-climbers alike and give them something to take away and apply to their lives, whether it’s in the mountains or behind their desks.”