Storm Over Everest

Producer's Notebook

Excerpts from co-producer Callie Taintor Wiser's production diary in Nepal.

Nov. 23, 2005
Kathmandu to Monjo

photo of the team

The 2005 camera team leaving Kathmandu (photo courtesy: Stephen McCarthy)

Our team left Kathmandu early in the morning to fly to Lukla, where we met our trip porters and hit the trail as soon as all our gear was divided up amongst the camera team and the porters.

Our core team:

Western Film Team
David Breashears -- Producer, Director
Callie Taintor -- Co-producer
Steve McCarthy -- Director of Photography
Bill Anderson -- Editor

Sherpa Film Team
Wongchu Sherpa -- Leader
Lakpa Gelje Sherpa -- Camera Leader
Mingmar Dorjee Sherpa -- Camera
Kami Sherpa -- Camera
Pem Dorjee Sherpa -- Camera accessories
Phula Sherpa -- Lenses and battery
Nima Sherpa -- Tripod

Gayalal Rajbanshi -- Liaison Officer
Mahadev Sharma -- Special Film Asst.

Higher up yaks will carry a fair amount of the gear, but in Lukla all of the gear was placed on the shoulders of our Sherpas and porters. I couldn't even believe some of the loads they are carrying.

The Lukla airstrip was pretty terrifying. There isn't enough level space to have an airstrip long enough for planes to land or take off, so they built the airstrip on a grade that helps slow the plane down when landing -- you land heading straight up the runway, which dead-ends into the mountainside.

Late morning, we finally hit the trail. It's a fairly short hike in the afternoon to a small village called Monjo, where Steve, Bill and I rest for the night before heading up to Namche Bazaar in the morning. David and a number of the Sherpa hike through all the way to Namche and wait a day there for us to catch up.

Nov. 24
Monjo to Namche Bazaar

I realized once I arrive in Namche how happy I am that we didn't push all the way yesterday. The first part of the trail started out winding up and down as it did yesterday, but the hill leading up to Namche was a real deal monster of a hill. Porters carried supplies flown in from Kathmandu along the trail at a killer speed. They literally carried things like huge pieces of wood you'd use to build a house on their backs. Young porters passed me carrying multiple cases of beer to stock the lodges higher up. It's really amazing.

Namche is a bustling village with a market area and a large number of lodges, cafes and Internet access. It was Thanksgiving Day, and David prepared a massive meal to celebrate. We had menus that we had printed in Kathmandu and brought with us, cloth napkins, bottles of wine -- the whole nine yards. It made it less difficult to be away from our families to be a team celebrating with delicious food. Two trekkers traveling with us joined in and supplied the vegetables. The lead camera Sherpa, Lakpa Gelje, cooked the first course, meat momos!

Nov. 25
Namche Bazaar to Khumjung

We arrived in Khumjung today after leaving Namche Bazaar in the morning. I traveled behind the main team with Mahadev and Wongchu so that I could settle up at the Khumbu Lodge and send off e-mail updates to all of our families. The hill out of Namche was ridiculously steep -- much like the steep, dusty hills of Studio City, Calif., but with an amazing view. Namche is an amphitheater of sorts in a narrow slot surrounded by steep hills on three sides and a drop-off to the valley on the other. The mist floating in the valley reminded me of the Smoky Mountain clouds in the way it seeps in among the rises -- though granted, the rises here are much higher than the Smokies.

The small village of Syangboche sits at the top of the hill and is home to a helicopter landing pad that tried to be an airport landing once but wasn't quite long enough. I wonder how it was discovered that it wasn't long enough? After leaving Syangboche, we climbed another steep hill to the top, where the Khumjung valley opened up beneath us with Ama Dablam stage right, Everest and Lhotse stage left and a ton of prayer flags and chortens (a Buddhist structure for offerings to the gods) in the foreground.

Ama Dablam is an absolutely formidable-looking peak. The town of Khumjung is made up of 100 or so green-roofed buildings, including a large school funded by Sir Edmund Hillary. After doing some work on David's computer, I scrambled up a big hill just outside the lodge in time for the pink light of sunset to hit the valley below Ama Dablam and creep up to the summit. Of course, I didn't have my camera, but I stood for a while soaking it in and hoping that Steve and David were seeing as nice a sunset on the hill where they were shooting.

The light then turned purple behind the summit of Ama Dablam before the alpine glow snuck up. It's now 7:30, and everyone seems dead tired. You get into the cycle of go to bed early and get up early very quickly up here. I'm looking forward to filling my water bottle with boiled water and getting into bed myself. Before checking out for the night, I tried to call home to wish them all a happy Thanksgiving, but no one answered.

Nov. 26

We spent another day in Khumjung -- David, Steve and the camera crew went up to a vantage point for morning shooting while I stayed in the Sherpa Land Lodge working on the one-page pitch document for the film. In the afternoon, we filmed a couple of shots from the place where the valley opens up below with lots of prayer flags fluttering with Ama Dablam in the background. One shot involved Kami, one of the camera Sherpa, as a silhouette on a ridge. Another shot was of David walking by a chorten on the trail with the camera shot ending after tilting up to Ama Dablam. It was another amazing sunset with a purple sky lingering.

At dinner we decided there were two more shots we needed in Khumjung, so we'll stay a third day here. The plan is to make up the time by dropping a rest/acclimatization day up in Dingboche.

I spoke to my boyfriend tonight. It turns out that last night he was drinking and talking politics with his extended family, and they never heard the phone ring. It was good to finally talk and well worth the eight dollars in satellite phone charges.

Nov. 27

photo of the team

Securing Steve high on the ridge above Khumjung (photo courtesy: Callie Taintor Wiser)

We did a lot of shooting today. We hiked down the trail away from Khumjung a ways to shoot across the valley to the path up to Thyangboche. From a point across the valley, Steve shot wide shots of yaks and David along the trail. Then we repositioned and shot David's hiking close up. (You see these shots at the very beginning of the film when the first piece of narration comes in.)

Getting the yaks to cooperate was no easy task. They didn't like the idea of walking along the trail, then stopping, coming back to where they were and repeating the process. I think in their minds, they are supposed to always be moving forward to the next town. The advice that we had received to never get between the yaks and the edge of the trail was well-advised as they started to get a little ornery late in the day. I planted myself against the hill to make sure I didn't become the target of their growing aggression.

After lunch back at the lodge, we headed up to the ridge above Kunde and Khumjung for afternoon ridgeline shots and David lighting juniper branches. It was extremely windy up there, and I hope the shots were moody and beautiful. (They are -- we end up using them to begin the film.)

November 28

Today we left Khumjung for Thyangboche. I think we had all grown attached to the place, but we were ready to head on to different villages, different views and closer to Everest Base Camp.

The hike to Thyangboche was fantastic -- straight down into the valley and straight up the opposite hill in an amazing setting. On the way down into the valley we had a team meeting, but I have to admit that I can't remember now what we discussed. I'll blame it on altitude. The trek uphill was unbelievably satisfying -- slow plod, no stops. I am hoping that I continue to feel as good as we get higher.

Thyangboche boasts amazing views of Everest and Nuptse and a very warm dining room. The e-mail up here is not working, but one of our trek organizers, Mahadev, is heading back tomorrow, so he'll send the one-page document to be edited back in Boston once he gets down to Namche. It was amusing that it seemed so convenient to be able to send a disc with a document to be e-mailed two days back down the trail. I also spoke to our production assistant for the first time by satellite phone so that she can send out an update to the team's families.

Nov. 29
Thyangboche to Pangboche to Dingboche

We left Thyangboche this morning just as a helicopter landed literally right next to the lodge to pick up a couple of trekkers for a mountain heli-tour. The path from Thyangboche down to the bottom of the valley, Phunki Tonga, was pretty much straight down. The rest of the way to Pangboche was fairly mellow. We went a bit out of our way to stop in Pangboche so that we could find the family of one of our interviewees, Ang Dorjee, who now lives in Washington state. We had a folder of photos of Ang Dorjee's new baby that we were able to bring in to his parents. We beat the mail, and these were the first images his family had seen! We then called Ang Dorjee on the satellite phone and let his parents talk to him. His sweet mother was crying by the end. Ang Dorjee's parents left and then returned with kata blessings to show their thanks, though I have to say that the feeling of showing them their new grandbaby was thanks enough.

We then set up an interview with a Sherpa named Tashi Tseri. He was working on Scott Fischer's team in 1996 and was one of the Sherpas who went to attempt to rescue Scott on May 11. Though we didn't have simultaneous translation, we had spoken to him a bit before in English and knew he had an interesting story to tell. It was great to see how expressive he became once we began the interview.

Just before heading back on to the trail from Pangboche, we were blessed by Lama Geshi, who many of the Sherpa think is a very powerful lama. Such a blessing is a ritual for expeditions in the Himalaya, and it was a fascinating ceremony. The lama blessed and gave us each a simple necklace to keep us safe on our trek and a kata, a Buddhist prayer scarf. I look forward to tying one of my kata blessing scarves on to one of the bridges in the lower Khumbu once we head back home. Leaving prayer flags or kata in the wind ensures that the prayers get carried to the gods on the wind.

Dingboche is relatively small but quite nice. You can't see Everest, just Nuptse on one side, Ama Dablam on the other and Island Peak in between. Ama Dablam looks so different from this angle. It reminded me of a sphinx from the Khumjung vantage point, but now it looks more like a typical peak.

Apparently tomorrow won't be a very long day to get up to Lobuche, then another short day to Gorak Shep, and we're at the last village before Base Camp. I am glad we chose to stay another day in Khumjung as it's pretty bland and dusty up here as compared to the beauty of Khumjung. It's often windy up here, but thankfully we were spared that on this trip. It's cold enough without a biting wind to get inside your zippers.

Nov. 30
Dingboche to Lobuche

Today started off chilly, because the sun had not made it down into the valley in which Dingboche rests. As we climbed to our first filming site, the sun crept toward us. We filmed a number of shots of David on ridges or walking towards camera with massive mountains in the background. Then the trail more or less traversed across to where the trail splits between Lobuche and the Cho La pass. Up a massive hill from Thukla, the town at the break in the trail, there were a number of memorial chortens, including one for Scott Fischer and one for Lopsang, the climbing sirdar for Mountain Madness who died in a later accident. We shot a lot in that area -- it was beautiful and eerie at the same time. (We used some of this footage for the final series of shots in the film, where David is walking amongst memorials.)

We moved on to Lobuche after wrapping up that filming location. There's something about the building structures, the stream running through and the dustiness of the place that reminds me of a frontier cowboy town. Tonight David is making our second gourmet meal of the trip, pasta puttanesca. It's a happy change from fried rice or dhal bat, a high-calorie and therefore high-energy meal of lentil soup poured over rice. Dhal bat is a traditional Nepali meal, and I soon realized that the Sherpa on our team ate dhal bat for every meal. The smoke burns my eyes sitting in the warm kitchen area, but it's worth the warmth of sitting close to the stove.

We watched an amazing sunset reflected off of Lhotse. We can't see Everest from here, but Lhotse is impressive enough. Lobuche is about 16,180 feet above sea level, which is certainly the highest I've ever been. I'm feeling pretty good hiking these days -- slow plod with no stopping seems to be working quite well. I should stop writing though because keeping my eyes open in such a dry climate is really making them sting.

Dec. 1
Lobuche to Gorak Shep

Today began with a lot of walking into and out of Lobuche as we were shooting some more for David's trek to Base Camp. I wish I had taken a picture of the shoot as David crossed the stream. Steve had the camera balanced precariously over the semi-iced-over stream and his feet placed on the slippery rocks while Bill hovered just behind him with the microphone to record the sound of David's feet splashing through the creek. If it looks half as beautiful as it did watching the filming, then it will be a great shot with the snow-capped mountains in the background. (The shot made the cut and is in the beginning of the film.)

The trek from Lobuche to Gorak Shep was not long, so we stopped a number of times on the way. There was a lot of bouldering and rock tossing going on. Rock tossing was just that but the rocks were what I would call small boulders. The Sherpa stood in a circle throwing these massive rocks around -- the rocks were so large that it was a two-handed heave. I guess that at this altitude, there are limits to the types of outdoor games to play.

We finally saw Everest again; it had been hiding for a few days. The afternoon was relatively relaxing as we began to prepare for our shooting around here. On our list are shots from Kala Pattar, the trail to Base Camp and the memorials for Rob Hall and his teammates Doug Hansen, Andy Harris and Yasuko Namba. It's unbelievable that we're almost at the end of our trek and will be turning around soon.

Dec. 2
Gorak Shep

Today we had an early start for an over-the-shoulder shot of David looking up the valley toward Base Camp. For this shot, Steve and the camera crew set up the portajib, a portable jib arm, to get a smooth upward movement of the camera. The device relies on weight balanced on the arm opposite the camera -- and I swear the Sherpa are the most adept people at using rocks for everything. Here they were able to find the perfect sized rocks for the portajib, and if you give them five minutes with a jumble of rocks, they will figure out how to make a level surface with just those rocks. I guess it comes from setting up tent platforms at Base Camp, but it is really impressive nonetheless. The morning was windy and cloudy, so we sat there with everything all set up for about an hour waiting for the clouds to part long enough for a couple takes. Luckily a couple of porters had brought up a large thermos of coffee.

We spent the afternoon at the site of the Adventure Consultants' memorials. There were two really nice memorials built, one with a placard for Andy, Doug and Yasuko, and the other with a placard for Rob Hall. Rob's memorial was painted and had a Ziploc bag with photos and a note to Rob inside tucked away in the rocks.

After a couple hours of shooting there, we headed back to the lodge at Gorak Shep where we sat around warming up and drinking tea. David and the camera Sherpas headed up to shoot from Kala Pattar. (The final shot in the film is from this vantage point.)

Tomorrow we head to Base Camp for shots of the ice pinnacles and to get David set up for his time there alone. Hopefully we'll get the shots of his tent both during the day and at night, glowing with the light of a lantern in front of the icefall. That should be close to the end of real shooting before we leave David. Part of this journey is David spending time alone at Base Camp reflecting on the events of 1996, so we will leave him there and spend a couple nights ourselves at the lodge in Gorak Shep.

Dec. 3
Base Camp

photo of the team

Bill, Callie, Steve and David at Base Camp (photo courtesy: Stephen McCarthy

Today we trekked in to Base Camp. It is such a strange place with a kind of bleak and stark beauty. The trek seemed long, but perhaps that was because in the back of my mind I knew I'd be trekking right back out again in the afternoon.

Base Camp was more hilly than I expected -- endless small piles of loose rock and ice make for treacherous walking. There were mini-rock slides every time someone moves. The porters brought out chappati and cheese, which is kind of like a quesadilla, for lunch. Then the non-essential camera crew trekked back, which meant that Bill and I left David, Steve and some of the Sherpa behind.

We arrived back in Gorak Shep just as day turned to dusk. The moon was a sliver of a fingernail and Venus and Mars were out as usual. It was very beautiful, but probably mostly because we knew we were almost back to the lodge. Steve and the Sherpa who stayed at Base Camp for the night shot had to hike back over all the loose rock in the dark. I did not envy them at all.

Dec. 4
Gorak Shep

Today we got up early and hiked about halfway to Base Camp to meet David for a shot of him looking toward Everest with Base Camp in the distance. We also shot some tilts from Base Camp, up the icefall and to the summit. (You see this shot in the film with markers identifying a couple of the major points on the mountain.)

This shoot was the coldest of our trek. It seemed like it took forever for the sun to reach us, and the wind was cold and persistent. We were all huddling down trying to hide from the wind. Finally we got the shot. Bill and I said our goodbyes to David and headed back to the lodge. Steve stayed for some blustery shooting in the ice pinnacles around Base Camp. It's his birthday, and I was really worried that they'd retry the night shot and he'd end up spending the evening hiking back to Gorak Shep in the dark again. Luckily he made it back before it got too dark and had time to enjoy his cake before heading to bed.

Dec. 5
Gorak Shep to Thyangboche

Today we hiked down in eight hours with long breaks what took us three days to hike up. It was really nice to use our legs a lot without our lungs holding us back as much. The hike was long, but the scenery was amazing. From a long way off, we could see Thyangboche sitting on a hill silhouetted against misty mountains. The Thyangboche monastery was the highest point amongst all the trees.

We ended the day at the same lodge we stayed in when we were here before. The woman is very nice, and we have the lodge to ourselves, which is something new for us. Hopefully the decrease in altitude will mean that I will start sleeping a bit better. I've been having some pretty weird dreams.

Dec. 6
Thyangboche to Namche Bazaar

We trekked from Thyangboche to Namche today. We took a route that went around Khumjung and Shyangboche, so it was shorter than on the way up, but it was beautiful and nice to see new sights. The hill into Namche was much more fun to go down than it had been to go up. Namche was back into reality, as we were able to get Internet back at the lodge.

Dec. 7
Namche Bazaar to Lukla

Today we narrowly made it back to Lukla before the Nepalese Army shut the gates to the city at nightfall. The last couple hours of the trek we were really trucking along trying to beat the clock. Though I was extremely tired after the long hike, I couldn't fall asleep because of a huge rat or possibly squirrel rustling around above my room. I felt like it was inches from my face.

Dec. 8
Lukla to Kathmandu

We woke up early to catch the flight back to Kathmandu. The taking off from Lukla was just as scary as landing. The runway is so short that it runs off the side of the hill that Lukla rests on, and the planes use that drop to catch the air under the wings. The flight back was fairly uneventful, though it was jarring to be back in the hustle and bustle of Kathmandu so soon after leaving the absolute silence of Gorak Shep and Base Camp.

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posted may 13, 2008

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