Search

Take A Peak Will the fledgling climbers reach the summit? Will they die trying? Live! From Mount Everest! It's Global Extremes

April 14, 2003
April 14, 2003

Table of Contents
April 14, 2003

Take A Peak Will the fledgling climbers reach the summit? Will they die trying? Live! From Mount Everest! It's Global Extremes

Sometime in May, pagers, cellphones, two-ways and e-mail inboxes
across America will receive this message: "ASCENT DAY!!! TUNE IN
TO OLN...." Adventure racers, Alpinists, outdoor enthusiasts and
millions of others who use carabiners only as key chains will
then dutifully click their televisions to the Outdoor Life
Network and watch hours and hours of live footage beamed from
the top of the world. ¶ Awe and wonder (and a strong urge to buy
a 4Runner from sponsor Toyota) will ensue as viewers watch five
people--none conspicuously qualified for the task--try to reach
the summit of the world's most famous mountain. Some will fail,
but at least one will reach the top, and when the broadcast ends
after no less than nine hours, viewers will rub tear-filled eyes
and pause to savor a slice of television history: an ascent of
Mount Everest shown live.

This is an article from the April 14, 2003 issue

That's the dream scenario that has taken shape in the Stamford,
Conn., offices of the Outdoor Life Network over the past 18
months. Executives there believe a live feed from Everest would
be the perfect way to commemorate--and cash in on--the 50th
anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's historic
and heroic conquest of the famous peak, so they put together a
reality series that would culminate with the live assault on
Everest. Global Extremes: Mt. Everest, which debuted on Jan. 6,
follows 50 contestants as they compete in a series of outdoor
challenges on three continents. Based on the results, the pool of
50 was whittled down to five finalists who will undertake the
climb. Two weeks ago OLN sent the quintet to Tibet, hoping that
the outcome will be a major television event and not an expensive
and overhyped flop reminiscent of Geraldo's peek into Al Capone's
vault.

"It's a gamble, but we are not averse to taking risks, just as we
ask these athletes to take risks," says John Carter, vice
president of production at OLN. "There is the unknown: Can we
pull this off? And, will it be a compelling program?"

Those two questions will remain unanswered until OLN's team of
climbers reaches base camp this week. OLN technicians are
convinced they will get a broadcast-quality signal from atop
Everest if the production crew does its various jobs, which
include fixing a transmitter atop a nearby 24,000-foot peak
called Changtse. As for the quality of the show, which will
consist of live shots of the climbers and live commentary at base
camp interspersed with prerecorded segments, that's still up in
the (thin) air because so many things--bad weather, poor fitness,
unsettling mountain conditions--could intervene. If the live
broadcast doesn't come off, the network will have little to show
for its gamble save a mediocre 18-week series with no finale.

To this point Global Extremes: Mt. Everest has looked like what
it is: filler until the real action--the climb--begins. One of
OLN's many problems: Truly accomplished outdoor athletes rarely
display the personality quirks that turned Puck, Ozzy and Anna
Nicole into reality-show icons. "The people I know who are
accomplished outdoor types are the most quiet, soft-spoken,
modest people you will ever meet," participant Ted Mahon, 30, a
ski instructor from Aspen, Colo., says. "They are making a TV
show about people who generally aren't worthy of being on TV."

Even when dramatic moments arose, such as the elimination of the
supremely confident Eric Kapitulik, a 30-year-old Marine captain,
and Jan Fiala in Costa Rica, everyone took the high road. Fiala,
a 49-year-old geographic surveyor and veteran outdoor athlete
from Corrales, N.Mex., even hugged the athlete who cast the
deciding vote against him, telling him they were "friends forever."

The most compelling action thus far has occurred off-camera, as
the athletes clashed with producers, particularly over a
mid-series change in how the participants were eliminated. The
contestants had signed up believing that top extreme-sports
athletes serving as judges would pare the group, which included
men and women from age 22 to 61, down to the fittest five. That
was the procedure early on, with 26 of the original 50 dismissed
last October after events such as rock climbing and mountain
biking in Moab, Utah, and another 12 cut in December after
competitions in Colorado's Elk Mountains. But when the final
dozen arrived in Kalahari, South Africa, in January, the athletes
were told they--in the best reality show fashion--would handle the
next few rounds of cuts.

"A dark cloud came over everybody when they told us that," says
Petit Pinson, 32, an alternative-education teacher from Three
Rivers, Calif. "Suddenly, the show was Survivor. It was the
bummer moment." But not so big a bummer that any of the athletes
walked, even though some who had been voted out were among the
most skilled. "You could tell [OLN] was sorta figuring it out as
they went along," Mahon says.

The athletes made several concessions for the cameras (climbing
the same wall four times, waiting for the crew to set up before
embarking on a bicycle expedition), but that spirit of
cooperation ended in Iceland after the group felt its safety was
compromised. "The guides told everybody to do this summit--Just
get an early start and go up and down--but for whatever reason
production was not on the same page," says Colleen Ihnken, 38, a
nurse from Alma, Colo. "We ended up getting a late start and got
snowed in." The group was stuck on its perch for days without
essential gear, their tents ripped by the storm. "When we finally
came down, we were angry, and we had a little powwow," says
Ihnken. "The athletes decided we were going to have a bigger
voice in what we were doing."

Carter insists the safety of the athletes has and always will
come first. "We wouldn't ask for anything that would imperil
anyone's climb," he says. "[Expedition leader] Russell Brice and
[climbing leader] Chris Warner are fully in control of how they
attack the mountain."

This is Warner's third season as a guide on Everest. His best
year was 2001, when seven of the eight climbers he guided reached
the summit. He will be taking the Global Extremes group up
Everest's North Ridge, which he says is uncharacteristically
short on snow this year. "It is a route that requires a lot of
rock climbing, and it's good that there is less snow," he says by
phone from Kathmandu. "I don't want to be too bold, but I think
we have a good chance. The key to climbing Everest is the
infrastructure--getting the ropes in place, the oxygen--and we have
that."

When the climbers make for the summit, two cameras carried by
members of Warner's climbing team, Mark Whetu and Mike Brown (who
have both made two Everest summits), will start filming the
minute they step out of their tents because, as Carter points
out, "you never know when the drama might unfold." A Sherpa at
the lead and Warner, bringing up the rear, will have
point-of-view cameras strapped to their gear. Two other cameras
will focus on Brice, in his 13th year organizing Everest ascents,
as he monitors and comments on the expedition from base camp. "I
have talked to a lot of the pros up here, and they all think this
climb is pretty sweet," Warner says. "I don't think we are
degrading the mountain in any way."

Some of the five climbers question whether they are properly
prepared for Everest. Too much of the preclimb competition, they
say, was in events that looked good on TV, rather than those that
would reveal, or teach, skills needed on the mountain. "There
were eight boating races. Why?" asks one climber. But the
mountain exerts a strong pull. The five finalists agreed to go
anyway, knowing it could cost $65,000 to make the trip on their
own. "They deserve it," says Warner, who believes the finalists
are more prepared physically than many people he has guided.

Carter believes the danger of the climb and the uncertainty
surrounding the outcome will make the show compelling. The
climbers agree, with trepidation. "It's going to be good for
[OLN] whether it turns out positive or negative. If a disaster
happens, it's still good for them," says one. "If they can pull
it off, I think people will watch. I know my mother will,
although she will probably be having chest pains."

COLOR PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN WEBER; CORBIS (CLIMBER); DIDRIK JOHNCK (MOUNTAIN)COLOR PHOTO: PHOTO FOR MAP: GALEN ROWELL/MOUNTAIN LIGHT TV TRAIL The Global Extremes party will follow the rocky North Ridge route first taken by the 1960 Chinese expedition. Camp 2: 24,600 ft. Camp 3: 25,900 ft. Camp 4: 27,230 ft. Summit: 29,035 ft.
"CAN WE PULL THIS OFF?" asks one OLN executive. "And, will it be
a compelling program?"