24-30 January 2014 #691

Heroes on Everest

With role in new Hollywood film, pilot-actor Vijay Lama’s life comes a full circle

PIC: COURTESY VIJAY LAMA
ON LOCATION: Capt Vijay Lama at the Nepal Army Golf Course in Kathmandu on Tuesday preparing for the shoot of Everest.
At age 50, Vijay Lama feels his two careers are merging again. When he acted in his first Nepali movie, Adarsha Nari, at the age of 17 he had the role of a pilot.  From reel he went on to become a real-life airline pilot, flying Twin Otters to remote mountain airfields, and later, Boeing 757s. Now, he has got the role of a rescue pilot in the new Hollywood film, Everest, based on the Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air.

When he was a boy, Vijay Lama used to tell his mother he wanted to be an actor in a Hollywood movie. It nearly happened with a major role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1993 film, Little Buddha, but it took another 20 years before he finally fulfilled his childhood dream.

“I feel really humbled,” Lama told Nepali Times while filming on location at the Army Golf Course near the airport on Tuesday, “I am proud as a Nepali, and hope I can be an inspiration and a catalyst for young Nepalis everywhere.”

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur who made The Deep and Contraband, and starring movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, John Hawkes and Josh Brolin, the film is based on the tragedy on Mt Everest in 1996 in which eight climbers died near the summit after a storm.

The story revolves around Beck Weathers, the American climber who miraculously survived two nights above 8,000m, and was rescued, together with a Taiwanese climber, by Nepali Army rescue pilot, Col Madan KC from Camp II. The risky rescue was the highest-ever helicopter landing in history at the time, and Col KC was commended for his confidence and flying skills.

Vijay Lama called up Madan KC recently for a pilot-to-pilot talk to understand exactly what was going through his mind 18 years ago when he decided to try once more after a failed first rescue. Col KC emptied his Ecureuil of all unnecessary equipment to make the aircraft lighter, and flew solo up the Khumbu Ice Fall.

In Tuesday’s shoot, Vijay Lama plays Col KC as he is approached by a US Embassy diplomat and an expedition member on the golf course. He is asked if he can fly up to 6,500m on Mt Everest to rescue injured climbers. Lama delivers his line like the laconic aviator that he is: “I don’t know if it can or can’t be done. All I know is that it has never been done.”

Lama with Josh Brolin (in black) and Martin Henderson.
This week, Lama and a group of 12 real-life Sherpas are off to Val Paradiso in Italy to do the outdoor part of the shoot in a make-believe Mt Everest. After that Lama will go to Pinewood Studios near London to film his role of the rescue inside a Ecureuil simulator.

Gyllenhaal is playing Scott Fischer, the American guide from Mountain Madness who died on Everest, while Jason Clarke plays Rob Hall, the New Zealand climber from Adventure Consultants who made the poignant last phone call from the South Summit to his pregnant wife in New Zealand just before he died.

The part of Beck Weathers, who lost his right arm to frostbite, is played by Josh Brolin. This movie should not be confused with another feature film about George Mallory being released in 2014, which is also called Everest.

Vijay Lama is impressed by the professionalism of the cast and crew of Kormákur’s team in Kathmandu, and says Nepali film-makers can learn a lot from them. Lama has convinced the director to have the cockpit conversation between Madan KC and his co-pilot to be in Nepali with subtitles, and Lama’s producer at Black & White, Ranjit Acharya, is working on the lines.

Says Lama: “It is an honour to be honouring the true heroes of 1996, the pilot and the heroic Sherpas who risked their lives to save the lives of others.”

Kunda Dixit

Extract from High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Other Unforgiving Places by David Breashears

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