To rehearse all the arguments as to why so many died would keep us here for ever. A combination of deceased witnesses, fierce subjectivity and memories scrambled by the altitude makes consensus elusive. What is certain is that the weather turned vile, some climbers had limited experience, and there were simply too many people from too many expeditions, all trying to reach the summit in a brief window of opportunity.
Watson, 48, plays New Zealander Helen Wilton who, as base camp manager, was responsible for liaising with the climbers as they entered the perilous “death zone” of 25,000 feet, and with their loved ones back home. In the case of her compatriot, the heroic Rob Hall, this meant linking him by phone to his pregnant wife, even as he lay dying in the blizzard.
Watson says she began to feel a powerful sense of identification with Helen, notionally in control of welfare and communications, yet utterly powerless in the face of grief befalling the whole bold, arguably crazy expedition.
Did she meet Helen? “No, but we Skyped. She was a little guarded to begin with but she was lovely, very helpful. She had entered a competition in which the prize was a trip to base camp with the company Adventure Consultants. She enjoyed it so much that she asked if she could go back again. That’s how she came to be there. She told me that phone call was awful, a dreadful thing to have to do, but at the same time one of the best things she had ever done. I can see what she means. It was an incredibly hard, important thing to do. When the whole thing started to go down, she had to step up to the plate, emotionally, and she did.”
In a way, says Watson, chaos itself is the principal character of the film; chaos in the form of this huge high landmass in which the usual codes of human exchange simply do not exist. “I mean, they go to this height where everything is telling their bodies to shut down. Yet they have some need to override these commands and carry on. It’s a strange activity for sure… people saying to their families, in effect, ‘I’m going off to climb this mountain, there’s a good chance I won’t be coming back.”