The mood in the K2 base camp had turned ugly. The movie’s 85 actors and crew members had already spent three frigid, punishing weeks camped on a glacier when a five-foot snowfall nearly buried their tent city. Shoveling away the tons of snow cost a day, and by nightfall there was open talk of giving up. With his $14 million film falling apart, director Franc Roddam (The Lords of Discipline) made an impassioned pep talk. ”This is part film, part expedition,” he said, standing before his mutinous crew in the mess tent. ”We’ve come so far. It’s like being in Camp 4 on the mountain — the summit is very close. We can turn back or go on. Let’s go on and achieve the summit!”
It was corny, but it worked. The crew resolved to stay. ”I was involved in The Abyss,” says K2 star Michael Biehn, recalling director James Cameron’s notoriously complicated underwater epic. ”But this was a much more difficult movie.” Based on the play by Patrick Meyers that ran 85 performances on Broadway in 1983 and later toured the world, the movie tells of two longtime climbing partners, played by Biehn and Matt Craven (Tin Men), who attempt 28,251-foot K2, the world’s second-highest mountain (after Everest), with harrowing results. But where the action in the play takes place on a single ledge high up on the peak, Roddam wanted the film to reflect the entire process of a high-altitude expedition.
His first battle was simply finding a mountain to shoot on. K2 itself, in Pakistan’s nearly inaccessible Karakoram Range, was out of the question, so Roddam and coproducer Tim Van Rellim auditioned New Zealand’s Mount Cook and peaks in the Andes and Himalayas. ”Everywhere we went they said you could only rely on one good day of weather in three,” Roddam recalls. Finally it was decided that Canada’s 13,177-foot Mount Waddington, about 200 miles north of Vancouver, made a plausible stand-in for K2; that scenes showing the 100-mile approach to its base camp would be shot around Skardu, Pakistan (where K2 expeditions form up); and that rock-climbing scenes would be filmed on British Columbia’s Steinbok Peak.
In September 1990, the crew constructed their tent city on Mount Waddington’s Tiedemann Glacier. For the next 31 2 weeks the production’s only link to the outside world was the occasional helicopter airlift from a logging camp 150 miles away. ”Usually on a film, no matter where it is, when you’re finished shooting you can go back to your hotel,” says Roddam. ”On this film, you went back to an icy-cold tent.” A stroll away from camp could mean a fatal fall into a crevasse, and temperatures dropped to 24 degrees below zero. With the help of experienced mountaineers on the crew, Roddam dangled his cameras off sheer rock walls, dragged 300-pound fans up snow and ice faces to produce blizzards, and encouraged his actors to do much of their own climbing.
”Every day was just an amazing challenge,” says Craven. ”You got a knock on your tent in the morning — ‘Matt, the helicopter’s ready.’ You’d fly to 9,000 feet on a cliff of ice and snow. I’m blown away by some of the shots we got.” As on actual expeditions, time and weather were constant enemies. ”Our call sheet would have different scenes for three or four different weather variances,” says Biehn, himself a veteran of The Terminator and Aliens. ”By the time they figured out the weather, and got all the equipment and everybody out there, we only had about four hours a day to shoot.”
The climactic moment was a scene in which Craven and Biehn finally reach the summit. ”We were always looking for good weather,” says Craven. ”Finally, on day 21 the head safety guy says, ‘We can go, but we have to go now!”’
A wild helicopter ride ferried the actors, director, and four crew members to a tiny plateau at 12,500 feet. ”Winds were blowing huge snow plumes off the landing zone,” Roddam recalls. ”We were immediately covered in ice and snow.” With drops of 5,000 feet and 3,000 feet on either side, the actors gasped their lines in the thin air, while crewmen hovered off-camera to grab them if they slipped.
”It was not,” says Craven, ”your typical Hollywood movie.” Certainly it’s the closest most moviegoers will ever get to the beauty and terror of big-league mountaineering.