Cold truth of an uphill climb

If a rejuvenating climb up a block of ice seems a tempting antidote to the sweltering summer heat, you'll think again after viewing "Everest," the celebrated, wide-screen IMAX feature now showing in the Dr. Phillips CineDome in the Orlando Science Center. An hour spent talking to Araceli Segarra, a major participant in the history-making expedition the film documents, is a greater reminder that scaling the world's highest mountain is an activity for only the most strongly self-directed.

"There's not a reason for everything that we do," the surprisingly diminutive Spanish climber says of her long-standing devotion to peak experience. "Everybody does things that the people sitting behind you will never do," she challenges, in broken but impassioned English. "But why not?"

It was that fearlessness director David Breashears sought in 1995, when he put together an Everest party that would be the first to have its successful climb immortalized on large-format celluloid. Unbeknownst to Breashears, his team's courage would be tested when the group preceding it on its May 1996 expedition ran into trouble on its way to the summit. The resultant tragedy is the dramatic center of "Everest," as the daunting effort to reach the top of the world with a cumbersome camera crew in tow becomes a life-or-death rescue mission.

Segarra played a vital role in that mission. As helicopters carrying frostbitten climber Beck Weathers attempted to touch down in low-visibility weather, the notoriously sweet-toothed Spaniard ensured a safe landing by spreading her precious Kool-Aid on the ground in a hard-to-miss "X" formation.

"It's like MacGyver," she wryly notes of her ingenuity. "It's a lie, but he can make a laser out of your watch."

The amusing analogy is further evidence that the 28-year-old Segarra is the most complex and interesting of the "Everest" mountaineers. When the Breashears party receives the news that some of its predecessors have not survived the journey, she's the one tearfully instructing the cameraman to stop rolling. At another juncture, she's heard pining for a sundae. It's also noteworthy that a film filled with vertigo-inducing images finds its most jaw-dropping moment in one of Segarra's comparatively simple practice sessions, wherein she bounces crazily from rock to rock at dizzying heights.

Just don't call her careless: Segarra is adamant that her decision to keep going after the disaster had nothing to do with the fear of ruining an important shoot.

"We knew we were prepared to do it," she states. "`But` they cannot obligate me to go up, `and` they cannot obligate me to go down. Nobody can decide for you. I don't care if there is a film, I don't care if anybody wants me to be on the top to shoot me. I'll just give up, because it's my life. I don't want to lose anything for a mountain, I don't want to lose a nail.

"I'm losing something, but I'm winning the chance to go back, and go back, for the rest of my life."

Segarra is a natural for an intensely individualistic sport. She's unmoved by her status as the first Spanish woman to scale Everest -- "I don't care which number I am, first or 25th" -- and has no difficulty drawing boundaries between her public and private personae. Like most in her party, she left a personal totem behind to commemorate her ascent (in the film, climb leader Jamling Tenzing Norgay places photographs and family items in the snow in tribute to his father, who accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary up Everest in 1953). Segarra contributed a Buddhist prayer shawl. "But don't ask me why," she quickly adds, "because I won't tell you."

An ice princess? Hardly. She's merely aware that, after conquering the mountaintop, navigating her life on the ground should be the least of her worries.

"Sometimes people just don't want to understand you," she reasons, earnestly. "You climb for yourself."


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