The film Everest tells the tragic story of Rob Hall and seven other mountaineers who lost their lives in 1996. We had the chance to sit down with Rob Hall’s wife, Jan Arnold, to find out more about her husband and being a part of the movie that profiles Hall’s life.
A doctor by profession, Jan Arnold is a mountaineering enthusiast in her own right, so it makes sense that in 1993, she climbed Mount Everest with her husband Rob Hall. For her, the experience was a thrill. “He literally took me to the top of the world! That made us the third married couple to reach the summit. It was Rob’s third time on top. He was guiding Everest for the second time, along with climbing partner Gary Ball and guide Guy Cotter. My primary role was doctor for the expedition, caring for our whole team of Sherpas and guided climbers, and incidentally for members of several other teams as well,” said Arnold.
Though she enjoyed the climb, it wasn’t easy. “I was always a slow acclimatizer to the thin air, and didn’t imagine I’d get very far up. However, owing to Rob and Gary’s careful, gradual ascent program, strong support from an amazing Sherpa climbing team, a good weather window and luck with my health, I did manage to reach the summit. It was a great feeling to stand up there with climbers from all parts of the globe. Nepalese, Koreans, Americans, Indians, a Finnish man, New Zealanders and Australians, among others. It was especially wonderful to be there with Rob. He always believed in me,” she said.
Arnold claims that climbing Everest was the hardest physical challenge she’s ever faced, though she thinks parenting a 2-year-old is a close second. She said the climb was like “battling against the thin air, with muscles resisting, lungs working at full capacity, and heart pounding.”
However extreme the challenge, she learned a lot, like not giving up in the face of a huge objective. She also learned how to “break down massive challenges into bite-sized pieces, to listen and take advice from the expert guides and Sherpas, and to respect that magnificent mountain and its weather. My knowledge as a doctor also helped. A bad bout of bronchitis nearly prevented me attempting the final summit push. Descending to a village way below base camp for a few days of rest and recuperation effectively recharged me.”
Keira Knightley played Arnold in the movie. Arnold first met Knightley in London on set. “It was at a former frozen fish factory, which had cleverly been redressed to look like New Zealand’s Christchurch Airport, as it was in 1996. Keira was lovely, charming and easy to talk with.”
Arnold claims that watching Knightley play her was surreal. “To see one’s life events reenacted was extraordinary. With the expert direction of Baltasar Kormákur, I felt both Jason [Clarke, who plays Rob Hall in the film] and Keira did understand the essence of our love and its precious final connection.”
Arnold and Hall were able to speak over the phone when Hall was stuck on Everest, which is also depicted in the movie. “We effectively were holding hands across the airwaves. At the time, because I already knew rescue from the south summit is impossible, I didn’t fight the terrible dawning realization that I had to let go. Keira portrayed it very close to how it really was,” said Arnold.
It’s difficult to understand how Arnold made her peace with losing her husband, but she also had a firm grasp that it was part of the risk.
“I knew, before I even spoke with Rob, that he must be very close to death, having spent a night out close to the summit. Then when we spoke, he sounded terrible, slurring his words and describing his frostbitten hands and feet. On the second call, he had warmed up in the sun, and had found some oxygen bottles. I willed him to move, to try to get himself down the mountain, but I accepted he just couldn’t.
“Once the rescue Sherpas — Ang Dorjee and Lhakpa Chirri — had to turn back, I knew that Rob and I were speaking our last words. For my part, there was nothing left unsaid, nor anything I wished I hadn’t said. I just felt so glad to have had the chance to reach him, hear his voice, to tell him I loved him. For some weeks, I didn’t feel alone, as I had his baby daughter inside me, moving even. I found those movements comforting. Rob told me not to worry about him too much.”
Though Arnold had lived through the experience, her daughter Sarah was just growing in her mother’s womb at the time. We asked Arnold if she was worried about her daughter watching the film.
“Before we watched the movie for the first time, I was worried as to how it would feel for Sarah, as well as for the other real people involved. The film process had been a two-year journey, and along the way Sarah and I had talked openly — discussing the facts and talking through concerns as they had arisen. It was important to me that our story was portrayed as accurately as possible, while knowing it was two hours and couldn’t be expected to include everything or everyone.
“My concerns for Sarah, though, were mainly around her feelings about Rob, the father whom she would never meet. The film accuracy might make it harder for her. Fortunately, Sarah had met Jason Clarke in New Zealand and seen his commitment to play Rob well. When we did see the movie for the first time, I had my arm around my daughter’s shoulders, both physically and metaphorically. Even with all the preparation, we found it a very emotional experience, all the more so because of its close attention to detail, and its accuracy.”
Arnold credits being a mother to helping her find inner strength. “I believe that having a baby protected me from the acuteness of the grief in those early times, having someone to hold and care for who absolutely needed and depended on me. My parents and family also supported us, and I found returning to my work as a doctor meaningful and absorbing.”
She added this about Hall: “Rob was an extraordinary man and husband — kind, generous, peaceful and a mediator. He also had a notable capacity to inspire people to have confidence in themselves, encouraging them to stretch beyond their perceived limitations. This is his legacy to me.”
Everest is currently available on Blu-ray and DVD.