EXCLUSIVE: Discovery Channel, which decided Sunday to scrap its much ballyhooed live Mount Everest jump after a weekend avalanche there killed 13, will instead telecast a special documenting the disaster. In much the same way the Naudet brothers happened to be at the World Trade Center towers the morning of September 11, 2001, filming a documentary about members of Lower Manhattan’s Engine 7, Ladder 1 firehouse, and wound up instead producing the docu 9/11, so too were camera crews for the Discovery Channel jump at Everest at the time of the single deadliest incident in the history of the peak. NBC News’ Peacock Productions crews, which were to have produced the live jum, was at base camp at the time of the avalanche. Crews had been shooting footage in advance of Discovery’s planned five nights of live programs culminating in Joby Ogwyn’s May 11 jump.
The special will document last weekend’s disaster that struck at 7 AM Friday, Nepal time, and will follow the Sherpa community’s reaction, grieving, and ceremonies for the victims. Ogwyn will be interviewed for the special; he and his team were involved in recovering the bodies from the mountain.
According to Discovery Group President Eileen O’Neill, the Everest Jump Live project had two expedition teams. One was responsible for the camera and production team, which had hired some of the 13 Sherpas killed in the avalanche. The other team was Ogwyn’s, who had been to Everest many times and selected Sherpa guides with whom he had worked with in the past; they too were among the fatalities. “He had people he had trained with and had experience with.. .This makes this all the more devastating” for him, O’Neill said. “He’s obviously quite emotional. He’s commited to talk about his experience. He was right there when it happened and he feels like he owed a lot to the Sherpa team.”
Camera crews are going through footage shot before and after the avalanche and it has not been determined whether the special will be one or two hours long, O’Neill said. It’s unclear what participation in the coverage will go to NBC News. (Peacock Prods also produced the telecast of Discovery’s special last June in which 13 million viewers watched Nick Wallenda slowly walk a wire across the Colorado River Gorge. The next morning Wallenda was interviewed exclusively on NBC.) Additionally, Discovery is working to identify an appropriate Sherpa charity to make a donation to and to urge others to donate to via a message online and during the documentary.
Discovery’s Sunday announcement it was pulling the plug on the live jump took media by surprise, given that Ogwyn had tweeted Saturday that the project would move forward and that he was forming a charity to take care of the “fallen Sherpa” as well as “those who could fall in the future.” His announcement had followed by one day a statement by NBC News that “the future of the production will be assessed at the appropriate time.” Tweeted Ogwyn: “Today is a brighter day. We are staying on the mountain to honor our friends and complete our project. We must honor them and take care of our friends and their families,” adding, “This project had become much bigger now.”
Response to his tweet ran the gamut from “Your pain is no doubt deeper than the Mountain is tall. Purpose will indeed help you heal” to “You’re kidding, right? You are actually going to put the safety of those around you in danger by still jumping? What are you, crazy? Don’t be an selfish a hole. The worst disaster on Mt. Everest and you think that what you are doing is honoring the Sherpas…”
But Sunday morning, Discovery’s announcement scuttled Ogwyn’s plan. “In light of the overwhelming tragedy at Mt Everest and respect for the families of the fallen, Discovery Channel will not be going forward with Everest Jump Live,” the network said in a statement early in the afternoon, adding, ” Our thoughts and prayers go out to the whole Sherpa community.”
“As you can imagine in the circumstances, we needed a beat to understand as much of the circumstances as possible” — a process that was compounded by considerable communication issues, O’Neill explained of the conflicting information. As word came in about ongoing safety concerns on Everest, some member of the Sherpa community’s unwillingness to return to the mountain, and an evaluation of the production team’s reaction to the disaster, it “crystalized” the decision to cancel the project, O’Neill said.