Mountains – real, treeless, snow-covered mountains – feel like strange worlds visualized by a 3D configurator. The air is thinner, the water boils faster. The wind chases away all signs of life from steep rock faces and algae turn into snow in a strange, bloody pink. The natural forces that act at this altitude, such as bad weather, become life-threatening obstacles.

Everest VR

Using Everest VR, a new virtual reality (VR) experience for HTC Vive, is not like climbing a mountain in reality. No virtual reality can mimic the crunching of snow under your shoes during slower, deaf-mute hours of towing on a slope that never seems to end, or the feeling of finally having reached your destination. With Everest VR, climbers get to their destination quickly and easily and it doesn’t even take longer than a whole day. An intensive preparation phase such as exploring the surroundings is not necessary.

Art does not have to reconstruct, but only evoke.

In any other medium this would be too self-evident to point it out at all – and above all it would not diminish the value of the work. Art does not have to imitate real life, but only evoke it, and Everest VR begins with a strong foundation. Composed of hundreds of thousands of real photos, it forms one of the greatest virtual worlds ever created. A clear and austere landscape that is only affected by the limits of the HTC Vive‘s screen resolution. In a series of vignettes, the participants walk from the base camp to the summit and then open up a “God mode” that shrinks the Himalayas to the size of anthills and gives the whole ascent a context.

But you get the overwhelming feeling that we should see this attitude as a kind of substitute for the real and not just for a work of art. Obviously, people have unrealistic expectations of the VR. The impression conveyed by many press reports is that anyone can climb Mount Everest with it – which is a rather optimistic statement for the reasons mentioned above. Each section is presented on a flat screen inside the headset before you are transported to a location and asked to take something like a short walk or climb a ladder. There are some voiceover sections and a few objects to record and throw around, but it’s a simple linear experience that takes less than an hour in total.

For some sections, such as reaching the summit, you can point your controller to a position and click it to teleport forward. This is a generally accepted VR mechanism, but Everest VR is the rare place where it doesn’t really work.

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The ability to cross the mountain so easily undermines its power. When you finally get to the top and wag your flag, it feels pretty cheap. Apart from the beautiful “God Mode”, Everest VR only gives a visual idea of climbing the mountain, leaving out many aspects of the real world.

Of course, there are purely practical reasons for this. The expedition went online in about 8 months from the announcement to the launch. The development company Solfar Studios worked on the project for less than 2 years. It is sold to a very small target group in a very special area.

We have unrealistic expectations of VR.

And to make it clear, Everest VR has its own set of advantages. It’s a beautiful reflection of a place that most of us will never see. But it’s still tempting to imagine how much deeper and more convincing the material could be if it spent more time building atmosphere or dramatic tensions than straight reconstruction.

Perhaps the best known work about Mount Everest is Jon Krakauer’s Ito Thin Air, a 1996 reference book on a devastating climbing expedition. Kraukauer’s words cannot visually present the mountain, but readers can immerse themselves in the text and explore another person’s thoughts and memories. The author succeeds in conveying an incredible feeling of reverence and horror, even when you are in a warm apartment thousands of kilometres away. Everest VR, on the other hand, comes very close to the visual representation of what the climber could see. However, many of the climber’s feelings and experiences cannot be imitated by the VR headset, so both works have their respective merits.

Thank you very much for your visit.