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In 1923 a New York Times reporter asked the British mountaineer George Mallory, who had taken part in two unsuccessful attempts to reach the top of Mount Everest and was planning a third expedition, why he wanted to climb the world’s highest peak. Mallory’s answer summed up both the folly and the irresistibility of exploration: “Because it’s there.”
When I was given a chance to try out Everest VR, a virtual reality re-creation of the ascent developed by Iceland’s Sólfar Studios, I said yes for precisely the opposite reason: because it’s not there. VR technology has made tremendous advances in the past few years, prompting giants like Facebook and Google to jockey for dominance in the nascent business. But its target demographic of hard-core video game enthusiasts is not one I identify with. So if the experience could transport me, with sufficient verisimilitude, to one of the most romantic and inaccessible places on earth, I could be convinced that VR had a future beyond the Cheetos set.
On a sweltering late-summer afternoon, I met Sólfar cofounder Thor Gunnarsson at an office building in Manhattan for a demo of Everest VR, which is available on HTC Vive and is coming to the Oculus Rift and Playstation by December. A room had been set up for the demo. Laser-emitting sensors were placed at each corner of a rug, and all furniture was cleared away to make sure I didn’t trip over an Aeron chair while crossing a crevasse. (The requirement of an empty room is perhaps an even bigger impediment to mass VR adoption than the unwieldy hardware.)
Gunnarsson secured an HTC Vive headset in front of my eyes and gave me two joysticks to act as my hands in the game. After a brief tutorial, I was at Everest base camp, the Himalayas towering above and around me. Gunnarsson’s now disembodied voice seemed to come from another dimension. The graphics—rendered with the help of the special effects team behind the 2015 film Everest, starring Jake Gyllenhaal—were remarkable and geographically accurate, if not quite photorealistic. Nevertheless, the illusion of being immersed in a new environment was so total that I forgot what was missing: the cold, the crunch of the snow under my feet, my feet.
Toward the end of the demo, I walked along the Hillary Step, the notoriously treacherous ridge connecting the South Summit to the true summit, named for Edmund Hillary, who, along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, became the first man to reach Everest’s top, in 1953. I decided to stray from the prescribed path and into thin air. Even though Gunnarsson’s godly voice assured I wouldn’t fall, that I would remain suspended over the void like Wile E. Coyote, the vertigo I felt upon making that step was powerful—nothing virtual about it.
The typical Everest ascent takes two months. In the game it takes an hour. And yet I experienced a glimmer of triumph when I planted my nonexistent flag on the nonexistent summit. In addition to showing you the vistas only a handful of adventurers have ever seen, the game concludes with a sight not even those eyes have witnessed: the changing of the light over the course of a night on the peak. I knew it wasn’t real, but neither is cinema, neither is painting. The beauty of the moment was as transcendent as any Caspar David Friedrich canvas.
“Yeah, the summit sequence is fun,” Gunnarsson said after I took my headset off to reveal a plainer, dimmer world. “It’s kind of meditative to stare and look at the changing light conditions. There’s nothing to do, but you can relax. I’ve had people get in touch with me to see if they can do meditation retreats in VR.”
Is it worth paying $800 for a Vive headset just for this thrill? Probably not, but the more products like this that come out, promising a glimpse of places I’ll never otherwise see, the more I’d consider it.
This fall, Sólfar will release an extension that adds an educational component to the game, including historical photos of Mallory’s ill-fated final expedition, in 1924. But as Mallory himself told the Times reporter when asked about the mission’s scientific purpose, “Sometimes science is the excuse for exploration. I think it is rarely the reason.”
Download Everest VR at steampowered.com for $20. Windows required. ￼