When you think of the UAE Army’s special forces, you might imagine specialists in desert warfare, hiding behind sand dunes in camouflage as they sneak up on the enemy while a sandstorm rages across the landscape. You probably wouldn’t think of them in minus-60°C temperatures, 2,438 metres above sea level, as they attempt to conquer the slopes of Mount Everest. But that is exactly what we see in documentary Mission Everest – The UAE Military Team, which will be broadcast on NatGeo Abu Dhabi this week.
This is not a typical documentary. Twelve of the UAE’s finest soldiers set out to conquer the world’s highest peak, even after a recent avalanche that left many of the traditional routes to the summit unpassable. The troops are highly trained – but what about the TV crew recording their progress?
Executive producer Alex El Chami, who previously worked with the UAE military on well-received documentaries including Every Mother’s Son, about the recently implemented UAE National Service, says it was a challenge.
“It was a very difficult film to make,” he says. “First of all, you had the fact that we were filming the military, and of course there are only so many things they want you to see. And then we were going up Everest – so it wasn’t easy.”
“Not easy” seems an underestimation considering the task at hand. While most documentaries may have a director and entire crew on the spot to make the best of every shot, El Chami and most of the crew were limited to doing their best to set up the shoot, then waiting at base camp as the events unfolded above.
The team that set out to conquer the mountain consisted of the 12 soldiers, Sherpas and guides, and two specialised cameramen who captured as much of the mission as possible.
“Just finding the cameramen was a problem,” El Chami says. “We put out a request in the UK, the US – everywhere in the world. Where do you find a cameraman that can climb Everest? Eventually, we found the two we needed – one from New Zealand and another one from the US.”
Even with cameramen in place, however, El Chami says it soon became clear there were more hurdles for the production to clear compared with a typical documentary project.
“We’d written a script before we started filming,” he says. “Just ideas of where people should be or how we wanted things to look, but we quickly realised it was useless. So we wrote another script. But really, when you’re climbing Mount Everest, you simply can’t script it, there are so many unpredictable moments. So instead, we ended up with about 36 hours of footage that we then had to cut down in post production – that’s actually where I am now, but don’t worry, it will be ready.”
El Chami and his team were required to stay at base camp while the mountaineers set off for the summit. We can’t tell you whether they made it or not. You will have to watch to find out.
However, having seen the soldiers’ battle, the producer says he is in no hurry to follow in their footsteps up the world’s highest mountain.
“I don’t know – I mean, we had about six storylines and six directions we wanted the show to go in, and I wouldn’t say they entirely didn’t happen, but you just can’t predict up there,” he says. “I’m not sure about that – I’ll work on the post-production for now.”
• Mission Everest – The UAE Military Team will be broadcast on Nat Geographic Abu Dhabi at 10pm on Wednesday