Skip to main content

Climbing Mt. Everest in VR is so terrifying that my knees wobbled

I stood on the edge of a precipice, frozen from cold, faced with a terrifying walk across an ice-encrusted rope bridge that was precariously suspended across a crevasse hundreds of feet deep.

My legs turned to jelly, and I almost fell to my knees. I don’t deal with heights well, especially if a single error could result in my untimely death. Grasping the rope to steady myself, I took the first step, my eyes widening as the ice cracked and crumbled off the next foothold. “I’m not sure I want to do this,” I thought to myself. But I didn’t have a choice.

It all began the week before, in the comfort of my home, with the delivery of a wooden crate. Inside was an assortment of mountaineering paraphernalia, including a compass, a thermal vest, and a map of the Himalayas. Digging through, a passport issued by The Virtual Republic of Nvidia doubled as an invitation to an event where I’d experience what it’s like to climb Everest. Not actually climb, because I’m a feeble tech journalist, but climb thanks to the magic of virtual reality.

Base camp

The journey up to London for these shindigs are usually about as arduous as the day gets, but this time, that wasn’t the case at all. Upon arrival at Tobacco Dock — a converted warehouse from the 1800’s that’s all exposed brickwork, iron, and dark passages — I was handed a thick jacket that not only doubled my size, but also tripled my body temperature, plus a pair of trousers so enormous they’d make a clown blush. “It’s cold in there,” I was informed.

I tentatively walked out onto it, slowly edging along the footholds ensuring I didn’t plunge to my doom.

Once I was bundled up, I was hustled through a side door into a tunnel-like room, and greeted by a cheery — and similarly attired — man who said, “Welcome to Base Camp!” It became obvious why I needed the extra layers. The room was freezing. There was even fake snow on the ground, and an eerie blue light gave everything a wintery feel. An HTC Vive headset was handed to me, a pair of headphones put over my ears, and two controllers placed in my chilly hands.

Then it began. I was suddenly gliding over the Himalayas, the wind howling through my ears, and a voice over explained what I was seeing. It’s not like watching a documentary. You’re right there, and able to gaze upon a sight the vast majority of us will never, ever get to see first hand. The scene faded, and as everything came back into focus, I was looking at that dreaded rickety rope bridge.


It’s no exaggeration that my legs wobbled, and no lie that I tentatively walked out onto it, slowly edging along the footholds ensuring I didn’t plunge to my doom. In front of me was another climber, beckoning me across. If I didn’t go, I wouldn’t see the summit. For those 10 seconds, I was walking across that bridge near Everest’s summit. The experience was true enough that VR fooled my brain into thinking a virtual world is real. It was terrifying and fantastic.

Nvidia’s intention with this demo was to show exactly how immersive VR can be, especially when combined with the right environment. There was a crunch under my feet, my hands were at first cold, then clammy from the nerves, and I was wrapped up like, well, like someone going up a mountain. It was astonishingly effective.

If you’ve haven’t tried a fully immersive VR experience yet, you’re in for a treat. It’s so engrossing, so utterly convincing, your mind will race with the possibilities and potential of this astonishing technology, and afterwards you’ll excitedly recant tales of the experience to everyone you know. Then you’ll want them to give it a try, because the awesomeness is near impossible to describe.

The demo was no half-hearted affair either. It was created using more than 300,000 photos of Everest, then modeled using Unreal Engine 4 by Sólfar Studios and RVX, the latter being responsible for the amazing effects in the movie Everest. This goes a long way to explaining how real it all felt, and a strong indicator that movie studios may take VR very seriously in the future.

The future

The rope bridge was just the start. My next challenge was to ascend a ladder than extended up a sheer ice cliff face. To do that, I’d have to use the Vive’s controllers to haul myself up. To fully understand how complete the illusion was at this point, when I started out, I actually raised my leg as if to stand on the ladder’s first rung. To the Vive’s operators, and the person videoing my escapade, I’m sure I looked utterly ridiculous. Not that I cared, because I certainly didn’t want to fall!

I got to climb Everest, scare myself stupid on an imaginary rope bridge, then shoot down aliens like Han Solo.

Contrary to how it probably sounds, this wasn’t my first VR experience. I’ve been lucky enough to use Oculus Rift, Sony’s Project Morpheus (as it was at the time), Gear VR, and HTC Vive itself. The fact that it still literally makes my knees wobble is a testament to VR’s brilliance, and ability to beguile and convince.

Nvidia hosted the event to show off how its GTX 970 and GTX 980 series graphics cards can handle VR using the HTC Vive. An all-too brief, and incredibly exciting, demo of Elite Dangerous using the Vive was enough to persuade me I should buy a decent gaming PC ahead of 2016, when VR will really take-off. The terror of Everest was long gone, replaced by exhilaration during a tumbling, dizzying dogfight with enemy craft high above a planet’s surface. Frontier, the developers of the game, are justly proud of the fact it’ll be one of the top game titles available for VR-capable hardware.

Thanks to the power of VR, I got to climb Everest, scare myself stupid on an imaginary rope bridge, then shoot down aliens in space like Han Solo. The day was already an epic tease, made worse because it was just before the HTC Vive’s launch was delayed. However, there’s no doubt it’s worth the wait. To me, virtual reality is the most exciting piece of tech innovation I’ve seen in years.

Editors' Recommendations

With new swappable faceplates, the Vive Cosmos is now a modular VR platform
HTC Vive Cosmos

After having debuted the HTC Cosmos late last year with an innovative flip-up display to switch between the virtual and real worlds, HTC is expanding its Vive Cosmos series in a surprising new way. Faceplates with different features that can be upgraded to or purchased with the Cosmos.

The star of the show remains the different experiences you gain when adding HTC's unique and modular faceplates. This allows users to grow with their Vive Cosmos investment by being able swap faceplates to gain new functionality in the future.

Read more
Why confidence in VR is rising — and Oculus Quest is to thank
Oculus Quest full

Hand Tracking on Oculus Quest | Oculus Connect 6

Virtual reality has remained a relatively small niche in video game development despite the innovations made by products like the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. But it isn't down and out just yet, as the stand-alone Oculus Quest headset reinvigorates developers' passion.

Read more
I fell out of love with VR, but the Vive Wireless rekindled the flame
Fallen out of love with VR? These HTC Vive accessories might change that
HTC Vive Wireless

Forgive me virtual reality fans, for I have sinned. It has been eight months since my last VR session. My faith in it as the future of gaming and connected entertainment has wavered. I've lost interest. I can't be bothered. My HTC Vive has languished on the floor under my desk, gathering dust and I barely noticed. Perhaps it's time that changed.
But what can a lapsed VR fanboy do to excite himself about virtual reality once again? I could buy a new headset. There are some exciting new options in the form of the Oculus Rift S and Quest, the HTC Vive Cosmos, and Valve's high-end Index.
But those are expensive, all-or-nothing options that do a disservice to the Vive I already own. It's hard to justify buying a whole new headset and any necessary sensors and controllers when I don't use the ones I have. Perhaps instead, some VR accessories and upgrades for my existing Vive could do the trick.
With that idea in mind, I reached out to HTC and was furnished with a number of intriguing options for a better HTC Vive experience. Can a few new toys and games kick-start my interest in virtual worlds ones again?

Falling out of love with VR
If you look back at my coverage of VR in the lead up to, and shortly after, the launch of the original HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, I was incensed. Excited. I was a true VR evangelist, sure that it would become a dominant new medium of entertainment enjoyed by gamers young and old within a year or two.
Having owned an Oculus Rift DK1 and DK2, and eventually the consumer release Vive and a Rift (I later sold the Oculus headsets), the progression I saw in just a few years was enormous. From static, seated experiences with no positional tracking, to motion controllers and roomscale experiences. I went from nausea-inducing, blocky roller-coaster rides to AAA experiences like Alien: Isolation and polished mini-game extravaganzas like Valve's The Lab.

Read more