Few events in the history of Everest—including the enduring mystery of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine—have captured the public's imagination like the killer storm of 1996. Eight climbers were lost that year, the life-and-death drama documented in more than a dozen nonfiction books, including Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air. But for filmmaker David Breashears, who in 1996 led an IMAX film crew on the mountain and assisted the rescue effort, the cinematic story of the peak's deadliest year has yet to be told.
Q+A With Director David Breashears
By Contributing Editor David Roberts
Breashears's Storm Over Everest, which airs May 13 on PBS's Frontline, blends candid interviews of 1996 survivors with three reenactment scenes that were shot, through Hollywood sleight of hand, in a parking lot at Utah's Snowbird ski area. Explaining his decision to revisit the event now, after an army of armchair climbing experts has explored each decision and its consequences, the director bristles: "If those of us who were there still don't know a lot about what happened, then what do those who have read about and judged the '96 climbers really know?" Here, the director discusses what he considers his finest work.
In 1996, when you were filming the IMAX movie, you refused to shoot any footage of the disaster, even though the producers would have liked it. Why make a film now?
Shooting nine years later [in Utah] didn't put anyone at risk on the mountain. In '96, we were in a fairly traumatized state. When we woke up that morning and learned what we learned, it had a tremendous impact. These are people you know. These are people you care about. It was chaos. I was a climber, and I grew up with really great mentors [who taught me] about what your obligations were to your fellow climbers, whether they were on your team or not. There was nothing noble or heroic in deciding not to film.
So why examine the chaos now?
I started to think about this project when I came back from Everest in 2004. By then eight years had passed. When something that traumatic happens in your life, it takes time to come to terms with it.
I was interested in the idea of how we reinvent ourselves, how we continue to rewrite the script to improve our role in an event. Generally, we have to do that, improve our role, so that we can live with that version of ourselves. Most people don't reinvent a worse person than they are. They reinvent a better person, and it's a very healthy thing to do unless it involves a tremendous amount of denial.
Is the film meant to be a refutation of how climbers were portrayed in Into Thin Air?
The film is designed to be purely a film about each individual's memory of being on the mountain. It's not meant to refute anything Jon Krakauer wrote or any of the articles that analyzed the disaster. That's a totally different film. It turns into a he-said, she-said film, and that conversation can go on ad nauseam. That story has had a very active cycle already. There was a heated debate, and some people who should be a part of that debate aren't around to defend themselves.
What were the biggest surprises among the interviewees?
Beck Weathers, who was twice left for dead and still survived, is a philosophical person, a real thinker. Near the end of the film he comments, "Everybody always says that the definition of character is what you do when nobody is looking. And when we were up there, we didn't think anybody was looking. And so everybody did pretty much what their inner person, the real them, the exposed them, would do."
The idea is that all the artifice that we carry with us in life, the persona that we project—all that's stripped away at altitude. Thin air, hypoxia—people are tremendously sleep-deprived on Everest, they're incredibly exhausted, and they're hungry and dehydrated. They are in a very altered state. And then at a moment of great vulnerability a storm hits. At that moment you become the person you are. You are no longer capable of mustering all this artifice. The way I characterize it, you either offer help or you cry for help.
Krakauer says to this day that he wishes he'd never been on Everest that year. Have you ever felt that?
Jon spent a lot of time after his book came out defending himself, and that's not pleasant. There were some really pointed attacks on him.
But no, I've never felt that way. I left the mountain in 1996 feeling tremendous pride in what our team had achieved and also tremendous sadness over such a loss of life.
Is it inevitable that a season like 1996 will happen again on Everest?
With the numbers of people climbing on the mountain every season—last spring over 500 reached the summit—I think it's only a matter of time before a wind or a storm comes up, and this time there won't be eight people who die. There will be more.
Since your film is not judgmental, let me ask you flat out—what caused the disaster?
A lot of things. Hope springs eternal, and people have invested so much that when there's 300 feet (91 meters) left, it's easy to say, I'm going to get up there and everything's going to be fine. There's no way you keep climbing up a mountain if you think you're going to die.
What I learned from the interviews was that there was a certain clearness to the day. When you look at the summit pictures, it's a windy day, but it's a clear day. No one talked about being freezing or cold. People said, "Yeah, we were slow."
Now, having that storm come up—we all saw it, it was one of those unusual storms that comes boiling up out of the Khumbu, and it did take people by surprise. There was the unfortunate coincidence of a storm and people being out too late. There you have it—the moment you let your guard down is when everything goes wrong.
Did you spend your own money to get this movie made?
I got through about half of it by borrowing many hundreds of thousands of dollars. I thought the only way to get the story right was to not let a network get hold of it. My strategy was to get the film to a point that someone was interested enough in the story I was trying to tell that they would help me through the rest of it. That's how committed I was, though a few of these gray hairs have come from that.
Is this your best film?
I think it's the first real film I've ever made.
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