The Mountain is Ready for its Close-up

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, March 1998

The Mountain is Ready for its Close-up

This month, the most astonishing images of Everest ever caught on film premiere for all the world to see. And to coax this performance from the 29,000-foot headliner took the one filmmaker who knows the high peaks as well as he knows himself.
By Mark Levine

IMAX: The summit
965 kb avi
951 kb mov

IMAX: The Lhotse Face
971 kb avi
957 kb mov

IMAX: The Khumbu Icefall
972 kb avi
958 kb mov

Everest on

One recent morning I found myself on the banks of the Charles River at Boston's Museum of Science, sitting in a steeply inclined and echoingly vacant dome-shaped theater called the Mugar Omni, facing a screen whose upper edges curled over my head, watching an advance cut of Everest, the movie, which had been shot in IMAX, the largest film format known to man, and which opens this month at a dome near you.

Read Outside Online's complete coverage of Mount Everest
The movie — a documentary filmed during the infamous and abundantly chronicled 1996 season in which eight climbers, two of them top-flight guides, died on Everest in a single day — is chock-full of what an executive for Sony IMAX theaters called "IMAX Moments": a winding helicopter-borne shot through a narrow Himalayan valley, for instance, that induces a calculated nauseous exhilaration. "Survival is always in doubt," intones the voice-over. The music swells. Yak-herders troop across the exorbitant screen. A deep crevasse, bridged by an aluminum ladder, is traversed from the agonizing point of view of a crampon-clad cameraman. The silhouette of a moon crosses the airy heights. The featured climbers are shown assisting Everest's victims in a helicopter rescue, fighting back their tears, and ultimately transcending their grief. The money shot — a view from the summit, captured by a custom-made 48-pound camera (price tag: $186,000) that was field-tested in a deep-freeze and that consumed a roll of film the size of a large cheese wheel every three minutes — is sufficiently glorious to redeem the moviegoer's faith in vicarious pleasure. One veteran Everest climber told me, with more than a little wonder, that the vistas in Everest the film are somehow more startling than those on Everest the mountain.

Which brings me to David Breashears, my date for the screening, an accomplished climber turned filmmaker who has assigned himself the task of documenting some of the least accommodating landscapes on the planet, and who considers Everest his chef d'oeuvre. Breashears could easily, and wrongly, be dismissed as a madman, an adrenaline-fiend, or a sufferer of post-traumatic stress disorder. He has ventured to Everest 11 times — the south side five times, the north side four times, the eastern Kangshung Face twice — and has summited the mountain on four occasions, including the last two seasons. At times he sounds like a latter-day Ahab on a mystical quest for ripe footage. "For me, Everest and the Himalayas have been a crucible," he says. He speaks in measured and flattened and slightly slurry tones, and appears to be unimpressed about his feats. "I know the way Everest looks in all kinds of different light. I know the moods of Everest. You can't impose your will on this mountain."

Over the last 15 years, Breashears has fashioned a successful career for himself in the competitive, though not particularly remunerative, niche market of "adventure filmmaking." He has won four Emmy Awards — "they're in boxes somewhere, they're kind of ugly" — and has shot documentaries for the BBC, for ESPN, and for PBS's prestigious Frontline and Nova series. Since the debacle of Everest '96, however, Breashears has orbited somewhat uncomfortably into the position of celebrity adventurer, his star tied to Everest's resurgent marketability.

Liesl Clark, a Nova producer who worked with Breashears on an Everest documentary that will air in late February, says, "Breashears is the steward of the mountain these days. He's on a mission to represent Everest, and he's never been satisfied. He can't stay away."

Breashears, an edgy and fiercely goal-oriented sort, nonetheless contends that having found in IMAX his sought-after match between medium and mountain, he has completed his task. It's perhaps just as likely that he's simply burned himself out on the mountain after too many years of struggling with it — as a climber, a filmmaker, and a man looking for peace in the world's most hazardous places. "This was the end of a long arc for me," says Breashears. "I say to myself, 'Aren't you glad you've done that? Aren't you glad you don't have to do it again?'"

Breashears is a relentless taskmaster and has acquired the nickname Herr Direktor. "If you're a slacker," says one climber. "David doesn't want you working for him."

I first met David Breashears down the coast in Manhattan, shortly before his 42d birthday, one bright winter morning when the city was on Gridlock Alert. Breashears has enjoyed countless nights of sound slumber on wind-ravaged high-altitude slopes, but I caught up with him after he'd suffered through a fitful night on a friend's sofa in Chelsea, roused by car alarms and sirens and the night terrors of his friend's child. He was also punchy from a two-month-long publicity jag promoting a National Geographic book, Mountain Without Mercy, that follows Breashears's IMAX crew during its 1996 filmmaking expedition. Breashears contributed only a brief afterword, but having emerged from the mire of Everest '96 with his reputation intact — heightened even — he had been elected to the role of public spokesman for the book. "David has become Mr. Everest," says Jeff Long, a writer and climbing friend of Breashears. "He's graciously answering questions for the time being, but I don't think he wants to be in this corner much longer."

Breashears can come across as both guarded and unnervingly forthright — he maintains an unsettling eye contact during conversation — and he proved difficult to pin down, setting aside my requests to visit him at his home, an apartment in the town of Brighton, near Boston. He called the space his "last enclave" and explained that since his wife moved out almost two years ago, "it's a half-occupied place, a way station that doesn't reflect the way I normally am." (The way he normally is, one of his longtime friends would later tell me, is "ready to leave for an expedition at any moment — everything neatly ordered in nylon bags.") What Breashears suggested instead was that we meet in New York for breakfast. As I waited at the apartment where he was staying, he called his agent, and then his publicist, and then his editor, and then his voice mail. Hardly a day had passed recently, he said, when he was not asked to narrate the grisly chronology of the May 11, 1996, tragedy. Hardly an interviewer had failed to elicit his account of walking past the bodies of friends. A typical encounter found Breashears sitting across the well-known round table from Charlie Rose and dutifully responding to all queries and meeting the hangdog stare of his host, who sighed and declared, pityingly, "It is a mountain without mercy." Breashears is esteemed (and occasionally disliked) for maintaining rigid control as a climber and as a filmmaker, but he says this foray into the publicity grind has been "an ordeal. I feel off-balance. I'd found some sort of safety in the mountains, a haven that I haven't found in my life at sea level. I need to recharge. I need to stop talking about Everest."

Release dates for
IMAX Everest

March 4, 1998
Boston, Massachusetts

March 5, 1998
Denver, Colorado
New York, New York
Scottsdale, Arizona
Tempe, Arizona
Washington, D.C.

March 6, 1998
Houston, Texas
Vancouver, B.C.
Las Vegas, Nevada
Irvine, California
San Diego, California
Charlotte, North Carolina
Pensacola NAS, Florida

March 7, 1998
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

March 12, 1998
Hutchinson, Kansas

March 14, 1998
Kansas City, Missouri
Orlando, Florida

March 23, 1998
Hastings, Nebraska

March 24, 1998
Hampton, Virginia

March 26, 1998
Spokane, Washington

March 27, 1998
Cleveland, Ohio
Ft. Worth, Texas

March 28, 1998
Chattanooga, Tennessee

So we skipped breakfast and hailed a cab for the ride to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Breashears wanted to see an exhibit of an illuminated manuscript from sixteenth-century India — intricate scenes of hunting and combat and royal processions. He pulled out a magnifying glass and placed his long nose and squared-off jaw close enough to the paintings to make the security guards anxious, and excitedly called out, "Oh, man, you gotta see this." He seemed, for all his apparent world-weariness, like an awestruck, overage Boy Scout. When I mentioned how peculiar I found his fascination with delicate miniature art — he was, after all, a man whose recent film could stand to be projected on a decent chunk of football field — he seemed delighted. Breashears likes to defy expectations. He may have a well-earned reputation as a prickly, single-minded outdoorsman, but he also dotes on children and loves to cook and has intensely loyal friends and maintains an affably sentimental view of Third World cultures. Above all, he cultivates the creative tension of paradox — foremost being the apparently paradoxical relationship between danger and control. Breashears will adamantly, even resentfully, deny that his extended tango with risk involves romance — it's merely a job, he'll say — but more than a measure of doubt creeps in: "During the IMAX filming, I often asked myself, 'What am I doing here? Isn't this absurd?'"

"There are times," says Breashears, "when I really understand that person who went back, inexplicably, for his fourth tour of combat, that person who just can't leave. He doesn't like to kill, but he has some kind of hunger, something is fed by being in the war, he doesn't know how to go home." Breashears spent only about five months at his own home each of the last several years, which he has admitted was a contributing — but not decisive — factor in the recent dissolution of his marriage. (His former wife is now married to MTV founder Bob Pittman, in turn the former husband of much-discussed climber and socialite Sandy Hill, another cast member from Everest '96.) "People like myself are normal flesh and blood," Breashears assured me. I didn't quite believe him. He is slender and fine-boned, but one well-known mountaineer calls him "among the strongest climbers on earth." Others — Breashears's friends and colleagues and even his own mother — invariably describe him as "obsessive," a notion he bats aside. "People confuse dedication of purpose with obsession," he says. "That's incorrect. An obsession is pathological." And despite his occasional unavoidable experiences with avalanches and mountainside tumbles and the other rewards of his vocation, Breashears will confess to no pathology. But he allows himself a few moments introspection before adding, "Maybe by going out and making these films I've really been looking more closely at myself. Maybe, in the end, I've been documenting my own experience."

An old friend of Breashears told me that when Breashears was in his early twenties he saw a rock climber in late middle age and vowed "not to end up an overage climbing bum." Breashears now mines his livelihood from the mountains, but what first drew him there was an inarticulate desire for vertical escape. "I didn't know it at the time," he says, "but for me, climbing was the way to go out and get hold of my life. My life was all over the place. I didn't fit in anywhere." He was born in Fort Benning, Georgia, the third son of a domineering army major, and grew up mainly in Denver and Cheyenne, Wyoming. When Breashears was 12, his family moved to Greece, where his father was a military adviser. "I had a very disruptive life in a faraway place," he remembers. "My parents' marriage fell apart. My dad was quite violent towards the end, and then he went one way and the rest of us went the other." Breashears's mother, Ruth, who often worked two jobs to support the family, says his father was never spoken of after he left home; she admits that "David was terrified of his dad at times."

"He was a very strong physical presence," says Breashears. "Very confident and very intimidating. He thought his son should have been the quarterback of the football team. I was always the skinniest kid in the class. Kids used to pick on me, just throw me around in the dirt, humiliate me. I felt like I was a coward." Carol Derry, a former girlfriend, claims that "Everest is easy for David, compared with conquering the terror of his childhood."

Breashears took a National Outdoor Leadership School course when he was 15 and soon afterward gave himself over to climbing. He moved back and forth between Denver and Boulder, where a band of free-climbers was putting up routes on the sheer rock faces of Eldorado Springs. "He lived very, very frugally," Ruth Breashears recalls. "He would work at the Marriott up the street in housekeeping, but as soon as the snow started melting, he was gone. He lived in cabins with no running water. He'd shower at the YMCA." Breashears was drawn to the pared-down, disciplined existence. "I had a hard time being a recreational climber, climbing just for the fun of it. Climbing was a form of self-expression. It wasn't just about getting up and down a pitch, but about how you climbed it, the style, the elegance, the quality of movement, the grace, the technical skills. I was from a humble background, I hadn't attended college, but here was a world in which the hierarchy was based entirely on merit."

"It was like he was on a mission," says Steve Mammen, Breashears's climbing partner from those days. "He was part general, part mother hen." The diet du jour was bananas, cottage cheese, and honey. No meat, no alcohol. Fasting was done to understand how it felt. At parties, climbers would compete to see who could perform the most fingertip pull-ups on doorjambs. "David was more stern than most, more straitlaced," says his mother. "At times you wanted to say, 'Loosen up a bit.' He was a purist in everything he did." A story circulates in climbing circles about the time Breashears scaled a cliff to try to glue back a dime-size finger hold that he had dislodged. "Back then a lot of us believed that you had to prepare for the mountains," says Jeff Long. "You didn't just throw a bunch of bolts in the rocks. David put up these remarkable, unassisted rock-climbing routes that are still considered test pieces, utterly death-defying climbs. We believed the mountains were sublime." Says Breashears, "We definitely felt like we were on the fringe. It was a countercultural thing."

But mainstream culture was discovering the counterculture, allowing Breashears and Long and others to build ad hoc careers in the mountains, on the edges of their sport. Breashears began to find work hauling loads for the crews of climbing films. In 1979 he talked his way onto a climbing expedition to Ama Dablam in Nepal, paying his own airfare and lugging equipment for ABC's American Sportsman show. He returned the next winter to assist on a documentary about Sherpa culture, and in 1981, while working as a soundman for a production on Everest's Kangshung Face, he was handed a camera and told where to point it. By 1983, he was making the first live transmission of images from the top of Everest. He has since worked on films — as cameraman, director of photography, and more recently director/producer — on such subjects as climbing Pakistan's Nameless Tower, geographic surveying on Everest and K2, and the mummies buried on the slopes of Peru's Mount Ampato.

The projects are physically and professionally demanding; Breashears is said to be a relentless taskmaster on the job and has acquired the nickname Herr Direktor. Climber Ed Viesturs says, "If you're a slacker, David doesn't want you working for him."

"What's amazing is that David dropped the basic filmmaking instincts to help those people in trouble," says one producer. "Plenty of filmmakers would have just rolled film."

Though some in documentary film circles regard Breashears more as a daredevil cameraman than as a filmmaker with a distinctive sensibility — a Frederick Wiseman, for instance — I made my way through a stack of his videotapes and discovered a spare and elegant visual style that fulfills the central objective of the adventure genre: to stun the viewer into couchbound submission. He has done a few Hollywood turns — shooting climbing footage for Sylvester Stallone's Cliffhanger and filming inside Tibet for the recent Seven Years in Tibet — but he prefers to work in small and mobile and independent units and occasionally achieves work with unexpected nuance. His superb 1994 Frontline documentary, Red Flag Over Tibet, views the workings of a troubled culture with the wide eyes of a traveler; the sight of a monk dropping to the ground in sudden prayer contains a shocked and resonant intimation of violence.

But Breashears is, foremost, a teller of mountain stories, and he is often included among those climbers who have been criticized in recent years for transforming their alpine-based search for ineffable experience into a form of entrepreneurship. "When people talk about the so-called commercialization of Everest, they like to say that David Breashears and I are the guys responsible for it," says Dick Bass, speaking to me from Utah's Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort, which he owns, while a medical technician tends to his freshly broken femur. "Well, that's bull." In 1985, Breashears accompanied the then-55-year-old Bass to the summit of Everest, a climb generally thought to have opened the floodgates for would-be high-altitude climbers willing to write a big check for a thrill. "He was my climbing companion, not my guide," Bass says. "There were no fixed ropes, and we weren't tied in to each other." Breashears defends Bass from a skeptical climbing community, saying, "What Dick Bass and I did was a far cry from what we know as guiding on Everest in the nineties."

He goes on to say, "In '96, I hadn't been on Everest in a while, and for me to see the kind of people there and how it's changed — a lot of them are there for something that I don't understand, to grab part of an icon, to have a trophy, and they don't want to have had an apprenticeship, they want to be able to ask someone to look after them."

The commercialization of Everest would of course prove to be a central matter of contention in the wake of the 1996 disaster. Breashears is circumspect in ascribing blame for the deaths, but he reluctantly agrees with a sentiment being uttered with increasing frequency among climbers: that the tragedy was the preventable outcome of a chain of human errors, errors that Breashears characterizes as "unconscionable." He denies that his films unleash summit fever among wealthy lowlanders. "Everest doesn't look like a playground in my films," he contends. "It looks like a place for experts. Sure, people are voyeurs. They're after a vicarious thrill when they watch my films, and I hope they get it. But anyone who wants to go to Everest would need to think twice after seeing my films." As one professional climber told me, however, "We're all exploiting Everest to make a living. We need clients and we need sponsors. Breashears needs someone to put up the money for his movies. If '96 proved anything, it's this: Everest sells."

Breashears's IMAX crew aimed to summit Everest on May 9, 1996, a day before the summit ridge would be crowded with climbers from several expeditions. On May 8, Breashears decided that the weather was too unstable to mount a summit bid and that the crowd on the top was best avoided. On May 11 word trickled down the mountain of the plight of a half-dozen climbers who had failed to return to camp from their summit attempt. Breashears, by all accounts, unhesitatingly put his crew's resources at the disposal of rescue efforts. He radioed a climber on the South Col with instructions to break into a locked IMAX storage tent and to make use of the batteries and oxygen canisters that the crew had reserved for its own summit push. Breashears and Viesturs and cameraman Robert Schauer helped bring Beck Weathers, whose hands and face were ravaged with frostbite, to lower elevation, and Breashears then coordinated the highest aircraft landing ever undertaken, guiding a helicopter onto a narrow ice-flat streaked with an X of Kool-Aid.

"The amazing thing is that David dropped all the basic filmmaking instincts and decided to go up and help people," says Liesl Clark, the Nova producer. "There are plenty of filmmakers who, in a similar situation at sea level, would have rolled film. Imagine where that would have put him today, if he had footage. It just blows me away. As a filmmaker, I'd have to admit that I probably would have rolled some film."

Breashears says he was contacted by several news organizations eager to buy footage. Why didn't he film the victims, or the survivors, or the aftermath? "To film people at their weakest, lowest moment — later on you'd just feel dirty," he says. "I don't want to go to my grave knowing that when the chips were down, I pointed the camera at those who were suffering most." In the tragedy's aftermath, Breashears and his team managed to regroup, and on May 23, a brilliantly clear day, they reached the top of Everest. Breashears set up the IMAX camera twice, once on the Southeast Ridge and once on the summit, and was rewarded for his efforts with three minutes of stellar footage.

When March 1997 rolled around, Breashears was once again on his way to Everest. "I had to go back there," he says. "The experience in '96 had been so profound, but I'd left Everest feeling not a shred of joy or any sense of triumph for what we accomplished. I was feeling bitter about what had happened up there, and I felt that I was losing this romantic notion about climbing and mountains that I had clung to. I needed to try to redeem the mountain for myself." Clark says, "'96 stole Breashears's thunder. He had thought of the IMAX film as the ultimate, and then all these people died, and there was a media frenzy, and generally people didn't care about what he'd done."

The film Breashears shot last year for Nova studies the impact of high altitude on the body and the mind. Breashears is also featured on camera, taking a battery of psychometric tests on the mountaintop. He is engagingly awkward with the camera pointed at him, and he defies all scientific expectations by remaining mentally sharp at an altitude that provides one-third of the oxygen available at sea level. But the mountains have long been the place where Breashears can bring himself into tightest focus. "I like being in the thin air," he has said. "I like the struggle, I like the challenge. Your character is peeled back surgically."

Ed Viesturs, however, says that last spring, while he and Breashears and a few other Everest veterans were once again confronting the debilitating Himalayan wind and the prospect of again crossing paths with frozen corpses, they half-jokingly decided to form a support group that they called Everest Anonymous. "We're not coming back," he says. "If one of us gets an inkling to return, he has to call the others to get talked out of it. But of course," he adds, "never say never."

For the moment, Breashears seems content not having an agenda. He would like to take an ice-climbing tour around the country. He and Viesturs have discussed climbing Nanga Parbat, an 8,000-meter peak in Pakistan, just for the sheer fun of it. "I've got to get over my absolute instinct: that if I'm on a mountain, I need to be documenting what's going on there." He sometimes likes to think of himself as standing in the lineage of the great explorer-diarists — the Burtons, the Lewises and Clarks — who compelled themselves to bring home testimony of their forays into unimaginable places. It's a hard habit to break. "I'm getting closer to the point," Breashears says, "where I can tell myself, 'Just relax. Enjoy the view.'"

Mark Levine's story about New York's Museum of Natural History appeared in the February Outside.

Photograph by Norman Jean Roy/Edge

Filed To: Snow Sports

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web