Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

Storm Over Everest

Tonight PBS’s Frontline will air Storm Over Everest David Breashears’ documentary about the tragic 1996 Everest expedition that left five climbers dead. It’s been a while since I read Into Thin Air by Jon Krackauer, but I seem to remember him portraying Breashears as a solid guy, willing to put his film on hold in order to help out the struggling climbers above him on the mountain. That being said, I had problems with Breshears’ IMAX film about the expedition which came out a few years later. It gave stunning footage of the climb, but one thing I didn’t like: the film tells the story of Breashears Ed Viesturs and two other climbers, but gives little mention of the many sherpa guides who were hauling supplies, IMAX cameras, etc to 28,000+ feet (their names flash by quickly in the credits at the end of the flim). Watching Breshears Viesturs climb near the summit, one gets the sense that he is on the mountain by himself (filmed by…God?). This reminded me a lot of the Arctic explorers I’ve written about in my book: though they depended upon the efforts of hundreds of guides, hunters, and sledge drivers, the photographs still usually wipe these away. We are left with an explorer, a mound, and a flag. Still, tonight’s documentary got a good write-up yesterday in the New York Times. For different perspectives on the subject, check out this post at the Adventurist.


  Jason A. Hendricks wrote @

Thanks for the link-up. Should be an interesting program. Not sure if anything new will be put out there, but it does offer a bit more depth to the overall events. I like how they are going to be talking to the ones that were actually there. Will have to wait and se how this comes out-

  Geoff wrote @

I have to add one tidbit in defense of Breashears, and then I think I’d direct you to an interview Breashears did with National Geographic that you might find interesting – in fact, it kind of puts your critique in his words.

For one, Breashears never actually appears in his own film. Ed Viesturs stars in the film, and the co-star is a Sherpa – the son of Tenzing Norgay. In that sense, then Breashears is one of those who ‘humbly’ lugs junk to the top for no glory besides the name in the credits (and a picture of him that runs with the credits, too). The film is more of a story than a documentary, even though it seems to aspire to be a documentary. In it, Viesturs says the purpose of the trip is to put some sort of geological tool on top of Everest – as if that is all there is to it. It’s obviously not the real purpose, but they apparently didn’t want to admit in the film that the purpose of the trip was to take pictures of a trip.

It was admittedly a bit of a weak spot in the film, and that unreality may be what prompted Breashears to make the comments he does regarding his new film at the end of that National Geographic interview:

“I think it’s the first real film I’ve ever made.”

Hope you don’t mind my outburst. I enjoyed reading and replying to your post.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Geoff, quite right. Thanks for the correction on the IMAX film. Last night, I found Storm Over Everest quite moving. The views were stunning.The interviews added depth to a story that I thought had been completely fleshed out elsewhere.

One thing I take away from the film is this: it’s perhaps too easy of us at sea level to judge climbers who are making life and death decisions at high altitude, in extreme conditions, struggling with exhaustion, deprived of oxygen and sleep.

My uncle, who was a World War II vet, used to tell me that he saw some terrible acts committed by the Allies and the Germans in Europe. He never justified them, other to say that these acts were almost impossible to understand as a civilian back in the US.

Without overstating the comparison, I came away from the film feeling that there was a similar ‘disconnect’ between the judgments made climbers and those of us here in the chattering classes.

I’ve been in some sketchy situations on mountains – but nothing that comes close to this.

  Chuck wrote @

One of the things I always appreciated about Hillary is that my childhood memory of the first ascent of Everest was that it was done by Tenzing and Hillary. Quite surprisingly, he did not report it as his own individual achievement.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Chuck, good point. This makes Hillary rather rare among explorers & climbers reporting “firsts.” He also deserves praise for speaking out against the commercialization of Everest which he viewed as exploitative and dangerous.

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