Climber Recounts Tragedy in 'Storm Over Everest'

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Mountaineer and filmmaker David Breashears talks about his new IMAX documentary Storm Over Everest, which chronicles an unexpected and violent storm that hit Everest in May 1996 — now remembered as one of the mountain's worst tragedies.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. On May 10th, 1996, an unexpected and violent storm hit Mt. Everest when three teams of climbers were at or near the summit. Five climbers died in what's been described as Everest's worst disaster.

The story's been told before, but David Breashears has a unique perspective. The world famous climber and filmmaker was at base camp on Mt. Everest that day. Some of the people caught in the storm and some of those killed were close friends.

Ten years later, Breashears returned to the mountain to make a documentary called "Storm Over Everest." It airs tomorrow night as part of the PBS Frontline series.

If you're a climber, if you've climbed Mt. Everest, or if you want to know more about the tragedy, give us a call. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. The email address is talk@npr.org. And you can tell us your story on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

David Breashears has climbed to the top of Mt. Everest five times. He joins us now from member station WGBH in Boston. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. DAVID BREASHEARS (Mountaineer and Filmmaker, "Storm Over Everest"): I'm very happy to be here.

CONAN: And there've been so many charges about what happened that day and who was responsible for what, and you confess, yourself, at the beginning of your film that even as close as you were at base camp, you didn't understand what was going on a few thousand feet above you.

Mr. BREASHEARS: Yeah. Going back to May 10th, 1996, we were a little bit higher than base camp. We were at advanced base camp at 21,300 feet when that storm came in. And thinking back, I remember sitting in my tent and hearing this ferocious, just awful sounding wind, battering and pummeling the upper slopes of Everest, thousands of feet above me.

It was now dark. The snow was blowing hard, even in our camp. And I wondered, how can anybody survive that storm? Of course, five people didn't on the south side and three did not on the north side, but out of those moments, you start to form kind of an idea about people's actions, about what may or may not have happened. And that became something that I found - became very entrenched in my memory of those days and hours afterwards.

And when I started interviewing people for this film, 62 hours of videotape interviews, 40 minutes of which are in the film, I really had my ideas and preconceived notions about what had happened seriously challenged.

CONAN: You had fragmentary information. Even, again, as close as you were, from snatches of radio conversations, that sort of thing, and I guess from the accounts you heard from people when they came back down.

Mr. BREASHEARS: Yeah, we knew things were bad about six p.m. on the night, on the evening, late afternoon of May 10th. It was - radio calls were coming down from the south summit at 28,750 feet that Rob Hall, the leader of the Adventure Consultants Team, was unable to descend the Hillary Step with his client, Doug Hanson, who had collapsed, and Rob needed bottled oxygen.

And we did meet some of the survivors coming down the slopes of that mountain a couple of days later, but many of my opinions about that year, actually, and many of the public's opinions about that year were formed by what they read. And the media was very quick to assign blame and to assign roles to people on that mountain, either villain or hero, knowing nothing about them at all. And in a small way, I was a part of that myself.

CONAN: In what way?

Mr. BREASHEARS: Well, for instance, there was one climber, a fellow name Makalu Gau. He's, in my opinion, one of the stars of the film, highly animated, vivid, articulate storyteller. And Makalu Gau was - had been at camp three at 24,500 feet the day that his team was going to move up to the high camp with the other teams. And in the morning, his friend Chen, his fellow Taiwanese climbing teammate, got out of the tent, didn't put on his boots or his crampons or clip into the fixed rope, and he slipped and fell into a crevice. Miraculously, actually, his fall was stopped by this small crevice, and he didn't fall 2,000 feet to his death.

And Sherpas coming up the mountain that day found Chen in the crevice, threw down a rope, hauled him out and put him back in the tent. His leader, Makalu Gau, did not know that he was injured. Chen said, go ahead, climb with the other teams to the high camp, and I'll see you in a few hours.

Well, it turns out, Chen was injured. It must have been some sort of internal injury and he was slowly bleeding to death because soon it was apparent he had to be evacuated. And on the way down, during his evacuation, he died. And we were called to come out and bring down the body. And I came face-to-face with this man who hours earlier was alive and now was with us, dead, and I called up to Makalu Gau and said, your friend just died. And he said, thank you.

First of all, that was a courtesy, a formality, to him. He didn't believe it was true. Chen should be behind him on the ropes. And the next day, that night, he decided to climb on. And I thought he had been callous. He had left an injured climber that he knew was injured in the tent and wanted to climb for his own glory and the glory of Taiwan.

And, actually, he wanted to come down. His teammates said, what's the point? Chen is dead. He's here at advanced base camp. You're there. Do not diminish this man's death by making us go home with a failure. And so he climbed up the mountain to honor Chen's death, and all these years I thought he was callous and uncaring.

CONAN: At the end of the film or near the end of the film, Makalu Gau - it's astonishing, through the picture he is very animated as we see, and we vaguely become aware that his hands are terribly misshapen, and at the end of the film he says, "If I had known before I left to go to Everest that it would cost me my fingers and my toes and my nose, I would not have gone." But then he adds, "Now that I know the price, I accept it."

Mr. BREASHEARS: You know, he is a noble and dignified man. He has - you could be bitter. You know, he was a photo journalist. And what you're missing, also, Neal, when you see that film, is he lost both of his toes, all of his toes behind the ball of his foot, and yet he's pulled himself together and he's carried on as a photographer with really just, as you see in the film, stubs for fingers. And he's making a book called, "The Hundred Peaks of China."

And I can tell you, to be out in the mountains and handle and manipulate a still camera with gloves on and fingers is difficult. And how he does it is astonishing. But so may of those people in the film, those of us who interviewed them, came away with such a respect for them and knowing so much more than we did when we started out.

CONAN: Another of the survivors you interviewed was Beck Weathers who, in fact, turned out to have been left for dead twice. Here's what he had to say looking back.

Mr. BECK WEATHERS (Climber, Mt. Everest): Everybody always says that the definition of character is what you do when nobody's 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. And some individuals come out of that, I think, justly proud of their actions. Others would probably never want anybody to know.

I was fortunate. I got to be witness to those acts, the good ones, the bad ones. And the individuals that came through that, did well, that were selfless, I mean, every one of those people, every one of them, is to me a hero, even if nobody knows that.

CONAN: Climber Beck Weathers talking with David Breashears as part of his documentary, "Storm Over Everest." It airs tomorrow night on PBS as part of the Frontline series.

And let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. If you'd like to join us, email is talk@npr.org. And Casey's(ph) calling us. Casey's from Rapid City in South Dakota.

CASEY (Caller): Yeah, hi. It's a pleasure talking with you. I just really was interested in reading that book, "Into Thin Air," that Krakauer wrote. It was quite the story about him when he was up on the summit and left for dead with that, I believe, it was a Korean woman, wasn't it?

CONAN: Japanese, yes.

Mr. BREASHEARS: Japanese.

CASEY: Yeah, and ended up coming in later that night in camp and put him in the tent and then the tent blew away and - quite a survival story. How is he doing today?

Mr. BREASHEARS: Beck's actually doing quite well. First of all, he's just an exceptional person. He - when he stood up that year and walked back into camp and essentially saved himself, I think those of us on the IMAX film team think he saved our year. There was just something so wonderful in having the death count go from six down to five. But Beck is - he's working as a doctor in Dallas. He's carried on in his work, and more importantly, though, he's lost his right hand above the wrist. And most of his left hand, as he lay out there on the South Col through that terrible night. And - but he's become a pilot.

Incredibly, they fashioned the controls on a single-engine plane so that Beck can fly. His wife's not too happy about it. His wife, Peach, who was told, by the way, in a radio call that her husband was dead in 1996, thinks Beck should just stay home and not be out in the plane, but he's actually doing quite well.

CASEY: Wow, what an amazing, amazing man.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Casey.

CASEY: Yeah, thank you.

CONAN: Let's talk - this email from David. Excuse me, an email from a Joe. "How do you feel about Anatoli Boukreev's decision to descend quickly that day and not to stay with his group when he was a guide for that group? Also, is it your impression that the rival between Bob Hall's climbing company and Scott Fischer's climbing company clouded Scott's judgment that day? Climbers reported him being pretty wiped out close to the summit late in the day, yet he insisted on running up and tagging the top."

Mr. BREASHEARS: You know, some things just don't go away. And I think one reason that I would really want people to watch this film is to see that there's more than one prism through which to view this event that so mesmerized a lot of the Western world.

I don't know what Anatoli was thinking that day. I don't know what Scott told him. I don't know if I would have done that myself. It seems more appropriate for a guide to be with their clients on such a big mountain as Everest than down in the high camp waiting for them. It's hard to provide aid and assistance when you're - the people you're in charge of protecting or guiding to safety are up in a storm above you.

About the rivalry between Scott and...

CONAN: Before we finish with Anatoli, I mean, he had gone to the summit and come back earlier in the day. That night, though, when people were trapped outside, he left the tent and went out to look for them and brought two of them back.

Mr. BREASHEARS: That is a very, very good point, in that the reason many of the interviewees are alive to tell their story is partially because of Anatoli's heroic efforts that night. After having climbed Everest without bottled oxygen, he went out into that terrible night and first brought back a couple of people and then went back for the remainder of the people that could still move.

But I would also like to point out that at the time that people were slowly freezing to death in what's called "the huddle" - a quarter-mile from the high camp at 26,000 feet on the South Col, Anatoli was in his tent not knowing where they were. And it was because of Neal Beidleman, who was in the film and quite wonderful in the film, and his fellow climber, Klev Schoening, looking up and seeing the stars and seeing the outline of Everest that allowed them to make it back to the high camp and raise the alarm, that Anatoli was able to go out and then do all the hard, difficult work he did that night.

I have so much respect for his ability to do that, but I often think, in all fairness to everyone involved here, what was he doing in his tent, not knowing where everyone else was that night, in that storm?

CONAN: He was later killed in an avalanche, so we'll never know. We're talking with David Breashears about his film "Storm over Everest." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. This is Marcus, Marcus with us from Winthrop, in Washington.

MARCUS (Caller): Yes, sir. David, it is a pleasure to speak with you. I respect your even-handed nature and I have one question. Given that climbing Everest has evolved from something that was done by supermen in the '50s, 1953 to almost a tourist activity for anybody with 65,000 dollars - do you think that - would you be in a position to support banning the use of bottled oxygen on Everest to thin the hordes climbing the mountain back down to the supermen alone? Reduce the impacts on the mountain and also reduce these types of situations where we've got tourists climbing in Alpine areas where they basically have no business being?

Mr. BREASHEARS: You know, I think if we asked the now-deceased Sir Edmund Hillary how he felt about himself, he would say, I feel most of the time all too human. And there are very few supermen up on that mountain. Most of them are like me and anybody else in life. We have aspirations and desires and we try to prepare for them, especially if they lead us to the top of Mount Everest.

You know, there's a whole idea of being in the mountains and being on Mount Everest, or any great mountain, that's called "freedom of the hills." And I really am weary of any form of policing of activities in the mountains. And I don't think it can be done by saying people cannot use bottled oxygen. After all, Hillary and Tenzing and many who followed used bottled oxygen to get to the summit of that mountain.

It would have to be more of a community of people having an ethos that it's not so much standing on top that matters, it's having a craft and having had an apprenticeship and having done the hard work to gain the experience necessary to do something like climb Everest in a safe and self-reliant manner.

You know, the mountain isn't such a dangerous place as people make it out to be. What's dangerous is when ambition is not matched by experience.

CONAN: Marcus, thanks very much for the call.

MARCUS: Thank you.

CONAN: We'll talk more with David Breashears in a moment. Stay with us. Our phone number, if you'd like to join the conversation, is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Today we're talking with filmmaker and mountaineer David Breashears. He's climbed to the summit of Mount Everest five times. His new Frontline film, "Storm over Everest," about the 1996 tragedy there, airs tomorrow on PBS.

Of course, we want to hear from you. If you're a climber and if you've attempted Everest, tell us your story. 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org.

And you were talking just before the break, David, about ambitions. And it's clear that crowding did contribute - from your account and others, crowding on the mountain did contribute to the problem.

Mr. BREASHEARS: Yeah, I would say that that's true. I've never understood exactly why Rob and Scott joined forces that year, and then there were some delays in fixing the ropes, and certainly, there was what we call "the bottleneck" between the South Summit at 28,750 feet and the Hillary Step about 50 feet higher and across this rather daunting, knife-edged ridge to cross. It's just very hard, you know, when people are going up a mountain on a fixed rope and people are trying to come down a mountain on a fixed rope. Well, somebody has to unclip from the rope and move around that other person. It's bound to cause delays.

But I could also point out that last year, incredibly, in one season, in one climbing season in May, when people were on the north and south sides of Everest, the Tibetan side and the Nepalese side, 500 people climbed Everest. And if 500 reached the top, I can tell you that there were a lot more people active on the mountain. And so it seems like the guides and the Sherpas have found a way to cooperate with each other and move people up and down the mountain in a manner to avoid having a repeat of May 1996.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Eric, Eric with us from Flagstaff, Arizona.

ERIC (Caller): Hey, I wanted to echo what David was saying. I was on Mount Everest in 1998. I actually ran the base camp for Tom Whittaker, who was the first amputee at the summit, Mount Everest. He's a below-the-knee amputee and we had a private, non-profit expedition that was organized in order to help him get to the top. And he was successful that year. He actually talked with Dave Edwards at NPR from base camp that year.

But anyhow, what I wanted to say was I wanted to attest to the incredible bravery and professional aspects that the Sherpas bring to it. And David was just talking about this. They're truly amazing people. These guys, nearly all guys - there were some women in base camp but mainly all men who were incredibly dedicated. They, you know, rigged the ladders across the ice-flow every day. Made - for every, you know, Western climber and commercial climber who, you know, attempts the summit, there's a Sherpa who's climbed the same path five or six times to set up the advance camps. And they just do an amazing job. And I wondered if Dave could continue to elaborate on the work of the Sherpa and what wonderful, amazing people they are.

Mr. BREASHEARS: Well, where would any of us be who have that Everest feather in our cap without the broad shoulders and deep lungs and great spirit of the Sherpas? I mean, I've been particularly reliant on the Sherpas and their hard work.

I tell you, there's a couple of ways to feel humble at the base of that mountain. First of all, just looking at it and then hearing that wind in the spring or in the fall. But it's just to see individuals that can perform so much better than we can, and this is true of any top climber in the West. They cannot climb at high elevations without bottled oxygen like a Sherpa.

And we were there in 1996 with this 40-pound IMAX camera, and over and over again, I get accused, in a way, I mean, in a good way, of carrying that camera to the top. I didn't carry that camera to the top of Mount Everest. I didn't carry all of that film. Hardworking Sherpas did it, and for anyone out there listening to this broadcast, when you stand in a room and you meet someone who stood on top of Mount Everest, don't forget the broad shoulders of the Sherpas that they stood on to get there, who carried their oxygen, who put up their tents, who carried their sleeping bags. They make not only climbing the mountain possible, they make being there that much more pleasurable and rewarding.

ERIC: If Ang Jimbo(ph) is listening, I know Ang now lives in Boulder but he was the Sherpa on our trip and Tom Whitaker(ph) has freely said that he would not have been successful without Ang Jimbo's guidance. Tom, being below-the-knee amputee, travels slower and on the summit morning had to leave hours before even what was already an early - conventional early start.

And, you know, that's an extreme case but just to witness these guys carrying loads up, and also, just to mention, too, that in the last several years these Sherpa have been carrying loads back down in an effort to remove a lot of the detritus and equipment that has been left on the mountain in the early years of expedition. So they're doing a wonderful job of getting people to the top, but they're also bringing refuse back down, which is doing a great service to the highest mountain on Earth. And I'll hang up now and thanks again.

CONAN: All right, Eric, thanks very much for the call. David, you mentioned earlier that what people know about this story is largely what they read about this story, and I think the account most people have read the most is the book "Into Thin Air." Is your film in any way a corrective?

Mr. BREASHEARS: No, my film is complimentary to "Into Thin Air." Jon Krakauer is a very good friend of mine. We were both rock climbers in Boulder, Colorado in the late '70s and early '70s. That's a different story. And what I found when I sat down with 11 of the storm's survivors, Westerners and six of the Sherpas who were also in the storm, was I found out what people wanted to talk about. And what they wanted to talk about was why they were there, what it was like climbing up to the summit that day and what it was like descending in an exhausted state and into this unexpected storm that came just boiling up the mountain and caught everybody by surprise.

And then, of course, they wanted to talk about the storm and getting through it and their survival. There was - occasionally people would say this, you know, we talked about two storms. The storm on Everest and the media storm afterwards, which was not largely just generated by "Into Thin Air." There were headlines that I could read to you saying, you know, Everest kills fashion tourists, and this is days after people have died. They are talking about people they know little about. Most of all they don't know their intent and why they were there.

But you know why it's complimentary? Is because when you read Jon's riveting and wonderfully written book, you don't see the face of Charlotte Fox saying she just felt like dying, lying down to die in the huddle so the pain would go away. You don't see Sandy Hill, who was then Sandy Pittman, saying, I don't want to die, I don't want to die. Nor are you in that storm and nor can you feel and see and hear that wind, and so that's why they are complimentary and it's one reason our small team is very proud of the film, because not only did we let the interviewees tell the story that they wanted to tell and they are good storytellers, but we created a storm that they looked at and seen on the DVD and said, that's the storm we were in. It's agonizingly real.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Beth on the line. Beth is calling us from Liverpool, New York.

BETH (Caller): Hi, this is Beth.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

BETH: David, I love your movie, I loved the book, and I guess my comment was I'm a 47- year-old physician, got three kids who just got home from school and I climbed Cotopaxi in Ecuador about 12 years ago when my daughter, oldest, was eight months. And why the average person climbs. I have no aspiration to climb Everest but you know, the thing was back then and during those terrible times was what were those people doing on the mountain? Why were they there? And you're there to find that out about yourself and you're there to explore what you have inside you that will get you up this mountain that will achieve this goal.

CONAN: Beth, it's interesting. We got an email from guy who wrote, "With all the important topics that need to be addressed, why would you spend any time at all on mountain climbers who clearly have a death wish? No sane person climbs a mountain. Who cares?"

Mr. BREASHEARS: That's a very good point.

BETH: Cotopaxi is the only one that I was roped for, but it's all about achievement and what's inside you.

CONAN: You were about to say, David?

Mr. BREASHEARS: Well, in a way here we're talking about - I like the email because you know, it's a bit of the subtext of the film. Here's an activity, here's an event, here's an idea and people have such passionately different attitudes towards it. Some people think climbing is noble and heroic and uplifting. Other people think it is a complete and utter waste of time to go into harms way when there are more important tasks to be done in this planet which has so many problems.

And so the one thing is that the approach we had to this film was OK - your two listeners both have different opinions but you don't know what the people in the film were thinking, you don't know why they are there, and here's something I would say. Say you want to convey to someone that climbing up Everest is not a noble purpose, it's a waste of time. How does anyone know that the person climbing up Everest doesn't spend a lot of their time doing community service? Isn't involved in reading to poor young children? Isn't engaged in a lot of philanthropy on their own?

So if you watch the film, you just start to see that people are much more complicated and interesting and generally more knowable, in a way, through all those complications than we think they are.

CONAN: Or doing something as important as raising three children, like Beth.

Mr. BREASHEARS: Yeah. And I just want to back up right there.

BETH: Make sure they have a will before they accept taking care of a baby for two weeks.

CONAN: Beth, thanks very much.

Mr. BREASHEARS: I don't think Beth wants to go off and have an accident and leave her children behind. You know, people don't go to Everest to die. People don't go to Everest to get frostbite. People go there to - for whatever reasons, many - there are many reasons that are there, but I'm sure that one of them isn't that they may end up, you know, up there forever, or they may end up coming back with missing fingers and toes.

CONAN: Beth, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. We're talking with David Breashears. Again, his film "Storm Over Everest" airs on PBS as part of the Frontline series tomorrow night. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

And David Breashears was good enough to join us on the program a little while ago before Chinese climbers went to the top of Mount Everest with the Olympic torch. And David, I know you've been in touch with climbers on the mountain. Is there a report back on what happened, and is the mountain now open to climbers again?

Mr. BREASHEARS: Yes. The Chinese team actually had a very successful summit day on May 8th. Over 19 members of the torch team reached the summit. I think they were mostly Tibetan and there were some Han Chinese, including several women who reached the top at 9:20 a.m., after having been delayed by heavy snow that fell on the mountain on May 2nd.

The climbers on the south side - now let's remember that the north side is in Tibet. That's why that ascent with the torch is so controversial. The south side is in Nepal and the base camps don't communicate with each other nor can they be reached on foot. You can't move from one base camp to the other. The climbers on the south side, the Nepalese side, the route of the standard ascent, the first ascent, were required to stay in base camp from the end of April until May 10th. The Chinese had put tremendous pressure on the government of Nepal and they are able to do that because they send a lot of aid to Nepal and they have a long-term friendship.

They put a lot of pressure on them to get the climbers to remain in base camp. They confiscated most of their communication devices because they didn't want their ascent on the north side to be upstaged by a protest that was broadcast to the world on the south side, or even to be met on the summit by a team of Western climbers or Tibetan climbers carrying a Tibetan flag or a "Free Tibet" banner. As soon as the Chinese team reached the summit, within a day, that ban was lifted and I read today that the first teams fixing ropes had reached the South Col at 26,000 feet, so I would expect within a week or 10 days we'll be seeing ascents from the south side.

CONAN: And the window for climbing Everest is rather short, as I understand it. It's pretty much the month of May.

Mr. BREASHEARS: Yeah. Actually, that's quite a long period of time. I climbed to the summit - the second ascent on April 30th. That was very early in the year. My first ascent on Everest was May 7th. But typically now, because of the accuracy of the forecasting and sort of the knowledge of weather patterns, they are making their summit bids later and later in May. So let's say generally, now, from May 15th through the end of May, barring an early season snowfall, a heavy snow from the monsoon. That's the window and it's a long period of time, actually.

CONAN: David Breashears, thank you very much for being with us today. Appreciate it.

Mr. BREASHEARS: Thank you. I enjoyed it very much.

CONAN: David Breashears is a filmmaker and mountaineer who has climbed Everest five times. His Frontline film "Storm Over Everest," about the 1996 Mount Everest tragedy, airs tomorrow night as part of the Frontline series on PBS. He joined us today from the studios of member station WGBH in Boston. Be sure to stay tuned to NPR News for the latest on the earthquake damage in China. I'm Neal Conan. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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