Alive on Everest
9:30-10:00pm EDT May 22, 1997
CB: Connie Blaszczyk, NOVA Online Boston reporter
HD: Dr. Howard Donner, High ALtitude physiologist (Base Camp)
LC: Liesl Clark, NOVA Producer (Base Camp)
DB: David Breashears, climber, filmmaker
EV: Ed Viesturs, climber guiding David Carter
NOTE: Climbers have been undergoing physiological and psychometric tests.
The audio feed picks up towards the end of psychometric testing with David
Breashears on the summit of Everest.
__CB: Hello. Hi, is that Base Camp?
__LC: Yes it is.
__LC: We're getting a distorted voice back.
__CB: Hi, is that Liesl?
Liesl: Yes, it is.
Connie: Hi, Liesl, this is Connie Blaszczyk here at NOVA in Boston. I
know we're joining you at a very exciting moment. David Breashears is on the
summit? Is that right?
Liesl: Yes, he is. He's just on the radio and we're actually shooting
our film right now. If you guys can stand by we're just rolling. Stand
Connie: Will do. We're listening as they shoot footage on the summit of
Mount Everest—David Breashears is up there right now.
Dr. Howard Donner: Copy that. Here we go, David. Which house is smaller
if Jim's house is half again as big as Brian's?
David Breashears: Brian's house is smaller.
HD: That was one second.
Connie: What you're hearing right now is the voice of Dr. Howard Donner
who's at Base Camp and who's doing physiological testing with David Breashears
HD: Because he was working late, Jack left the dinner in his microwave
for Jim to heat up when he got home. Who was the dinner for?
DV: For Jim.
__HD: Two seconds.
__HD: Who did the microwave belong to?
__DB: It belonged to Jack.
__HD: That was also two seconds.
__: ... (inaudible) I'm sorry. ... (inaudible).
__:HD If Jane runs six miles in 54 minutes, how long does it take her to
run one mile?
__:DB Nine minutes. If you said six miles—could you repeat—I was
clicking you again, but I think my answer's right. You have to—when you
pause between questions like that, I call you up to see what you're up to.
__:HD All right, David. Just so you know. We just hooked into a live
audio broadcast, so here we go. If Jane runs six miles in 54 minutes, how long
does it take her to run one mile?
__DB: My first answer was correct. Nine.
__HD: If you see a picture with a diamond, a rectangle and a circle and a
circle is to the right of the rectangle and directly above the diamond, is the
rectangle right of the diamond?
__CB: If you're just joining us, we are listening right now to the
testing with Dr. Howard Donner is doing from Base Camp which is at 17,600 feet
with David Breashears who is currently at the summit right now.
__DB: (simultaneous conversation)— I was telling you please record my
first answer to your question because I heard you correctly with six and
fifty-four. Now, please go through the triangle question. I haven't heard it
__HD: Copy that David. Here goes. If you see a picture with a diamond,
a rectangle and a circle and the circle is to the right of the rectangle and
directly above the diamond, is the rectangle right of the diamond?
__HD: That was one second. Above the rectangle?
__HD: Two seconds. Left of the circle?
__HD: Also, two seconds. Excellent, David. That's it. That was both
memory for sentences and verbal cognizance. So, you let us know what you're up
for now, but we're done with the psychometric testing and that is incredible
that you're able to do that on the summit. Over.
__DB: Okay. ... (inaudible) We'll call you regarding the telephone
call. Thank you.
__CB: Excuse me, Dr. Donner?
__HD: Hi, Connie.
__CB: Hi. What was that that David just said?
__HD: As you probably realize you caught us at an extraordinary moment.
We never expected that this live audio broadcast would come at the very moment
that Breashears reached the summit. What we were doing up there is—we call
it psychometrics or neuro-psychiatric testing and we were asking him some
simple questions—some simple verbal puzzles and some simple sentences that he
had to memorize and repeat to determine whether or not his brain has been
affected at the summit of Everest off of oxygen.
Connie: He sounds like he's in incredible shape. His answers were very
__HD: Well, David Breashears, as are all of our climbers, are animals.
And, you know, most people get to the top of Everest and don't even realize
they're there. And Breashears is able to not only get to the top of Everest but
film sequences for us, as well as answer questions, as well as, you know,
perform physiologic testing.
So, we're quite amazed. And Connie I want to tell you one more time that
this is just extraordinary. We never—we never expected your broadcast to
coincide with our climbers getting to the summit, but David—we just found out
is still obviously on the summit and willing to talk to us right now.
Let me just tell you that David is the co-producer of this NOVA production
that we're doing on high altitude ... physiology and he has summited Everest an
extraordinary four times, which may not seem like that many times to some
listeners but this is unbelievable amount of times to have been on top of this
mountain, and he's spent twenty years here making films around Everest,
including an IMAX Film last year and, as I said, he's co-producing this
production, and he's standing on the summit right now. So, we're going to see
if we can catch him. Are you with me, Connie?
Connie: Okay. Let's go back to him.
Howard: David, this is Howard. Can you copy this, over?
David: Copy. ... (inaudible).
Howard: David, tell us. I know you're on the summit. Tell us where
you're standing and what it looks like. Tell us what's going on? Over.
David: I'm on the summit of Mount Everest, 29,028 feet and with David
Carter, Ed Viesturs, and Peter Athans. It's a beautiful clear day. But it's
very windy and cold..
Howard: Can you describe exactly what you're looking at and what the
scenery is like? What mountains are you looking at? Over.
David: ... (inaudible)...itŐs the heighest, greatest mountain climbing.
It's just the most incredible view
Howard: David, can you describe for us what your night was like? I know
you started climbing last night at 10:00 o'clock. What was it like?
David: Well, it was so bright, it was so moonlit ... (inaudible)
I got windy and cold. We just climbed up without head lamps. It was so—it was almost a full moon. It was cold and windy. And we were warm when
we were climbing.
Howard: WGBH are you still with us?
Connie: Yes, Dr. Donner. We copy. Please continue, yes.
Howard: Okay. We'll continue you this with David. Is that working for
Connie: Yes, we're having a bit of a problem understanding him, but
perhaps you can decipher later for us. I know that his time is crucial up
there, if we want to continue with him.
Howard: I'll have a hard question for you and that is: what's it like for
you to be climbing back in the same area that you were in last year? Is it
bringing up any kinds of emotion for you? Over.
David: Not really. All the bodies that were there last year were
covered, but unfortunately we did pass one body right on the fixed rope.
Knowing this we questioned my sanity and why we climb this mountain again
beacuse it is dangerous and cold.
Howard: David. Thank you so much. We're going to come back to you. I'm
wondering is Ed Viesturs available to talk to you? Over.
David: Yes. He's right here. And I've got to get moving because I'm
very cold at the moment.
Howard: David, thank you so much. And we're going to talk to Ed Viesturs
now and David, again, from everybody here. Everybody's jumping up and down.
And congratulations and you're an animal! And we'll talk to you soon.
David: Yes. I'm glad I did my duty to NOVA and to myself. I feel very
Howard: David, you're incredible! Congratulations and everybody here is
just wanting to hug you and kiss you and ... (inaudible) you. Over.
David: ... (inaudible).
Howard: All right. Connie—we're going to be talking now to Ed
Viesturs, who is a four times Everest summiter and he has climbed
Connie: Hello, David—Dr. Donner that is. Are you still there? It
seems as if, perhaps, we have lost our connection to Base Camp with Dr. Howard
Donner. We have lost connection with them we will try to reconnect with them
in just a minute.
In the meantime, we have on the line with us Dr. Tom Hornbein, who's in
Seattle. Dr. Hornbein climbed Mount Everest in 1963 and he's a professor of
Anesthesiology and Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Washington in
Seattle. He's been working with NOVA over the last few months on the
documentary and the Web site that's following these climbers.
Dr. Hornbein, thank you very much for joining us. Hello, do we have Dr.
Hornbein on the line? Okay. We hope that we have Dr. Hornbein who is in
Seattle. If you're just joining us, we have had extraordinary—extraordinary
moments here listening to David Breashears, one of the lead members of our
expedition team who are on Everest and he has reached the summit. He—even
though it was hard to understand him he sounds ecstatic, and he also was
amazingly mentally acute and did very well on the psychometric testing that
Howard Donner was doing with him.
We were going to go to Ed Viesturs, who is another very experienced
climber who, I guess, is also there on the summit. So, the strong team members
have made the summit, and the timing is extraordinary that we were able to plan
this broadcast at that very moment. The winds are very high there on the
mountain, so it's crucial that they don't spend too much time there. It's
quite cold up there. We don't have word quite yet as to the location of the
other members of the expedition but we hope to find out about that in just a
minute and I believe that we do have Everest now.
We're going back now to Base Camp with Dr. Howard Donner. Stand
Dr. Donner, are you there?
Liesl: Hi, this is Liesl Clark, I'm handing it over to Dr. Donner and we
are just getting Ed Viesturs on the radio. Stand by.
Connie: Thank you. Hi, Dr. Donner?
Howard: Hi, Connie.
Howard: I'm sorry we lost you but I think we're back for now. We have Ed
Viesturs just coming up in one moment. How much of Ed Viesturs did you
Connie: We didn't get anything. So, we just lost our connection just as
we were going to him.
Howard: All right. Ed currently is obtaining his own data, including
both a respiratory rate and something called arterial-oxygen saturation which
is a way that we can measure the oxygen in his blood on the summit. Just
quickly ... about Ed because he's almost ready to come back on. He's been up
Everest four times, this morning makes his fifth summit. He's gone up there
twice without oxygen and last year he climbed it with Dave Breashears for the
IMAX film that's coming out in about a year. And in just probably 15 or 20
seconds we'll be on the radio with him talking to him about what it's like to
be on top of Everest for the fifth time.
Connie: Incredible. Now, he was also guiding David Carter up there,
__HD: Yes, and David Carter is up there with him now and in just a moment
after we finish talking with Viesturs, we'll hopefully be talking with Carter
and find out what it's like for him. So here we go, Connie. What's happening
now is I need to get some very important data from Ed. We will let you listen
in on this, but it's going to be a little bit of static gathering for about one
Connie: Okay. Great.
__HD: What's the status?
__LC: He's sitting in (inaudible) square right now?
__HD: Is Carter around.
__LC: Let me try to get him.
__HD: Okay. Connie, Carter—David Carter—I know, David Carter is the
person climbing with Ed and I'm going to see if I can get him on the radio
while Ed is obtaining his physiologic data. So, here we go, we're going to
call David Carter right now. David Carter this is Base Camp do you
HD: Dave Carter this is Base Camp do you copy? Over?
Connie: We're hoping to hear from David Carter who is currently on the
__HD: Connie it sounds like we're getting some response. If you'll be
patient we'll see if this is David Carter or Ed Viesturs getting back to
Connie: That's fine. If you're tuning in, please understand.
__HD: David Carter or Ed Viesturs do you copy? Over.
Connie: These climbers are under extreme conditions right now.
__HD: Connie for the next minute it looks like it might be you and I.
Are there any—oh, there we go. We've got Ed back, finally.
__HD: Ed, I copy. Your pulse-ox is 43 and 69 pulse. How long have you
been off oxygen, Ed? Over.
Ed Viesturs: Oh, about a half an hour.
__HD: Ed, you're climbing this trip with oxygen. I know you've summited
on Everest twice now without oxygen. What's it feel like to be climbing on
Ed: Well, to tell you the truth, I guess it was a little easier, but
the fact that I have to carry the oxygen made it a little bit more cumbersome.
So personally I like climbing better without. I feel more ... (inaudible)
Even though I'm workiong grossly harder, I like the fact that I'm not carrying
anything on my back.
__: I'm wondering, Ed. In terms of your well-being and your ability to
concentrate, what's the difference between climbing on and off of oxygen?
Ed: I think as far as my mental acuity, for me, I think it's about the
same. But when I am guiding I want to be using oxygen and that's why I used oxygen
this time. But I feel whether climbing or not, that I do have a lot of my mental
acuity I don't feel out of it, and so I don't know if there's a big difference.
__: All right. Hey, Ed. How was it for you today? What's it feel like
to be on the summit for the remarkable fifth time? Over.
Ed: It's great to be up here one more time—for the fifth time. Believe
it or not, I think it's more satisfying to complete this—
__Ed: And we really got a break in the weather today. Right now the wind
has died, it's beautiful, so it's great to be up for the fifth
time alongside David Breashears again. But again, it's quite a sight. Very
__HD: You broke up a little bit at the end, but we got that the weather
is improving that the wind is dying. People here are incredibly proud of you,
even though it's your fifth time and congratulations. We're going to check
back in now with live audio, so if you could just stand by, Ed. And thank you
so much for talking to us. Connie, WGBH, are you still with us? Over.
Connie: We certainly are, Dr. Donner, and it is incredibly exciting. Are
we going to go to David Carter do you think.
__HD: We are going to try to talk to David Carter and as you can tell,
it's hit and miss and if we can find him we'll get him on with you.
Connie: Dr. Donner, can you please—if you can reinstate a few of the
things that Ed Viesturs was telling us, because he was breaking up quite a bit.
What was he saying the conditions are like up there and—
Howard: What he said was that it was a remarkable night climbing and that
the weather was pretty good and when they first got up there this morning I
know from David that the winds were 30 to 40 knots on the summit.
However, Ed said that the winds have been dying while they've been up
there but nonetheless, they are beginning to get very cold. I know the
temperatures this morning were 35 below zero and the sun is just coming up
here, and so the air is extremely cold and here we go now with Carter, it
sounds like on the radio. So, Connie if you'll be patient for a moment we'll
see if we can get him on.
LC: David, I copy. You're going to call us in 45 minutes to a half hour.
HD: Connie we're just talking with David Breashears and we're determining
what his plan is. It sounds like he's moving off the summit and we're going to
be still trying to get ahold of Dave Carter who should still be on the summit.
Connie, we just got word that both Dave Carter and Ed Viesturs are heading off
the summit. Apparently they're both getting very cold, so they're moving
We're going to try to see if there are any climbers that we can talk with
and again I'm going to ask you to be patient for about 15 seconds while we see
if there's anyone that's able to still talk. I guess the temperature extremes
up there are prohibiting them from just hanging out and talking with us. So,
please stand by.
Connie: Okay. We will do that. We are here at NOVA in Boston. Go
__HD: Connie, it sounds like that's it. They're moving off the summit.
They're all really cold and really tired. They made an incredibly fast ascent
this morning. It's very typical for climbers to get to the summit of Everest
anywhere from about 11:00 o'clock in the morning anywhere up to as happened
last year—maybe 4:00 o'clock in the afternoon. These guys were on the summit
at what time? They were on the summit at 6:50, which is actually—I'm sure
that it's been done before but I've actually never heard of a summit at 6:50 on
So, they're very tired, they moved very quickly. It's very cold because
the sun is still very low. So, they're just moving off the summit for
Connie: Dr. Donner do we have any sense of where Pete Athans is, another
member of the expedition?
Howard: Where's Peter Athens, Liesl?
Liesl: We've been trying to reach him and—we've been trying to reach
him and we believe that he too is on the summit but I think they're all making
a hasty retreat at this point to try to get out of the winds and get down to
the South summit where we can conduct some more pyschometric tests.
Connie: Dr. Donner, let me ask—
HD: Did you get that, Connie.
Connie: Let me ask you, given the fact that they got up there so
incredibly early and their responses in the psychometric testing—how do you
evaluate just at this point how they're doing?
__HD: Well, you know, at this point the information is coming in faster
than I can process it, but based on what I heard they're doing remarkably well.
I mean, they're standing on the highest spot on earth, they have their oxygen
masks off, and I don't think it takes a specialist in psychometric testing to
determine that David and Ed both, you know, sounded very intact and very lucid
and I was quite surprised actually, but again we have a lot of data and we need
to process this probably at a later point.
Connie: Right. I understand that David Breashears was actually sick
earlier today. Did you have word on that?
__HD: Yes. You know, I don't have much more information than you do. He
mentioned that for whatever reason on his way up to the summit, he felt quite
ill and actually threw up a few times which is really incapacitating when
you're climbing to have to stop and get sick. So, he was quite—I think he
had quite a hard climb and quite a hard night, but whether that's the effect of
just exhaustion or the efffect of some malnutrition or dehydration or whether
it's an altitude effect. At this point I really don't know. Or, of course,
being in Nepal, as you might imagine—people get sick sometimes just from some
of the bugs that can get into the water or the food up here.
Connie: Dr. Donner can you please tell us, do you have any sense of what
was—at what point did they make that decision to head for the summit and what
the conditions were like at that point so that they decided to do that?
__HD: Well, it's an amazing thing. Oftentimes, people don't realize that
when people head for the summit on this mountain, they leave very, very early
in the evening relatively speaking. Often climbers leave at 10:00 or 11:00
p.m. at night to make the summit the next day at 12:00 noon.
Well, the truth is that last night around 10:00 o'clock or so the climbers
were really vacillating about whether to make the summit attempt, and their
main reason for that was that this year there are an extraordinary amount of
people on the mountain. I can't tell you how many. Maybe between—somewhere
between 25 and 45 or 50 people attempting the summit, and again that's
The problem on Everest is that there are incredible bottlenecks that can
occur going up to the summit and coming down from the summit, and there's some
real problems—potential problems getting strung out on the mountain waiting
for groups of people to either move up or down through some of these bottleneck
areas. Well, if you're standing just basically twiddling your thumbs and
you're at 28,000 feet and you're standing in one spot for 30 or 40 minutes
waiting for a group of people to go up or down a fixed rope, that's not good at
And the climbers were very, very concerned that they might be putting
themselves into a very dangerous position by climbing with these hordes of
people and I have to say that most of the climbers that we're talking about are
not as experienced as the climbers on our team who can move very quickly. And
so there was some real problems trying to decide whether this was going to be
smart or not, and I think at the last minute they decided that they would just
blast for the summit very early in the morning knowing that they are very
strong, and their strategy paid off. They just left extremely early—about
10:00 or 11:00 o'clock last night. They moved very quickly and they were able
to beat the hordes up to the summit.
Now, I have to say that they're not completely out of the woods yet.
They're still standing on top of the highest spot on earth, and you know
everyone congratulates them and everybody's happy and elated and they're not
jumping into a hot tub now. They have to get off the mountain and they're
going to be spending the rest of the day moving down the mountain through very
terrain, and bypassing lots of other climbers that are coming up over very
narrow ridges where there are lots of potential hazards.
And to make matters worse, you know, I'm going to be torturing them with
psychometric or neuropsychiatric testing, meaning we're going to continue
testing their brains and continue testing their cardiovascular system or some
other kinds of physiologic data.
So, they're really being pressed right now. They're tired, they're spent
and they're going to just be moving down the mountain best they can and
probably meeting hordes of people coming up and at 40 or 50 minutes intervals
we'll be torturing them with our tests, Connie.
Connie: Dr. Donner, can you please tell us what will be the most crucial
parts of their descent down and approximately when will that be taking place,
not really knowing what pace they're moving, but of the time frame if we can
make one here?
__HD: Well, it typically takes climbers about—a normal climber they
average about 10 to 12 hours to get from Camp IV, which is their high camp up
to the summit. The descent is typically much faster. The real technical parts
of the descent are towards the top where the ridge is extremely narrow and they
have to move down a small technical section called the Hillary Step. That is
an area where there are usually ropes that are fixed and you're dependent on
climbing or rapelling down a fixed rope. They're worried that there would be
climbers coming up and they would be essentially stuck on top of the Hillary
So, fortunately, one of the climbers has brought another rope and they're
hoping that if it's really bottlenecked, they'll be able to rapel down around
the climbers coming up. So in other words there will be a rope with climbers
coming up and another rope that they'll put up with climbers going down.
Typically, to answer your question in a round about way, it usually takes
them about five hours to get from the summit back to their high camp which is
Camp IV which is on a place called the South Col which is at 26,000 feet. And
keep in mind not only are they cold but they haven't eaten anything and
probably won't until they get back to their high camp.
Connie: When do you expect to see them at Base Camp at 17,600
Howard: Well, that's going to depend on their energy. They'll probably
spend tonight at Camp IV and then tomorrow they'll probably go down to Camp II
and just bypass Camp III, and they're going to continue filming for this NOVA
project and then the day after that they'll finally come back down to Base Camp
So, to summarize, tonight they'll be at Camp IV, tomorrow night they'll be
at Camp II and the night after that, back at Base Camp where we are at
Connie: Dr. Donner this has been great, but before we sign off, we just
want to get a sense if you know where the rest of the party is, the people that
we didn't hear about?
__HD: Well, we talked with Ed Viesturs and we talked with Dave Breashears
and we know that David Carter is with Ed Viesturs heading down. David Carter
is an incredible person and a great climber. He's not in the same league with
these other guys who are some of the finest climbers in North America
certainly. This was Carter's first summit on Everest, although he attempted it
last year—I'm sorry in 1991. And I know that he was incredibly fatigued. He
was making great time with these world class climbers and just didn't have the
breath left to talk to us.
So, he's with Ed and he stays (?)— Pete Athans, Liesl Clark told you
about and is there anybody else that you're interested in? Dave Carter and
Daka (?) the other two climbers we know—and Tashi, Tensi and our own Sherpa,
Jangbu, we know made it to the summit and we know that all of them are safe.
Unfortunately, we just couldn't establish a communication link with them at the
Connie: I thought it was interesting that Ed Viesturs commented that the
oxygen that he's using for the first time to get to the summit was rather
cumbersome for him. How much does it actually weigh, what he's
__HD: With the regulator and the tank, I believe it's about 15 pounds
total. I don't want you to quote me on that one, although I know I'm being
quoted as I speak, but they're fairly—they're fairly lightweight. But yet
any little amount of weight in your backpack as you're approaching the summit
is really an incredible burden and oftentimes they don't just carry one bottle
but they carry two to three bottles at a time.
And oftentimes, guides will carry an extra bottle for their clients if
they are guiding. Well, you know, there can be quite a bit of weight in extra
oxygen. The thing about Viesturs that's different you need to understand is
that he is extraordinary. I mean, he is no ordinary human. And when he stands
on the summit and says, "Yeah. You know, I think I prefer climbing without
oxygen," I think that that's an incredible rarity and I think he's one of the
few climbers on earth, at least that I've come in contact with, that feel as
comfortable off of oxygen as on oxygen, so that is not the norm.
He has some amazing ability to grab oxygen and that would be a very ...
(inaudible) discussion as to how he's able to do it.
Connie: It is incredible the performance of all of these people. Is the
oxygen going to help keep them warm, that supplemental oxygen?
__HD: Good question. Absolutely. And it's an interesting thing but
talking with people on and off of oxygen or talking with climbers at high
altitude in general, they will always tell you that they have a feeling of
inner chill and cold and that they get cold much more readily than they would
on a similar peak in similar temperatures at lower altitudes.
So, yes breathing oxygen does help keep the inner fires burning, as you
will, and keeps climbers much warmer.
Connie: Dr. Donner, we're going to let you get back to the business at
hand and to continuing the filming there at Base Camp. Thank you so much for
your expertise. This has been an extraordinary moment for all of us here. And
obviously we give many thanks to all of the climbers and congratulate them and
wish them the best of luck getting down the mountain and for our listeners you
can continue to follow the progress of the climbers on-line at
www.pbs.org/nova. This is Connie Blaszczyk signing off for NOVA Boston and
thank you for joining us.
END OF EVENT
(back to audio)
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