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David Breashears sitting in snow at altitude Interview with David Breashears
and Tony Kahn of The WORLD
May 13, 1997
Hear the interview via RealAudio at 14.4 | 28.8 | ISDN
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TK: To begin with David, can you tell us the latest about the fate of these climbers. We've heard that possibly as many as nine have died. Do you have any information?

DB: We have a fair amount of information because we have a radio link with another team directly to the north side of the mountain. Keep in mind that our teams are separated by 20 miles and a 4,000-foot wall of rock and ice.

TK: You are on the south side in other words?

DB: Yes. So we have a radio link via another team to a very reliable source. And over the past few days from their base camp and their advance base camp they've reported on the status of the missing climbers who of course, are dead. There is no surviving on the mountain if you haven't returned to the high camp. And as of today, by very reliable sources, three climbers from the Russian Republic of Khazakstan, three Khazak climbers, who set out from the high camp, who are presumed to have reached the summit have not returned, although one of their bodies has been sited approximately 100 yards from the high camp. So that climber attempting to return never made it back.

One Sherpa, who was a Nepalese, who set out for the summit, we don't know if he reached the summit, but he has fallen down the North Face off the route, 4,000 to 5,000 feet and the body has been sighted but we do not know if the body has been recovered. And then there was an Austrian, the fifth confirmed missing person who would now be dead, who was last seen very late climbing towards the summit by some climbers on their way down. So we know nothing as of today about the seven or nine number, that would be two additional or four additional to what we've heard. So that's all we can tell you. We know nothing about anything more than five confirmed missing and now dead climbers.

TK: Just to check. You said missing and therefore dead. Has there been a confirmation of the death of all of these people? Or is it just your assumption that in these circumstances if you're missing long enough you couldn't possibly survive?

DB: Yeah. It's not even an assumption, it's an absolute fact that anyone who has not returned to the high camp is dead. They would be out above 28,000 feet without oxygen now for four or five days in extremely high winds and temperatures of minus 40 at night. So there's not even any sort of a miracle, could any of these people have survived.

TK: Just to fill in that dreadful picture of how impossible it is to survive beyond a certain altitude; they call the altitude above about 25,000 feet the Death Zone, I gather, right?

DB: That's correct. I guess the simplest thing to say is that the body just isn't designed to function for more than a few hours or a few days at those elevations—that's above 25,000 feet—even in the best of conditions.

TK: I've heard the condition that you get into when there is very little oxygen at those high altitudes, is not unlike having a brain with carburetor trouble. That you just start to slow down, your judgment goes out the window, you can't make it for more than a few feet before lurching to a rest. Hypothermia sets in...

DB: Well you've got it all just about right. You're in an extremely hypoxic state, all of your organs of course including your brain are oxygen starved. As we've seen last year it can lead to very bad decision making. A lot of the testing we are doing up here on the mountain is specifically directed at the effects of hypoxia on the brain at altitudes of 21,000 feet, 24,000 feet, 26,000 feet and we are full of hope we can do it on the summit if the winds will abate. We are conducting psychometric tests to specifically gauge what you are talking about, which is how does one function with only 25-20% of the oxygen one breathes at sea level.

There's other factors which you've mentioned such as hypothermia—a tendency to become hypothermic is compounded by the lack of oxygen. Oxygen is fuel, fuel for your furnace to heat your body, and if you don't have it you are going to be cold as well as dehydrated. At those elevations on your way up you probably haven't had much of a meal in two or three days and you are also sleep deprived. Because anywhere from Camp III up—that's 24,000 feet—you don't get a restful night of sleep, maybe a few hours. And out at the high camp you don't sleep at all. You lay in your sleeping bag resting and then you have to wake up very early to melt ice for water and get dressed, etcetera. So up high you're dehydrated, you're undernourished, you're sleep deprived and you're oxygen starved and that sums it up.

TK: David, in addition to this individual tragedy here we have what seems to be looking like an alarming trend. It's been estimated that in the last year 30-50% of the people who have managed to make it to the top of Everest have died on the way down. What is it that they are not taking into account or what is it that they are just not prepared to deal with to cause such alarming figures?

DB: Well, I would have to do my math to corroborate that figure but I think it's pretty close, especially if you figure in that at least 50% of the people that just climbed it from the north died on the way down. I think that it's not a trend, it's just a spate of bad luck: people getting caught both times in conditions they should have been prepared for but obviously weren't. Last year we know that it was probably a very survivable storm if people hadn't been caught out so late in it. It's just a combination of summit fever and just plain bad decision making along with inexperience.

TK: David, you just mentioned summit fever and that is obviously not a condition that comes from low oxygen, it comes from other factors that may be economic or political or personal. People really wanting to get to the top because they have a personal drive or they have been sold on the idea. How qualified are a lot of the people who are going up? There are a lot of other teams that are preparing to do the same thing pretty soon.

DB: Well, there's a wide range of experience here. Peter Athans who is here with me and has climbed Everest four times and been here 12 times. I've been here 11 times and climbed the peak three times. Frankly, we're appalled with the condition and experience level of the people we see here. But you know, there's no gate here with a guard saying "let me check your identification and qualifications." If you have the will and the ambition and sometimes the money, I guess you have every right to be here—it's your own neck you're risking.

But I'd like to comment on the summit fever thing you just mentioned because that harkens back to the theme of our NOVA film. A lot of people do get summit fever and locked into this basically trance-like state in trying to reach the summit on the summit day and a lot of that has to do with the hypoxic state they're in, and that is what we are trying, in a small way, to investigate here. Because good rational sound people with families, with wives, with friends, make astonishingly bad decisions that cannot be explained through the drive to reach the summit alone. None of these people would risk their lives the same way at sea level with their brain saturated with oxygen. So the summit fever up here has a lot more to do with just wanting to reach the top, it has to do with the state of your brain up here.

TK: What kind of soul searching among the experienced climbers who you have been speaking with there as a result of these accidents. Are people reconsidering making their trip to the top if they are underway?

DB: Well it's not as devastating as last year. There is a distance from us. We are all concerned when anybody dies on the mountain. If you care for humanity you are concerned that someone has died. But we are a very cautious group over here. Some of us, like I mentioned, have more than 10 years' experience on this mountain. We're patient, we're fit. We know the good weather is going to come. We know the mistakes that can be made by rushing up just so you can get home earlier. We are a little bit older here, and we're a little bit wiser some of us, and we're patient.

TK: David, just one last question. You went there, you are there now, to do a NOVA basically on the effects of high altitudes. Has the tragedy of the past few days in any way deepened your understanding of what that phenomenon is, have there been some...? Well, basically that's the question. What kind of impact has this had on your understanding of the nature of the problem.

DB: Well, since we have not been able to conduct any tests on anybody that was on that side of the mountain and really evaluate when they left camp, what their health was, what their state of mind was, it hasn't been able to contribute to our program at all. Our research is going very well here. But it's only served to confirm in our minds that Everest is this great magnet, it's a symbol of achievement and accomplishment. And despite what happened last year, not a lot of lessons have been learned. People will continue to come here with great hopes and dreams and some of them will make it and some of them will die. And that's the nature of climbing on the highest mountain in the world.

Photo: Pete Athans

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