Storm Over Everest

A Talk With Filmmaker David Breashears

photo of david breshears

For many, Jon Krakauer's 1997 best seller, Into Thin Air, came to define the story of the May 1996 tragedy on Everest. What made you want to go back to this event years later?

I had a deep conviction that the often-told story of the May 1996 tragedy could be more vivid, powerful and real with interviews from the survivors using motion picture and sound. So much of what happened that fateful year emanates from the stories of the survivors caught in the dark by that ferocious, fast-moving storm -- a storm that could be described with words, but whose power needed to be seen and heard in order to fully comprehend it.

I knew most of the storm's survivors that we would be interviewing, and I also knew them to be articulate, thoughtful individuals who had been profoundly affected by the storm and its aftermath. For me, to see and hear direct testimony from a person who has overcome such adversity, has survived such a difficult and stressful event, is very powerful. There is something so much more poignant about seeing a person's face and looking into their eyes and hearing their voice than just reading about them on a written page.

I also felt compelled to use 35 mm footage from an ascent of Everest in 2004 when I was working for Working Title Films on a feature film project that is currently in active development. I had led a team of talented and experienced filmmakers and mountaineers to the top of Everest on May 17, 2004, and felt a responsibility to them as well to show their hard work and risk taking was not futile.

Did you interview Krakauer for this film?

Early on, I made the decision to focus almost entirely on interviewing the individuals who were caught out in the storm that night, so it wasn't something we particularly pursued. Jon Krakauer is a good friend whom I have known since the late 1970s. I did not videotape an interview with him, but he was very cooperative and helpful during the production of the film.

In the climbing teams that you focused on, how many were you able to interview?

We interviewed seven people from Scott Fischer's climbing team and seven people from Rob Hall's team. Six members from each team appear in the film, made up of fellow climbers, guides and Sherpa. We also interviewed two people from the Taiwanese climbing team and one person from a team climbing Pumori a short distance from Everest, who was on the radio with Rob Hall and came to Everest Base Camp for the days following the storm. Only two of our interview requests were declined.

What did you learn in going back to this event years later?

I learned several things. I learned that I knew a lot less than I thought I did about the people who were caught in the storm that year. Before making the film, I had little knowledge of the climbers' reasons for going to Everest -- some of which surprised and astonished me -- and the reasons why some of them kept climbing that day and the reasons why some of them turned around.

What surprised me most was how wrong I had been about the Taiwanese climber, Makalu Gau, who had kept climbing after hearing the news of the death of his teammate Chen Yu-Nan; both were poised to reach the summit of Everest together. I also came to better understand what it must have been like for Rob Hall and Doug Hansen as they struggled to get down the Hillary Step and across the traverse to get to the South Summit in the dark in a pummeling blizzard with no oxygen left in their bottles at 28,750 feet.

Some say people test themselves in extreme situations to learn about themselves. Have you found this to be true? Is there that attraction for you as well -- testing yourself? Are you ever afraid of what you will find out?

What I have found to be true is how hard it is to know why people do the things they do. But what I do know is that the climbers found themselves in conditions causing extreme duress on the night of May 10, 1996; they were profoundly sleep-deprived, oxygen-starved and dehydrated while staggering around in the dark in a blizzard. In these conditions people are stripped of their ability to be anything but their true selves, and that is one of the undercurrents in the film. You find out if you're a person who gives help, asks for help, or just gives up and lies down to die.

I have always thrived on the tremendous challenges of filming at extreme altitude, and many times have found myself in rather difficult and trying situations. In those particular moments, sometimes I found out things I liked about myself and sometimes things I did not. But that is not what draws me to high mountains. For me, it is the idea of the rewards that come with preparing oneself over a long period of time to face great risks, challenges and hardship.

What was it like to be there at Camp Two the night of May 10? Did you wake the next morning with a feeling of dread -- or perhaps hopefulness that perhaps you'd learn Rob Hall had made it back to the South Col?

On the night of May 10, 1996, I had a profound feeling of dread and disbelief. These feelings were rooted in the death of the Taiwanese climber Chen Yu-Nan on the Lhotse Face. The day before, Chen had been injured at Camp Three and had later died suddenly amidst a group of Sherpa who were trying to bring him down the mountain to safety. But it had been up to Ed Viesturs and myself to bring Chen's lifeless body down to the bottom of the Lhotse Face [and] then into Camp Two, where we were met by other climbers. It had disturbed me considerably to grapple with Chen's dead body as we lowered him with a rope over a steep ice cliff.

The next day, now May 10, we knew many of the climbers had reached the summit of Everest much later than is normal and outside the window of safety. But most alarming was when we learned that Rob Hall and Doug Hansen had been on the summit unusually late at 4:30 in the afternoon. Soon after discovering that, we were informed by way of radio calls from Rob Hall that Doug had collapsed above the Hillary Step.

It was an extremely difficult situation that only worsened as the storm swept up the mountain, and all through the night we listened to the fearsome wind battering and punishing the mountain high above us. We were aware that many climbers had not returned to camp, and it was unthinkable to conceive they were outside, exposed to that vicious storm away from the shelter of their tents. A Sherpa woke me early in the morning requesting that I come to Rob Hall's communication tent. From the look in his eyes, I knew things were not good.

What are your thoughts on Everest's transformation over the years? In 1996, the year of the tragedy, 98 climbers summited; in 2007, more than 500 made it to the top. Some people say the mountain should be given a rest and a cleanup.

Everest has become a very crowed place during the spring climbing season. I was fortunate to first climb the mountain when I did on May 7, 1983. I was the 135th person to set foot atop that exalted summit. It had taken 30 years for that many people to climb Mt. Everest, and now it is 500 in a single season.

Looking back to 1983, it almost seems quaint. We had the entire south side of the mountain to ourselves, and not only did I know who my teammates were, but I also knew they had come to Everest with the careful preparation, experience and thorough training to climb it. I remember feeling much closer to the mountain then, more in tune with the experience.

Has the attitude of people attempting to climb Mount Everest changed compared to when you started going there in 1983?

I don't know how much the attitude of the people climbing the mountain has changed, in the sense that, like now, even then there was a combination of dreamers, purists and trophy hunters.

Certainly with the advent of commercial guiding, the type of person who can now expect to reach the summit of Everest has changed considerably. The system is in place that gives the impression that standing atop Everest is within the grasp of anyone, including those with rudimentary mountaineering skills and limited high-altitude experience. So much more is known about the route now, and the fixed ropes often reach the summit.

And there is that sometimes dangerous attitude and complacency that there is strength in numbers. More than 3,500 people have now summited Everest from all strata of society, including the young, old, male, female, highly experienced and some with limited to no high-altitude climbing experience. Everest's summit is no longer exclusively in the realm of the supposed elite; it has become what I call Everyman's Mountain. A natural evolution has occurred, a stance that exists now which is, "If that person who I can identify with more than I can identify with an elite mountaineer can climb it, then so can I."

What would be the criteria in deciding who can climb and who cannot?

One of the foundations of mountaineering is the premise "freedom of the hills." Climbers wish to be free from most rules and regulations when scrambling in the midst of great mountains. I'm not sure what the criteria should be in deciding who can and cannot climb or, for that matter, how we would police and enforce that criteria.

But I do feel that there should be the highest expectation that anyone attempting to climb Everest, or any great peak, should have sufficient high-altitude experience. Climbers should have the training -- but more importantly, the moral obligation -- to know they can look after themselves not only on a sunny, windless summit day, but also in the unforgiving fury of a dark and unexpected storm. The biggest reward isn't in just reaching the summit, but in the deep, personal satisfaction that you have brought the skills and experience to the task in a safe, disciplined, self-reliant and dignified manner.

Can you talk about how Everest still casts a spell -- and what that spell is -- for most people, and for you, personally?

The tug of Everest will probably never fade. I will understand the yearning of the 6,000th person to stand on the summit just as I understood my own yearning 25 years ago. Mount Everest holds a special place in our imagination, and much of that uniqueness is what we give to the mountain.

Climbing Everest says that you have done something extraordinary, that you have stepped outside the routines of ordinary life, endured hardship and accepted a great challenge. Standing on earth's highest peak, the romance of adventure and the glory of achievement is a way to feel separate and distinct from those around you. There is only one highest place on earth.

The irony is that now many mountaineers and spectators feel that climbing Everest is no longer remarkable or special, making the achievement less deserving to be admired. Yet people will always be drawn to Everest, cast by its spell, whatever that spell may be for them personally.

Can you talk about the making of the film -- what it took to recreate the storm? And what about the film's shots of Everest, the vistas and climbing route? What did it take to get them?

One of the more exciting and challenging parts of making this film was designing and shooting the storm recreations that we shot at Snowbird in Utah. Although we climbed Everest with a 35 mm camera while making this film, it was my fifth time to the summit following the same route as I had done before, so there wasn't much new in that experience for me personally.

I wanted the storm recreations to be as accurate as possible. I am proud because I feel as though we achieved that in this film. I had the advantage of 11 expeditions to Mt. Everest on my side. I have thoroughly experienced high winds, blowing snow and freezing conditions many times on Everest since I first traveled there in 1981. In 1983, I had descended from the summit and I was caught high on the mountain in the dark in a snowstorm. So I had a clear vision of what the mountain would have looked like and what 80-mile-per-hour winds would have felt like.

Another advantage was that we had 62 hours of videotaped interviews with the survivors of that storm, of which only a fraction appears in the film. In the remaining unused interviews there are hours and hours of direct testimony from the survivors recounting what it was like to be in that storm -- what it was like to feel the intense cold, shaking uncontrollably, their hands and feet going numb, their faces stinging and frozen by wind-driven ice and snow. We used the detailed interviews to make certain the storm was recreated as they had actually experienced it. We also put much of the remaining interviews on the FRONTLINE Web site.

To recreate the intense wind, we used two 6-foot diameter wind machines each powered by a 250-horsepower six-cylinder airplane engine. The wind machine could blow the wind at speeds of 75 to 80 miles per hour. Crew members shoveled ice and snow in front of the wind machines to emulate the blizzard. Neal Beidleman, one of Scott Fischer's guides in 1996, flew in from Aspen to assist us in recreating "the huddle." I could not imagine anyone more qualified to assist with the recreation of the storm and the huddle than Neal, as he experienced it firsthand in 1996.

Editor's Note: Watch video of the storm recreation.

The Hillary Step and the exposed traverse from the Hillary Step to the South Summit was constructed out of rock, snow and ice by Willie Benagas, an Argentinean climber who had summited Everest five times and knows precisely what that section of the route to the summit looks like.

We also returned from the second filming trip we took to Nepal in 2005 with tents, oxygen tanks, old fixed ropes, climbing gear and other items previously used on Everest. These props were used in the recreations and brought added authenticity to the scenes.

On the first night we were shooting in Snowbird, it was 10 degrees Fahrenheit, but with the wind machines blowing at 75 miles per hour, the wind chill factor was minus 21 degrees Fahrenheit. This meant the body doubles were extremely cold and wind-battered as they were positioned in the huddle, and this brought tremendous authenticity to the recreations. I had never shot a recreation before, and I was very pleased when some of the survivors from 1996 who screened Storm Over Everest commented that the storm scenes were disturbingly real. In fact, two of the climbers found it hard to watch.

For me, it was challenging to direct and design the recreations, but tremendously rewarding as well. I had the support of a talented and resourceful film team. And I had the benefit of always having Callie Taintor Wiser, the film's co-producer, by my side.

And importantly, we had control of the "storm." For the first time in 27 years of filming on Everest's often wind-battered slopes, I could turn to Callie and shout, "Turn off the wind."

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