By Tyler Allen Explore Big Sky Senior Editor
BIG SKY – David Breashears, an accomplished mountaineer and filmmaker, spoke about death, decision-making and success on Mount Everest during a presentation in Big Sky Resort’s Missouri Ballroom on Feb. 14.
The first American to twice reach the summit of the “roof of the world,” Breashears in 1996 also co-produced and co-directed the first IMAX film shot on Everest, the world’s highest mountain. That was the same year a vicious storm claimed the lives of eight climbers, chronicled in John Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air.”
Breashears’ multimedia presentation “Everest: Into the Death Zone” was part of the 30th annual National Conference on Wilderness and Travel Medicine hosted at Big Sky Resort. The packed house witnessed a digital flyover from Everest’s base camp and up the Khumbu glacier to the summit of the massive peak, thanks to 577 still images stitched together.
Breashears described the “escalation of commitment” climbers experience seeking dangerous summits such as Everest, and the narrative of going too far, getting too hungry, and becoming too cold.
“Ego really gets in the way when you have 400 feet to go [from the summit],” he said. “Those last 400 feet on Everest can kill you … Some of the guides [in 1996] wanted people that would just follow them up the mountain.”
The American IMAX team played a critical role in the rescue of climber Beck Weathers, a client of New Zealand guide Rob Hall who had left him at 27,000 feet to attempt the summit with another client. Hall never returned and Weathers became disoriented in the storm during the descent with another guide. He was left for dead, but stumbled into camp four to the shock of the climbers there.
“The dead guy just walked into camp,” Breashears told the silent Missouri Ballroom crowd. His team then helped orchestrate Weathers’ airlift from 19,800 feet, at that point the highest helicopter rescue ever recorded.
Breashears hauntingly described talking to his friend Rob Hall over the radio before his death. Hall was marooned in the storm high on the mountain when a team of Sherpas attempted to rescue him before inclement weather forced them to turn about 300 feet below Hall.
“[Everest is a] very dangerous place at times,” Breashears said. “It’s also a very beautiful place at times.”
When the weather cleared that season, Breashears sat his film team down and told them, “We’re going back up.” He explained that the documentary gave them a reason to attempt the summit despite the tragedy.
They hauled the 42-pound camera – and 72-pound tripod – up the mountain, and the resulting film “Everest” ended up grossing $128 million worldwide.
“The camera gave us a reason to stick together,” Breashears said.
The silent crowd erupted with a standing ovation as Breashears closed his presentation and walked from the podium.