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When mountaineer/director David Breashears climbed Mount Everest last May to film a Nova special, “Everest — The Death Zone” (airing tomorrow at 8pm on PBS), the experience revived some difficult memories. A year earlier, he was on the peak when eight people died there in a single day. (That tragic climb was documented in the Jon Krakauer best-seller “Into Thin Air.”) “The events of 1996 were so terrible and unsettling that I really hadn’t been able to leave that mountain with any sort of resolution,” says Breashears, 41, who has climbed and filmed on the mountain four times since 1983. “I didn’t want that to be my last experience on Everest.”
Breashears, who makes his own mountain documentaries and worked as a cinematographer for such high-altitude Hollywood films as “Cliffhanger” and “Seven Years in Tibet,” returned to the mountain this time with a scientific purpose. He wanted to find out if thin air on the 29,000-foot summit affects a climber’s ability to make rational decisions. In fact, poor decision-making (staying too late on the summit before a blizzard) was a factor in the eight deaths.
“I’ve been extremely curious about high-altitiude physiology, and I wanted to come to a resolution about how my good friends and respected colleagues made such terrible mistakes,” says Breashears, who was on the mountain during the tragedy to shoot an IMAX film (which premieres on March 4 in Boston).
For tomorrow’s Nova special, Breashears filmed himself and two of his co-climbers undergoing a series of psychometric tests — such as repeating long sentences and solving spatial-relation logic puzzles — all the way from sea level to the summit. (At the top of Mount Everest, the oxygen level is just 35% of that at sea level)
“By the time we’re at the high camp, there’s a great slowing of the accuracy of our responses,” says Breashears, who is shown — exhausted, dehydrated and struggling for breath — wavering on his repetition tests and slurring his words. (The transcripts of these tests, and other dispatches and photos from the hike can be found on Nova’s website.)
Compounding the mental trials were physical ones. During the descent, co-climber David Carter, plagued by breathing trouble the entire way, nearly choked to death on fluid building in his lungs. “Life really hangs in the balance up there,” says Breashears. “One moment a man like David Carter has made the summit, and 15 hours later he’s fighting for his life.”
The latest climb, however, only increased Breashears’ amazement at the human ability to survive the perils of the mountain. “It’s great, the way climbing shows the incredible adaptability of the human species,” he says. “Physiologists say that if Everest was 500 feet higher, we might not be able to climb it. We have this peak on this planet that’s precisely at the limit of what a human being can do. I think that’s very romantic and exciting.”