Nature prevails in Everest climbers' saga

Times Staff Writer

Best to wear warm clothing while watching Frontline's "Storm Over Everest," filmmaker/mountain climber David Breashears' account of the May 1996 blizzard that left five climbers dead. A thermos of hot tea might also help.

The story has been told before: climbers from three teams caught in the open by an unexpected storm of ferocious intensity, winds whip to 80 mph, temperatures drop to 30-degrees and more below zero.

Expeditions that had been about challenge and self-fulfillment become a desperate 48-hour attempt at retreat and survival. The goal is no longer the summit of the world's most celebrated mountain but the relative safety of base camp.

"Storm" is stitched together with Breashears' photography, dramatic re-creations and interviews with survivors. The result captures both the beauty and brutality of Everest and the climbers' determination to beat the odds and the weather.

Some of the climbers went snow-blind. Most shivered uncontrollably. Visibility was so poor that to lose physical contact with another climber was to risk being lost forever. Some climbers thought of others, some thought only of themselves. One of the best of the interview subjects is Beck Weathers, whose nose and hands bear witness to the blizzard's savagery.

"As time passes, each one of us becomes more and more absorbed in our own world," he says. "You can know the other individuals are there, but you're beginning to lose that sense of contact with them. Charlotte says, 'I don't care anymore. All I want to do is die.' And Sandy is about to become unglued."

Beck was twice left behind by other climbers, who assumed he was dead. He's written a book, "Left for Dead."

For the most part, the survivors tell their stories with a calm, studied demeanor, which has the effect of heightening the horror. One who puts some emotion into the mix is the Taiwanese climber Makalu Gau:

"If I had known the cost of climbing Mt. Everest . . . that it would cost my fingers, my nose, my toes, I would not have done it. . . . I carefully prepared for this climb. I was both physically and mentally ready. Unexpected things happened."

There's an attempt at moralizing in "Storm" that you either buy or don't. Weathers and Breashears suggest that how each individual reacted under such adversity -- some more nobly than others -- is a reflection of his or her character. The title of the documentary could just as well be "When Outdoor Hobbies Turn Deadly."

Breashears' photography is superb, and the re-creations are fine, but some of the other elements could use help. At nearly two hours, "Storm" could also have been trimmed.

Graphics might have helped viewers better understand the various locations of the climbers during their ordeal. The music works sometimes and is soppy at others. And a full-time narrator would have been good, maybe to provide more back story on these climbers. Who were they and how did they come to attempt Everest?

But quibbles aside, "Storm" is a story of incredible struggle.

"The mountain doesn't care whether we're here or not," Breashears said.



'Frontline: Storm Over Everest'

Where: KCET

When: 9 tonight

Rating: Not rated

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