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Out of Thin Air
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David Breashears

      . . . is a world-class filmmaker, adventurer and mountaineer who has combined these passions in remote locations throughout Tibet, China, Nepal, India, Pakistan, South America and East Africa. In addition to his IMAX film Everest, Mr. Breashears has worked on feature films including Seven Years in Tibet and Cliffhanger and the award wining documentary Red Flag over Tibet. He recent book, High Exposure, is a lyrical combination of self-discovery and exploration of the earth‚s unforgiving places.

Excerpts3:25 secs

      Climbing Mt. Everest or any of the world‚s great mountains should be an affirmation of life, not a death sentence according to David Breashears.  He is the world class mountaineer and multiple Emmy Award winning cinematographer who photographed, co-produced and co-directed the acclaimed IMAX large-format film Everest. He also worked on the feature films Seven Years in Tibet, Cliffhanger and the award-wining documentary Red Flag over Tibet.

      What turns a potentially glorious „moment of great clarityš into the kind of disaster which littered Mt. Everest with bodies in the deadly spring of 1996? Shakespeare called it tragedy. The Greeks called it hubris. David Breashears calls it a lack of respect for the mountain and an inability to grasp that true strength lies in humility. His teachers? Everest itself. The Sherpas whom he proclaims the true heroes of both Everest , the film, and Everest, the mountain. And Buddhists including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibet, now forced to live in exile along with millions of his people.

      Mr. Breashears is convinced there are vitally important lessons to learn climbing mountains, making movies or working on oil rigs. They all start with a willingness to humble oneself, to become an apprentice, to strive toward excellence. The goal is mastery and the masterpiece can be almost anything. For Mr. Breashears, it‚s been climbing mountains and making films.

      Everyone attempting to scale Everest faces the extreme cold, sleeplessness and hypoxia that results from breathing air with only 1/4 the oxygen available at sea level. David Breashears had an additional hurdle -- to be creative in the face of the almost robotic dullness which sets in. In 1996, after all, he had returned for a third time to the world‚s highest mountain to make an IMAX movie. The resulting film not only captured the immensity and wonder of a physical world almost without life, it also documented the now infamous circumstances which ended in death for experienced and novice climbers alike

      The film and its making also linked Mr. Breashears -- as it does the viewer -- to a quieter dimension of life, a spiritual place inhabited by people who co-exist with Everest and have no need to climb it except in service to others.  These are Sherpas and other Buddhists for whom Everest is part of life itself, not a goal to be achieved or an item to be checked off on a list of potential adventures.

      Many of the things David Breashears has learned in these pursuits are not obvious. For instance, what is a person‚s most critical ally in climbing the world‚s highest peaks? Good habits. Or try this one:  What constitutes success when one pits oneself against Mt. Everest? Most Westerners think it‚s reaching the summit. Nope. The finish line is at the bottom, arriving safely back at base camp

      Affirming life is Mr. Breashears‚ measure of success. Where does that affirmation and the strength that grows from it begin? In humility. Turns out, even mountaintop experiences share the same humble origins of all great lessons -- they begin within oneself and they end at the beginning.

Conversation 1

David Breashears describes for Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how superb mountains are for learning about human nature, especially one's own. Mr. Breashears describes the differences he sees between the vertical life and real life and his ethic of the mountain. He distinguishes between apprenticeships and finding one's moral compass and describes how both applied to him.

Conversation 2

David tells us how various nicknames (especially The Worm and The Kid) reflected parts of his life experience, then relates his apprenticeship experiences to learning the craft of film making and facing Mt. Everest. He explains why the concept of "masterpiece" is important to him. He distinguishes between being able to say you have climbed Everest (when led by a guide) from saying one is truly a climber. He comments on today‚s organized system which enables inexperienced people to scale Everest, reminding us that truly climbing Everest is about hardship and perseverance, not skill level. He gives graphic examples of how important habits are to scaling the world‚s really big mountains.

Conversation 3

From jet-stream winds to a lack of oxygen in the air, Mt. Everest presents climbers with unparalleled challenges, which Mr. Breashears details. He describes physiological studies he made when he returned to Mt. Everest in 1997 in an attempt to understand the disaster of 1996. Describing the robotic nature of much of mountain climbing, cinematographer Breashears describes how that challenges a creative person. He explains how radically different it is to shoot for IMAX, 16mm/35mm film or video. He reminds us that the real heroes of Everest are the Sherpas and tells us why. He recalls how Tenzing Norgay captured young David‚s imagination and describes how Sir Edmund Hillary taught a westerncentric world about generosity.

Conversation 4

Local people -- Sherpas -- do not share Westerners‚ drive to conquer Everest, according to Mr. Breashears.  He explains why he included women in his IMAX film, while thematically connecting viewers both to Tenzing Norgay and to Buddhism. Mr. Breashears describes the many ways he came to respect the Sherpas. He remembers the central role hubris played in the disaster of 1996, contrasting it to the strength in humility he has learned from Buddhists including His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The finish line on Everest, Mr. Breashears assures us, is not at the top but at the bottom. He tells us why successfully scaling Everest is not like winning a medal. He vividly contrasts the lifelessness of Everest to an Himalayan village. He talks about being the leader of the 1996 filming expedition, the disasters of that spring and how important the Sherpas were in helping him make the decisions under horrifying circumstances.

Conversation 5

A mountain is something that is alive and has moods, Mr. Breashears assures us in detail. He talks about the people with whom he was climbing in 1996, and expands on the idea that mountain climbers do not approach a mountain as a death sentence, but as an affirmation of life. He shares the wild mix of feelings he had about the disaster of 1996 and the part individuals played in those events. Mr. Breashears distinguishes between being a consummate mountaineer and being a good leader. He gives a glimpse into all the unknowns a mountain climber faces, leading to "moments of great clarity."

Conversation 6

The cinematographer in David Breashears describes why the IMAX format is so dramatically powerful to the viewer.

He also describes the part of the mountain climbing experience which even IMAX cannot provide. He speculates about if or when he will again feel the tug of Everest, wondering if the passion he has felt for it will return.


We found David‚s gift for sharing what really matters in scaling mountains and/or living a life very touching. We thank him for his generous spirit. We also appreciate that he was willing to exercise the discipline necessary to share both Everest and its life-lessons so vividly with the rest of us.

Related Links:
You can learn more at David Breashears' website.
His book High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places is published by Simon & Schuster.

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