David Breashears is among America’s best known mountaineers. He was the first American to climb Everest more than once. He is also a reputed film maker; he was the man behind the IMAX movie on Everest, which provided viewers a ringside experience of being on the peak. Several years before that, he had done the first live broadcast from Everest. Currently, David’s work largely revolves around Glacier Works, a non-profit organization he founded to spread awareness on the impact of climate change on Himalayan glaciers. His talk at the 2018 annual seminar of the Himalayan Club provided a snapshot of the work he was doing at Glacier Works. Among the visuals he showed were instances of old photographs shot by visitors to the Himalaya, replicated to the T after painfully locating the exact spot from where the original photograph was taken. Juxtapose new photograph on old; the story of glaciers melting and receding becomes clear. The same mountains, the same glaciers, the same valleys – then and now – the changes are striking. The newly shot images are technology-rich – they are panoramic and composed of multiple high resolution photographs. From the earlier generation of photographers – many of their works serve as archival material to compare contemporary images of glaciers with – David was particularly appreciative of the contribution of Italian photographer, Vittorio Sella, whose stunning pictures of the Himalaya are held in high esteem. In the age of 24×7 media and mountaineering under its glare, few can surpass David’s knowledge of media in adventure and the outdoors. Outrigger caught up with him for a brief chat on the sidelines of the 2018 Himalayan Club annual seminar. Excerpts:
Years ago you had pioneered live broadcast from the top of Everest. Now you are using rich digital imagery at Glacier Works to drive home the impact of climate change at altitude. Can you tell us whether your relation with media and technology has transformed over the years or does it continue unchanged?
First it was a physical and tangible relation to media through film. You loaded your camera; we had the IMAX camera, 65mm film on the top of Everest. You were in contact with the media. I embraced the digital world very, very quickly for a couple of reasons. First of all, I could get much more information, more data, many more images, less expensively. I don’t have to buy film, process it and have prints made. I also became more mobile because I didn’t have all this film and film is heavy. It is also very useful to be able to review your work when you work the way I do. I happen to be away for lengthy periods of time and you can’t come back and find that the camera was scratching all the film. These are the practical things. The digital world has also given me so much more potential for the story telling I want to do. For example with that big 3.8 billion pixel-image (reference here is to a panoramic image of the Everest region he showed at the seminar), people have found it a fascinating way to explore Everest. I still love film for some purposes. But I can’t imagine now going back into the field with 50 rolls of film. It was transformative.
How about the contrast between your earlier work and what you are doing now? Previously your films brought the experience of Everest into theatres and the homes of people. Now you are using your abilities to spread awareness about the impact of climate change on glaciers, which is conservation oriented. Is there something of your own experience transforming you that is visible in this altered relation with the media?
The film experience is very special whether you are sitting in front of your TV, computer or you are at a theatre – because you have not only imagery, you have sound, dialogue, music and effects. And these things are very powerful in creating an emotion. However, when it comes to climate change, we are acting like journalists. We don’t want to play music and such. The information has to present itself and stand on its own. The other thing is, I have become very fond of our exhibits. We have had exhibits going around the world. I myself like going to exhibits; I like the experience of being at exhibits and finding out what someone else finds curious. When you are seeing in a theatre, you don’t experience something with someone else. You are looking at a screen; you may laugh at a joke with a friend or a whole theatre may laugh together. But in an exhibit space, people can turn to each other and say: what do you think of that? Or you overhear conversations or sometimes, say I am at an art exhibition, if someone is standing for a long time in front of a photographic print or a painting, then I go and I want to look over their shoulder and find what they find interesting. So although I have moved away from conveying information through film, I am most satisfied with using this current all-digital imagery of Glacier Works in print form in an exhibit. I don’t want someone sitting at home staring at it on a computer. Of course, that is where it gets its biggest audience. But I am an exhibit guy now. Live broadcast from Everest, I am ex-film, I went into exhibits and I will go back to films. But what we are doing now is hard and takes a tremendous amount of discipline. I didn’t want to mix up the discipline of that still photography and a high level of execution and compromise it by saying, let’s do a lot of video. We are small teams and we are focused on what we are there to do – the photography. I still miss film making.
You have spent many years in mountaineering; you also spent many years in the media. Of late, there has been a lot of media in mountaineering. The late Tomas Humar’s climbs for instance, were sometimes occasion for live reportage on social media. Are you happy with how the media has contributed to mountaineering or would you prefer to have seen it contribute differently?
I think there is great danger in having access to information that hasn’t been properly curated; instant access to information and the competition out there – whether it is Twitter, Instagram or Facebook or any form of social media. And the fact that things come out so quickly on traditional news. This is a very slippery slope. You create this audience that is always hungry for information in almost real time. But I do think there is no going back. It is very addictive, this need for information instantly. However I would still sit down and read long form articles about something. I know that several months from now after Elisabeth Revol and others have told their stories (David is referring here to the January 2018 rescue on Nanga Parbat in which French climber Elisabeth Revol was brought to safety but Polish climber Tomasz Mackiewicz couldn’t be reached), I want to read this in a good piece of reporting because I don’t think I got the best information yet. Sometimes you got to really get in there and get a lot of information from people.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)