The Angry Corrie 39: Nov-Dec 98

TAC 39 Index

Breashears Boot Hill - Equinox: Thin Air

(BBC2, 11/8/98)

reviewed by Perkin Warbeck

Climbing Mount Everest is as comparable with Munrobagging as lion-taming is with accountancy. But, since Everest and Munros both involve putting one foot in front of the other and admiring the view, hillwalkers do seem to be avid consumers of tales of the former. Thin Air was part of the estimable Equinox series, and its scientific component was the investigation of the physiological effects of high altitude.

Mount Everest's image seems to have changed. The comfortingly grainy photos of the past put a distance between the consumer and the climber. The old set-piece expeditions shot 35mm footage that distanced the viewer. Now we have bright high-contrast video - which, although of lower technical quality, has an immediacy. It's as if Jeremy Beadle is suddenly showing high jinks on the Earth's roof for a change. We see some of the 300 climbers from nine expeditions who infest Base Camp. We see huge queues building for the Hillary Step. Fortunately we don't see anyone cycle their child's bike up to a crevasse and fall in; or hit Chris Bonington in the face with a wedding bouquet. The famous 1953 route has effectively become a tourist route. Except that one in six dies. Probably not even Miami wastes its tourists quite so efficiently.

This film followed four climbers - Ed Viesturs, David Breashears, Jangbu Sherpa, and David Carter. Viesturs and Breashears seemed to be racking up Everest re-summiting records. Viesturs for example had four. I am aware of the debate in TAC38 on re-summiting, but I think returning to a different continent does allow him to count them all. The second multiple bagger, Breashears, was returning despite being on the hill in 1996 when eight died including the highly experienced guides Scott Fischer and Rob Hall. David Carter rather ominously announced, as he ploughed through the various Meccano sets bridging the icefall, that he had developed a "high-altitude cough". This sounded a bit routine at the time, but ended up nearly killing the poor sod.

The science boiled down to two measures of the effect of altitude. Oxygen saturation in the blood is 100% at sea level, and some lower value (20% for a Sherpa who gets choppered out off-screen) at altitude. Psychometric testing - more familiar as a method of rooting out psychos from job applicants - produced some of the film's best moments. The climbers had to judge a list of statements as true or false. Among those which caused trouble at altitude were "Bananas can be eaten", "Cobras are used for eating soup", and "Screwdrivers cause disease". For all the head-knowledge one has about the effects of altitude, the sight of these intelligent men stumbling over whether to eat a banana was most illuminating.

The four duly summited, having waited out the utterly bizarre queue for the Hillary Step in much the same way as one does the T-D Gap on Skye (or VD Gap as a friend recently described it). However, all this time Carter's cough had been deteriorating. Despite being able to sing like Tom Waits, he was clearly not enjoying himself. Ultimately, there was a stark piece of video filmed at Base Camp, where the expedition medic Howard Donner was roused in the middle of the night with the radio message "David is dying." Surmising from the recent history that the poor chap probably had some dislodged lump of his own respiratory tract stuck in his throat, the sawbones suggested the Heimlich Manoeuvre to clear it. There then followed one of those video cuts in the form of a jump, such that we don't know how long and how anxious was the wait before the message that "David appears to be breathing again."

The postscript to the expedition took place in the kind of ivory tower hospital that only seems to exist in the USA, where brain scans and all the other data are analysed at leisure. (Most hospitals in this country would have their MRI scanner too busy doing head injuries and stuff to have time to ponce about with climbers' cerebral shortcomings.) It seems that had the psychologists known the psychometric scores, they would have advised against the summit. Certainly they would not have suggested DIY or snake-handling of any kind. This appears to be the nub of Death Zone climbing. You've got to be pretty mad in the first place, and by the time your brain has been starved of oxygen for days you're completely incapable of weighing up any of the issues. It's amazing that the cull rate is only one in six. Further, in the case of Breashears, the MRI suggested that mild atrophy was now present permanently in his brain. (Mind you, they're now claiming that professional footballers may have this due to heading the ball. I wouldn't argue the case, but who's to say it's caused by heading rather than by innate stupidity?)

There were the usual clips one would expect of a film of this type: endless metres of fixed ropes - put up by unseen labourers; frozen bodies; the highest rubbish dump in the world at Camp IV - "tent poles, oxygen bottles, and the odd corpse." Oh, and some of the most stunning vistas imaginable, which, to the couch potato, may seem to make it all worth while. But there was little sense in which the participants seemed to be more than dimly aware of these as they struggled just to survive.

Interestingly, Breashears joined Tracy Edwards (round-the-world catamaran skipper) and that burly rowing guy with all the medals in saying "If you ever hear me say I want to do this again, shoot me." Both the others have subsequently recanted.

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