Lou Kasischke has a gentle voice and a kind face. When he talks about surviving the Mt. Everest tragedy of May 10, 1996, it’s with the introspection of someone who’s spent a dozen years sorting out the meaning of it all.
He was 400 vertical feet away from the summit when he decided to turn back. Others in his expedition kept going. Four of them died.
“I could have gone the short distance to the top, but I’d still be there,” he says softly.
The 65-year-old attorney no longer practices law and now lives mostly in Harbor Springs, in northern Michigan. He’s told his story many times to churches, schools and civic groups.
This week, Kasischke will share it again. He’ll be among the survivors featured Tuesday on “Storm Over Everest,” a PBS “Frontline” documentary by David Breashears about the ferocious blizzard that killed eight people on the world’s highest mountain.
A noted filmmaker and mountaineer, Breashears was in the middle of co directing and photographing the first IMAX movie about Everest when the storm hit. He and his crew were part of the effort to help the stranded climbers.
In 2004, Breashears made his fifth ascent to Everest’s summit to shoot footage for the “Frontline” project. Starting in 2005, he spent a year talking to survivors, accumulating 62 hours of interviews that he winnowed down to a two-hour film.
The film contains footage of the beauty and danger of the mountain and harrowing re-creations of the storm. But much of the time, it’s people talking, telling in remarkably intimate and gripping detail what it was like to be there.
The story of the mountain’s worst tragedy has been told several times before, most notably in Jon Krakauer’s acclaimed best-selling book, “Into Thin Air” (Krakauer was climbing that fateful day, on assignment from a magazine to write about the commercialization of Everest, but he isn’t part of the Breashears documentary).
“Storm Over Everest” isn’t an account that questions the skills or motivations of people who paid as much as $65,000 to join Everest expeditions. It doesn’t turn those involved into superheroes, either. Instead, Breashears shows the complexity and humanity of the climbers.
There are revealing moments, like Beck Weathers, who was left for dead, explaining that profound depression was his reason for climbing, because the physical exertion provided relief from thinking.
In a heartbreaking segment, a woman at the base camp, Helen Wilton, recalls helping patch through a phone call between expedition guide Rob Hall, who was trapped too high for rescue, and his pregnant wife back home in New Zealand. Wilton describes how she wept as the couple exchanged their last words.
“Every time I see that, I get a lump in my throat,” says Breashears.
From the outset, the climbers knew they had to reach the summit by a certain time in order to have a safer descent. It was slow going that day, and a fierce storm was about to move in swiftly.
In the film, Kasischke, who’d scaled the highest peaks on six of seven continents, recalls nearing the summit and looking at his watch with a sick feeling, knowing it was impossible to get there by the 1 p.m. turnaround.
“My heart was beating so hard. I felt like it was going to jump right out of my chest. I was almost shaking as I was struggling inside of myself with what am I going to do? Am I going to keep going because I’m so close, or am I going to turn around?”
Instead of going farther, Kasischke returned to what was called Camp Four. Buffeted by massive winds in his tent, terrified and lonely, he realized that he wanted to say good-bye to the people he loved. He didn’t want to die alone.
Later, when he made it to the safety of base camp, he cried as he never had before.
Talking from his home in Harbor Springs, Kasischke, who hasn’t seen the documentary yet, says it’s been “a process and a struggle, for that matter” to come to terms with the experience.
“I’d say the biggest change came from just my own internal struggle to understand on a deeper level what happened and why I did what I did and how I found myself there in the first place.”
When he got home to Michigan, he was asked to speak to all sorts of groups, but especially to young people. He found there was value to his story, because it connected to the everyday struggle to make good choices.
He also put a lot of work into writing his story, but he hasn’t published it. He says the process helped him understand how God’s will and the bond between him and his wife, Sandy, 64, guided his decision.
“This, for me, was a love story,” he says. “What I call the voice of the heart finally came through and I changed my mind and turned around. I see it as two people deeply in love. I was married 29 years at the time - 40 years now - but whose future life together was at risk because of my own selfishness and taking these extreme risks.”
These days, Kasischke does more moderate climbing, nothing high altitude. His latest quest is “to climb the most sacred mountains of the world ... I see it as a spiritual challenge, to pay my respects and say thanks,” he says. Last summer, he tackled Mt. Sinai in Egypt and Mt. Ararat in Turkey.
Years ago, Universal asked him to help on a film about the storm. He consulted with a screenwriter Mark Medoff, but the project stalled. He assumes it’s been through many other screenwriters by now.
“Quite frankly, I hope it never happens,” he says, envisioning a movie that focuses on action, not people.
Breashears says he learned so much about the people in his documentary, including Kasischke, whom he calls “one of the more wonderful characters” in the film.
“When thoughtful people get into such a desperate situation and understand how human they are, how vulnerable they are ... there’s no more artifice left,” says Breashears.
And there’s none about the mountain either. Everest “has sort of a grandeur,” says Breashears, “sitting there in the back, uncaring about what’s going on ...The mountain doesn’t care whether we’re there or not.”