As I write this, 54 days have passed since I stood on top of Everest, and there hasn’t been more than an hour or two on any given day in which the loss of my companions hasn’t monopolized my thoughts. Not even in sleep is there respite: Imagery from the climb and its sad aftermath permeates my dreams.
—Jon Krakauer, “Into Thin Air,” Outside Magazine September 1996
Everybody says that the definition of character is what you do when nobody’s looking. And when we were up there, you didn’t think that anybody was looking, so everybody did pretty much what their inner person, the real them, the exposed them, would do, and some individuals come out of that, I think, justly proud of their actions and others would probably would never want anybody to know.
“I spent most of my adult life in profound depression,” confesses Beck Weathers at the start of Storm Over Everest. “And I John Wayned it, so I never let anybody know about it. And I discovered that if you drove your body hard, you couldn’t think. The lack of thinking as you punished your body and drove yourself was amazingly pleasant.” As Weathers recalls his former self, you notice something slightly unusual about his face. As he appears repeatedly in the film, you eventually come to understand: he’s missing the tip of his nose.
Beck Weathers is one of the more unlikely survivors of a fast-moving storm that overtook three climbing teams on Mt. Everest on 11 May 1996. David Breashears’ documentary, premiering 13 May on PBS’ Frontline, revisits the ordeal through interviews with Weathers and others, reenactments, and philosophical observations by the filmmaker, who has himself summited Everest five times over 25 years. As his movie begins, Breashears comes into view on a grassy slope, well below the peak at 29,029 feet. A member of a team (he was climbing with an IMAX film crew that day), Breashears is here Set against the blue sky and poignant soundtrack, he says, “I shared their energy, optimism, and desire, all those hopes, all those dreams. But most of all, I remember the climbers and friends caught in that storm. This is their story.”
It is and it isn’t. As previous accounts of the “1996 disaster” have indicated, there is no single story about what happened that day (these accounts include Jon Krakauer’s celebrated book, Into Thin Air, an account of his own experience of the climb as well as the surprising storm and desperate descent). As Storm Over Everest shows, it’s impossible to know any single story of the disaster in 1996, to know exactly how it was for the 15 climbers who perished or even for those who survived. It’s also true that each climber had a different experience on that day, that each made his or her decisions based on dissimilar levels of experience and nescience, panic and courage. Because of these unknowable aspects of “their story,” the 1996 event has been used toward different ends, to challenge the commercialization of Everest as a very expensive climbing adventure for amateurs, as well as the ethics of climbing more generally.
The film doesn’t engage either of these questions directly, though Weathers comments, somewhat abstractly, that “some individuals” can be “justly proud of their actions and others would probably would never want anybody to know.” Most of the interviewees keep focused on their own memories and lack of same, as the lack of oxygen, stormy conditions, and sheer exhaustion caused them to lose their bearings (to the point that they were unable to tell where they were in relation to each other and to the Base Camps they were seeking so urgently). That Weathers was unconscious and left for dead twice (“I think there was something about me that had an air of death,” he says while describing the second time) lends him a strange sort of authority (he woke and made his way to camp alone, recalling here that he pursued the image of his wife and children before him, suggests another sort of authority). That and the fact that, like fellow survivor Makalu Gau, he reveals he no longer has fingers when he raises his clublike hands into frame to gesture.
These hands are daunting reminders of the trauma endured by those who made it back. Other reminders are equally emphatic though less effective, as when subjects tear up while telling the harrowing parts of their stories. The film leads to these moments predictably, beginning with basic motivations for climbing (“We went two thirds of the way to the ice fall,” says John Taske, “and I was hooked. It was the most spectacular piece of real estate that I’d ever climbed on. It helps you to put yourself in perspective with what life’s all about”) and descriptions of the “roof of the world” (“What I felt then,” says Lene Gammelgaard, “was a massive, massive contentment and everything falling into place”). Still, you know what the film’s about, and even early on, some tension is established, as when Gau recalls hearing the news that a friend died even before the storm came (he was determined to continue, in Chen’s honor: “I knew I would reach the top today, even if I had to crawl on my knees”) or when Weathers describes the scene when leaving Camp Three: “[When] you move out of an area that seems familiar, there is this sense of a desolate place, kind of like moving into Galgatha,” he says, “A sense of heaviness about the place.”
As riveting as these narratives might be, at each turn of plot, the film provides rather banal illustration: tents flapping in the wind, silhouetted figures buffeted by wind and obscured by deep blue shadows. Neal Beidleman, one of the professionals on the climb, was also one of the reenactors, an experience that could only have been surreal, though he doesn’t address it in his interviews for the film (he recalls his performance for the New York Times: “This is the scene you were in. This is where this person died. I would just have to take a couple deep breaths, stop, and focus again on the task at hand”). Though the teams were slightly behind schedule to descend, they didn’t (or couldn’t) anticipate the brute strength of the fast-moving storm, bringing with it winds of up to 80mph, as temperatures as low 30 below zero.
Survivors tell pieces of what happened, what they felt and guessed was happening. Unable to see, Weathers was frightened. “As you move forward and you become more disoriented,” he remembers, “The noise that was starting to overwhelm you, you get a sense of just being led like sheep.” Charlotte Fox remembers that she almost welcomed falling asleep: “I could almost objectively watch what was happening to me, not out of body, but monitoring myself for my downfall.” Left alone on a ridge, Gau decided he had to keep moving (“I thought, ‘I should do disco, I can dance’”). Joined briefly by one of the guides, Gau says professional guide Scott Fischer’s voice was small and weak; unable to help Fischer, Gau concentrated on staying awake through the night; when at last light dawned, he says, “I had no feeling in my hands, they were like frozen pork. When they hit each other, they made a sound like clack-clack,” moving his stumps to demonstrate.
The questions raised by the climb in 1996 remain unanswered here. Who made wrong decisions or when were they made? Was a right decision possible at any point, or were survivors—including amateur climbers Gau and Weathers—just amazingly lucky? The business and the myth of Everest continue today, 12 years after the tragedy. “The mountain doesn’t care whether we’re here or not, it doesn’t compete with us it isn’t burdened by our hopes and dreams,” says Breashears, in his closing appreciation of the idea and the site. “Everything it means to us is only what we bring to it.”