Boston, MA — “Come sky with me!” could well be the lyric of David Breashears, who climbs higher than some airplanes fly.
If Breashears were a social climber, his picture would be on the cover of People and Vanity Fair. But the only thing I’d climb with him, maybe, is an escalator, or to the top row of the Museum of Science’s theater the next time I see his superbly chilling IMAX flick, “Everest.” I have to wear thermal underwear every time I watch it, fearing frostbite, in high anxiety while vicariously clambering across crevasses on shaky ladders amid shimmering, teetering glacial high-rises in the Khumbu Icefall.
But anywhere mountain-climbing David Breashears goes I want to climb through the pages of the books he writes about it. Why would I read a Breashears book? Not “because it is there.” That might have been the rationale of his hero, George Mallory, who famously said the same about that harrowing Himalayan hump, Everest, where he spent his final hours in 1924.
No, but because I savor Breashears’ descriptions of his and others’ travails in the world’s most altitudinous and dangerous neighborhoods where breath is short and life isn’t much longer if you take the misjudged step or strategy. His handsomely illustrated material reads as beautifully as the mountains themselves. Breashears, who hangs in Boston when he isn’t hanging precariously from his fingertips at some remote, and freezing pinnacle elsewhere, has hit the literary double this year.
First, his autobiography, “High Exposure,” a brilliant portrait of himself and upscale mountaineering, came out last spring.
And now appearing, “Last Climb: The Legendary Everest Expeditions of George Mallory” follows closely on the discovery of Mallory’s body near the summit last May. Seventy-five years after his third try for the top, Mallory was outed by winds that dispersed a snowy coverup, his body intact but frozen stiff. “Last Climb,” written in collaboration with Audrey Salkeld, a noted English authority on Mallory and Everest, grippingly introduces you to the fascinating Edwardian-era adventurer and his courageous onslaughts on the stormy, deadly Himalayan gargantua. Salkeld brings out the humanity of bold but gentle Mallory. Breashears covers the expeditions and mountaineering. Their teamwork comes close to solving the mystery of what happened to 37-year-old Mallory and his 22-year-old climbing partner, fellow Briton Andrew Irvine.
“But,” says Breashears, “not quite. And it probably never will be solved. I doubt that Irvine will be found. The real mystery is Irvine’s camera. Might it be found containing film proving that he and Mallory actually made the summit – 29 years before Ed Hillary and Tenzing Norgay! – and were descending when they probably fell?”
Ah, the camera, as elusive as the Maltese Falcon. But the search and speculation will go on, as for Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Hoffa, Whitey Bulger, D. B. Cooper, and innumerable deadbeat dads. The most recent hunt, commissioned by PBS’s “Nova,” paid off in the finding of Mallory, as described in a Breashears chapter by producer Liesl Clark. It will result in the show’s “Lost on Everest” documentary Jan. 18.
Breashears says, “I doubt they made it all the way up. A long shot, but . . . anyway . . . the try cost them their lives.”
Not unusual on Everest, bearing a tantalizing reputation as a killer peak, a place Breashears knows well and with which he feels “a kinship.” A frequent communicant, he respects the killer, listens to it, and obeys when Everest moans blusteringly: “This playground isn’t big enough for both of us – go home!”
“Knowing when to quit and turn around is so important. It may take more courage to do that, when your goal is so close, than plodding ahead, feeling your willpower will get you to the top,” says this man who has stood at the icy apogee of the planet four times, yet insists, “I’m no daredevil.”
Meeting the seemingly easygoing Breashears for the first time, you might not sense being in the presence of one of the universe’s greater, inner-driven athletes. He looks healthy enough, a wiry man of 43 with gray-flecked dark hair, yet somehow unimposing at 5-foot-10, 160 pounds. Then you notice long arms, big hands, very long fingers – the better to grasp insignificant lips of rock and pull himself up an unfriendly bare face.
And those vivid blue eyes, which have seen places viewed by few others, tell you he’s ever ready to charge, on hand and foot, closer to heaven than believed possible before New Zealander Hillary and the local Sherpa, Norgay, conquered the 29,028-foot crest above Nepal and Tibet in 1953.
As the Mark McGwire of the mountaineering game, Breashears ascends Everestian heights blithely. A pitcher hanging a curve to McGwire might get knocked out of a game. If Breashears hangs a wrong turn, he gets knocked out of the game. Forever.
Apparently that’s what his icon, Mallory, did “at about 28,000 feet,” Breashears feels. “Both he and Irvine. Roped together.”
Breashears writing about Mallory is something like McGwire doing a book on Babe Ruth. And with many-sided Breashears you throw in his film-making prowess (“next project, next year, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa”), athleticism, and his gallantry under extreme pressure in 1996. He and colleague Ed Veisturs were completing the IMAX film when the vicious storm hit, killing eight climbers and two accomplished guides from separate expeditions, as chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s best-seller, “Into Thin Air.” Breashears and Veisturs and their Sherpas sprang to the rescue of several of the stranded.
“Too much drive and ambition can get you killed,” said Breashears. “Making it to the top isn’t the success; it’s getting back.”
Only once has Breashears been gripped by “pure fear” on the Big E. Four years ago he was swept away in a snowy avalanche. “I’m going – and I’m going to be ground beef,” he remembers thinking. “But it happened so fast. Somehow my rope held and I popped out on top.
“That was enough that time. I listened to the mountain and went home.”
Belief in himself, his preparation and organization, a carefully planned and hard-earned apprenticeship, the lonely experiences spread over nearly two decades of getting high on rocks, and “unlocking their secrets” has kept fear at bay for Breashears, long one of the elite.
An Army brat, living here and there, he began ascending in Wyoming and Colorado, and would write: “I’d always experienced an almost blissful sense of detachment on climbs where mistakes had grim consequences. In moments of jeopardy the senses become narrowed and focused. Only the language of survival is engaged, all other dialogue stops. Your physical and psychic energy are tightly constrained and conserved, carefully directed, bringing about a clarity, a belief in your preparation.”
He calls the high-priced guided ascents with plenty of support troops, fixed ropes in demanding places, lots of oxygen, “Mountaineering 101 with no ‘journey’ behind it. By that I mean, suppose you could pay somebody $65,000 for the privilege of hitting a home run in the World Series. That wouldn’t make you a baseball player whose ‘journey’ has meant playing catch with parents, kids’ games, high school team, the minor leagues. Of course these people can get in needless trouble.” And do all the time.
No longer an exclusive address, the globe’s penthouse was almost mythical in Mallory’s day. The natives, calling it Chomolungma (Goddess Mother of the Land), told him that nobody but their gods had experienced the top.
“No European had ever been here,” he wrote to his wife, Ruth, back in England with their three young children. “We are penetrating a secret.” He described Everest as “a prodigious white fang excrescent from the jaw of the world.”
The fang would impale him one day, but not before he captivated imaginations everywhere with his fortitude and intelligence on quests into the unknown. Outdoors guy Mallory, a schoolteacher hooked on heights – literate, cultivated, daring, good-humored – would be pleased to find similar characteristics in his tracker, Breashears.
“What men Mallory and those other early climbers were,” says Breashears. “Men for a pantheon. Imagine the long boat and train trips just to get into position in India. Their equipment seems so primitive to us, and their knowledge of the mountain and high-altitude medicine almost nonexistent. Wool and cotton clothes . . . hobnail boots – still on Mallory. It was something like asking tennis players in the 1920s with their wooden rackets and inferior strings to go onto Centre Court today against guys with high-tech rackets. Though not as perilous.
“But, you know,” he says with a smile, “maybe lack of knowledge was, in a way, advantageous. Everest hadn’t built up its killer name of today. They knew little of apoxia – altitude sickness – and couldn’t have imagined our sophisticated oxygen, ladders, Gore-tex clothing, communications systems.
“Mallory and Irvine were from a time of great spirit and honor, self-confident Englishmen of the Empire who felt they would just march up that hill because of who they were – and darned near did, despite all the odds against. The Mallory spirit was unquenchable.”
Breashears’, too. When you talk high-fives to this athlete – shouldn’t he play 29028 in the lottery? – you get these spires: “Everest; Peak Pobedy, 24,500 feet in Kazakhstan; Nameless Tower, 20,000 in Pakistan; Ama Dablam, 22,494; and Kwangde, both near Everest. Those are the five greatest I’ve climbed.”
But his toughest?
“The outlandishly difficult Himalayan winter ice climb of Kwangde. Not a big peak: 19,720, but the north face is 4,500 feet of steep ice and rock. No camps on the way like Everest. We – Jeff Lowe and I – went straight up with 40-pound packs. Four bivouacs.” It meant sleeping like sausages, bunched in hammocks, hanging above eternity.
“I was baptized in the snows of Everest. I felt young, invincible, even arrogant.” But it was only the start of a journey in which he’s been mentored by such as the venerable mapper of Everest, Bostonian Brad Washburn. “A journey to self-knowledge, humility, feeling a small piece in the universe among natural forces beyond my control,” says Breashears.
So, an Everest encore? “I’ve told myself never again,” he says with a grin. “I don’t need the summit again. . . but I didn’t climb the northeast ridge like Mallory. I’d like to follow him up, for a while anyway.”
Once, on a Himalayan trek, I glimpsed majestic Chomolungma, at some distance. Close enough. My friends, Aurelio and Bwana Jack, have gotten as high as her base camp, 17,600. But because it is there, I’m just as glad to be here with Breashears’ books.