Breashears’s new film on Everest and the removal of the artifice

by Mr. Sheehy

Coming up on May 13 PBS will air a film by David Breashears that revisits the 1996 disaster on Mt. Everest. I know I’ve talked about Everest before, so I won’t reiterate my obsession except to mention how much artistic respect I have for Breashears’s work as a filmmaker.

In a promotional interview with Breashears, National Geographic drew him into discussing climbing and the decisions climbers made that day on Mt. Everest:

Beck Weathers, who was twice left for dead and still survived, is a philosophical person, a real thinker. Near the end of the film he comments, “Everybody always says that the definition of character is what you do when nobody is looking. And when we were up there, we didn’t think anybody was looking. And so everybody did pretty much what their inner person, the real them, the exposed them, would do.”

The idea is that all the artifice that we carry with us in life, the persona that we project—all that’s stripped away at altitude. Thin air, hypoxia—people are tremendously sleep-deprived on Everest, they’re incredibly exhausted, and they’re hungry and dehydrated. They are in a very altered state. And then at a moment of great vulnerability a storm hits. At that moment you become the person you are. You are no longer capable of mustering all this artifice. The way I characterize it, you either offer help or you cry for help.

In such a state, not even the Hawthorne’s Father Hooper can keep the black veil from blowing aside. As one who is interested in human nature and what is deep inside each of us, I find Breashear’s (and Weathers’s) comments intriguing. In my own mind, I connect them to my reflections after the gun scare and lockdown our school went through last year:

That little error foretold more than I realized. In my head in the years leading up to Tuesday, I was able to be the teacher parents would want with their children in a time of crisis. Prepared, practical, calm, and loving. But despite the years of rehearsal, this lockdown did not go like I thought it would.

Maybe my plan was too precise and reality inevitably broke script. Or maybe I am a whole lot more human and prone to mistakes than my little prophecy foretold.

Or maybe, if I apply Breashears’s analysis to my own, at that moment I was the person I was, not the person I wanted to be. Perhaps Hawthorne said it best:

“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be true.”

Thanks for reading.