Mountaineering Legend David Breashears Dies at Age 68

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The world of mountaineering has lost one of its most influential and pioneering figures. David Breashears, renowned climber, filmmaker and climate advocate, passed away on March 14, 2024 at home in Massachusetts at the age of 68. His death was confirmed by close friends in the climbing community and his family.

David Breashears

A Visionary Climber and Adventurer

Breashears first rose to prominence in the 1980s as a highly skilled rock and ice climber. Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, he earned the nickname “Kloeberdanz Kid” at just 18 years old for his speedy ascent of the challenging 5.11c route Kloeberdanz in Eldorado Canyon. In 1975, his bold first ascents of the extremely dangerous routes Krystal Klyr and Perilous Journey, both rated 5.11b X, became the stuff of legend and remained unrepeated for decades.

But it was in the Himalayas where Breashears truly made his mark. He climbed Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, five times over his illustrious career. In 1983, on his first summit, Breashears transmitted the first live television broadcast from the top of Everest. He returned to the summit again in 1985, becoming the first American to climb the mountain twice. At the time, he was just the 135th person to ever reach the top of the world.

“Looking back to 1983, it almost seems quaint,” Breashears reflected in a 2008 interview. “We had the entire south side of the mountain to ourselves, and not only did I know who my teammates were, but I also knew they had come to Everest with the careful preparation, experience and thorough training to climb it. I remember feeling much closer to the mountain then, more in tune with the experience.”

Among his other mountaineering feats, in the winter of 1982 Breashears partnered with Jeff Lowe for the historic first ascent of the 4500-foot north face of Kwangde Lho (6011m) in Nepal via an extremely steep and technical route. This massive face remained unrepeated until 2001, a testament to the difficulty and vision of their climb nearly 20 years earlier.

Bringing Everest to the World Through Film

Over the course of his career, Breashears helped millions of people worldwide learn about and experience Mount Everest and the Himalayas through his ground breaking films and video documentaries. In 1997, he produced the first live audio webcast from the summit of Everest for the PBS series NOVA.

Then in 1998, Breashears released the IMAX feature film Everest, providing a breathtaking, high-resolution view of the mountain that captivated audiences around the globe. Shot during the 1996 climbing season, it followed David Breashears and fellow elite American climber Ed Viesturs on their expedition, showcasing the intense training and harrowing hazards faced by those who attempt to scale the peak. Everest went on to generate over $120 million, making Breashears a celebrity in the outdoor world.

“A climber at high altitude is the last person to know that their thinking and thought processes are probably impaired,” Breashears explained regarding his fascination with the impact of extreme altitude on climbers. “There’s not an angel on your shoulder saying, ‘knock knock, beware, you’re not thinking clearly.'” Exploring this was a key theme he sought to convey to audiences through his films.

Witnessing Tragedy and Telling Survivors’ Stories

While filming Everest in 1996, Breashears and his team found themselves in the midst of a deadly disaster when a fierce blizzard struck the mountain, ultimately claiming the lives of eight climbers in one of the worst tragedies in Everest history. The event was later famously chronicled by Jon Krakauer in the book Into Thin Air. Breashears assisted with rescue and recovery efforts in the storm’s aftermath.

He went on to recount the story of the 1996 disaster in the 2008 PBS Frontline documentary Storm Over Everest. Weaving together survivor interviews, expedition video footage, and recreations, the film sought to capture the human drama and emotion of the ill-fated climb in a way that Breashears felt only film could fully convey.

“For me, to see and hear direct testimony from a person who has overcome such adversity, has survived such a difficult and stressful event, is very powerful,” Breashears said of his approach. “There is something so much more poignant about seeing a person’s face and looking into their eyes and hearing their voice than just reading about them on a written page.”

In 2015, David Breashears served as a consultant and co-producer on the Hollywood film Everest, a dramatic retelling of the 1996 events starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin. That same year, he was back on the mountain shooting a documentary when an earthquake triggered an avalanche, sending debris crashing into Base Camp and killing 19. Confronting danger and witnessing tragedy seemed to be sadly inextricable from Breashears’ time on Everest.

A Passionate Advocate for the Planet

Later in his career, Breashears turned his focus to highlighting the devastating impacts of climate change on the Himalayas and its glaciers. In 2007, he founded the non-profit organization GlacierWorks to document the alarming pace of glacial retreat across the region through photography and video.

Breashears traveled the world displaying his images in gallery exhibitions, using the power of visual evidence to raise public awareness about the consequences of a warming planet. He also gave lectures educating audiences about climate change and the important but challenging work of moving people beyond awareness to real action and impact.

“It’s a very easy thing to do, awareness. You can go find two pictures on a website and say that you’re creating awareness, while the real hard work is taking people from awareness to impact,” he said of the mission driving his advocacy in a 2014 interview. “That’s why taking this imagery and moving it to exhibits, or to scientists at NASA, is important.”

A Monumental Legacy

Over a long and prolific career, David Breashears’ work as a cinematographer, producer, director and photographer netted him credits on nearly two dozen films, from documentaries to Hollywood blockbusters like Cliffhanger and Seven Years in Tibet. Through climbing, filmmaking and climate advocacy, he expanded society’s understanding of the Himalayas and Mount Everest while sounding the alarm about the fragility of that revered landscape in a changing climate.

“For his family and for people everywhere touched by his lifetime of accomplishments, it is an inestimable loss.”

David Breashears is survived by his wife, daughter, brother, and other family who issued a statement expressing their profound sadness at his passing:

“David was a beloved brother, uncle, father, friend, and colleague and a caring, impassioned advocate of adventure, exploration, and the health of our planet… What fulfilled him the most – where he’d want his legacy to lie – is his non-profit organization, GlacierWorks, which he founded in 2007 to highlight the Himalayan glaciers through art, science, and adventure. With GlacierWorks, he used his climbing and photography experience to create unique records revealing the dramatic effects of climate change on the historic mountain range.”

For the climbing community, Breashears’ death marks the loss of a visionary pioneer who helped chart new frontiers in mountaineering. And for the countless people inspired by his films and advocacy around the world, it is the loss of an icon who brought the grandeur and fragility of Earth’s highest peaks into our collective awareness and consciousness. His legacy and impact are truly monumental.