Mount Everest Filmmaker David Breashears Dies at 68

Mount Everest Filmmaker David Breashears Dies at 68

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Pioneering mountaineer, climate advocate, and adventure filmmaker David Breashears died on Thursday, May 14 at his home in Massachusetts. He was 68 years old.

The news was confirmed by longtime members of the American climbing community Ed Viesturs, Kathy Harvard and Jed Williamson, all of whom were close with Breashears and his family. They told Outside that Breashears died of natural causes. Outside also received a statement from Beashears’ family announcing the death.

It is with great sadness that we share the news that our beloved David passed (of natural causes) this morning. He was a brother, father, friend, colleague and a caring, passionate advocate of adventure, exploration and the health of our planet. We are heartbroken by this loss and respectfully request privacy at this difficult time. 

Breashears was one of the most influential Americans in the world of Himalayan mountaineering. He rose to prominence in the 1980s as a climber and video documentarian on Mount Everest, and in 1983 Breashears transmitted the first live television images from the peak’s summit. Two years later Breashears again reached Mount Everest’s pinnacle, becoming the first American climber to make a repeat visit to the highest point on the planet.

In a 2008 interview with broadcast network Frontline, Breashears said he was the 135th person to reach the top of the world, and the experience forever changed him. “Looking back to 1983, it almost seems quaint. 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,” he said. “I remember feeling much closer to the mountain then, more in tune with the experience.”

Over the following decade Breashears helped millions of people learn about Mount Everest through his films and broadcasts. In 1997 he produced the first live audio Webcast from the summit for the documentary series NOVA as part of the film Everest: The Death Zone. The next year he released the feature film Everest, which became the first IMAX production from the peak, and one of the fastest-selling films shot in the high-resolution format. The film chronicled his 1996 expedition to the peak alongside American guide Viesturs, and explored the training that mountaineers follow prior to their expeditions, and the hazards they encounter along the route to the top. Everest generated more than $120 million in revenue, and transformed Breashears into a celebrity in the outdoor world. Writing for Outside in 2004, journalist Karen Heyman called Breashears the “James Cameron of the IMAX set.”

Breashears shot Everest during 1996 climbing season, and witnessed the deadly blizzard that killed eight climbers and was later chronicled by author Jon Krakauer in the Outside feature and best-selling book Into Thin Air. Breashears helped with the rescue and recovery of climbers after the incident, and his experience led to another Everest film, the 2008 Frontline documentary Storm Over Everest. The film included interviews with survivors, video from the 1996 expedition, and recreated scenes of the storm and rescue efforts.

Speaking to Frontline, Breashears said he felt it was necessary to retell the story via film and not just words to try and help viewers understand the tragedy. “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,” he said. “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.”

He pursued a prolific career in filmmaking, racking up credits as a cinematographer, cameraman, and producer on nearly two-dozen films, including the Hollywood blockbusters Cliffhanger and Seven Years in Tibet. 

Breashears was not done with telling the story of the 1996 disaster, and in 2015 he served as a co-producer and consultant on the Hollywood film Everest, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, and Jason Clarke. He was also on the peak in 2015 filming a documentary when an earthquake sent debris and ice crashing down onto Base Camp, killing 19 people.

In recent years Breashears had turned his attention to the impacts of climate change on the Himalayan region. He founded an advocacy group called GlacierWorks, which documented glacial retreat across the region through still photography and video. He displayed his images in galleries across the world to show viewers how quickly the region was being transformed. Through his work with GlacierWorks, Breashears gave lectures and talks across the world to educate audiences about the impact of the warming climate. “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,” Brashears said in a 2014 interview. “That’s why taking this imagery and moving it to exhibits, or to scientists at NASA, is important.”

Prior to his exploits on Everest, Breashears was an accomplished rock climber. He grew up in Boulder, Colorado, and wowed the climbing community with his exploits on crags at Eldorado Canyon. According to a 2022 story in Climbing, Breashears earned the nickname “Kleberdanz Kid” after completing a speedy ascent of a challenging route when he was just 18 years old.

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