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In Search of Two English Climbers and Their Ancient Kodaks, a Daring Young TV Cameraman Takes on Mount Everest

updated 10/06/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/1986 01:00AM

Across the parking lot from Bloomingdale's in the chic Boston suburb of Chestnut Hill, a footpath leads up through leafy woods to a cluster of glowering, gray-green boulders known locally as the Alcove. There, not far from the smug hum of Mercedes engines and the muted flash of credit cards, a lean 30-year-old man, naked to the waist and wearing purple-and-yellow shoes, was performing an odd rite—a ceremony dark and cryptic that seemed to defy the natural order of things. He gazed broodingly for a moment at the pebble-studded concave face of a large boulder, toward a shelflike "mantel" 15 feet above. Then, reaching high overhead with one hand and placing the other carefully on the wall to the side, he planted a sticky-soled, La Sportiva free-climbing shoe firmly against the rock at waist height, flexing like a supple Baryshnikov.

In a series of swift, smooth, deceptively powerful moves, the man oozed outward and backward up the overhang as if the law of gravity had been momentarily abrogated. At the top he grabbed the mantel, heaved himself upright with one hand, trotted around the top of the boulder and with the nonchalance of a homeowner descending his front stoop walked back down a nearly vertical crack in the rock.

Then he did it all over again.

Climbing a boulder near Blooming-dale's parking lot is unlikely training for an assault on the world's highest peak. But not for David Finlay Breashears. Those exercises were merely a prelude. Having made eight Himalayan expeditions in the past nine years, twice conquering Mt. Everest, Breashears last week was once again edging up that formidable mountainous ladder, this time seeking an unprecedented third triumph for an American at the roof of the world.

More than 150 men and women have scaled Everest since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay's first ascent in 1953, and about 65 more have died trying. What sets Breashears apart from other so-called "extreme" climbers is that he is packing along as much as 30 pounds of extra baggage—video and movie cameras, heavy-duty batteries, portable microwave TV transmitters—all the clumsy, cluttered paraphernalia of a TV cameraman on the job. While the other climbers have plodded in agony up the final icy patches, Breashears has been known in past adventures to clamber ahead in search of the optimum angle for a fresh, new perspective, sometimes using ladders stretched over sheer blue crevasses to frame a literally spine-chilling scene in the last available light.

Such hard-won footage has already earned him two Emmys. The first, for Best Cinematography, came for his camera work on a 1981 assault on Everest's Tibetan east face. He didn't make the summit that trip, but on May 7, 1983, he finally set foot on the spot where Hillary and Tenzing had stood 30 years earlier to the month. Instead of a flag and still-camera, Breashears carried an industrial video camera and a microwave transmitter, with which to beam the first live views from Everest's summit to a receiving dish 17 miles below. "If people had been awake to watch at that hour," he says, "we could have broadcast the first live pictures ever of climbers actually reaching the summit of the world's highest place. But it was 3 a.m. in New York. The only viewers were Late Show buffs and insomniacs—not really a mountaineering audience." Instead, the scenes were taped at the first relay point, then aired by ABC's American Sportsman a week later. Still, the footage won Breashears a 1983 Emmy for Outstanding Technical Achievement and a growing reputation as the premier paparazzo of the peaks.

It's the wrong image. "I'm really just another obsessed climber," he says, "who works at a job to finance his habit. Mine is film—shooting and directing. Everyone has his own personal vision of the best place on earth, the only 'real' place. For me, ever since I was 12 or 13 years old, it's been the Himalayas, especially Everest."

He was born at Fort Benning, Ga. the son of a U.S. Army officer and was raised in the mountainous environs of Wyoming and Colorado until in 1968 at age 12 he moved with his family to Greece. "My dad had retired as a major," he says. "He went to Greece as a civilian to work for NATO. I got my wanderlust from him and my discipline from my mother. But I was never really an Army brat—I had a strong sense of place: the high country." In Athens the young David amused himself scampering among the ruins and decided to pursue climbing seriously after reading a book on the subject. Back in Colorado as a teenager, Breashears set to work on his climbing skills. With wide shoulders, big hands and a naturally lean physique—today he's 5'10" and weighs 150 lbs.—he was well equipped for the sport, especially in his ability to acclimate fast at high altitude. "I could have gone to college," he says, "but climbing was more important."

He came to be known as the Kloberdanz Kid—a near legendary figure in the climbing subculture, so named for his dazzling ascent of an extreme route in the Colorado Rockies called Kloberdanz. Living in a hut in the tiny hamlet of Eldorado Springs, Colo. (pop. 650), working construction jobs and teaching a climbing class at the University of Colorado, Breashears pioneered new rock-climbing routes in the surrounding peaks. One, which he named "Perilous Journey," is—in climbing terms—so "cerebral" and bare of protection that few climbers care to repeat it. Another he called "Krystal Klyr" for the natural crystals that stud the route. The name reflected his desire to climb as "clean" as possible, avoiding the use of pitons, eccentric nuts and other technological aids wherever possible.

At the same time, he saw that if he was ever to earn enough money to reach the land of his dreams—the high Himalayas—he would have to use technology to that end. He found work first as a rope rigger for a 1980 PBS documentary, Free Climb, filmed on Yosemite's Half Dome. The following year ABC Sports hired him as a load carrier, guide and sound apprentice for a climb to be filmed on a 22,500-ft. peak in the Himalayas. "I had to pay my own airfare over there," he recalls, "about $1,200, but it was worth it."

Breashears confronted his biggest challenge in 1981 when he was a sound technician on an ABC American Sportsman climb of Everest. The two cameramen he worked for were unable to manage a steep ice-and-rock face, and he had to step in for them behind the lens. His natural eye and feel for camera work, coupled with his superb climbing skills and bottomless high-altitude endurance ("He can out-climb most Sherpas," says one admirer, "and with a heavier load"), soon made him the best in the business. His second ascent of Everest last year, guiding Texas millionaire Dick ("Large-Mouth") Bass, then 55, to the top, confirmed Breashears' reputation.

For a man with such a love of high, remote places, it seems strange to find Breashears at home in an elegant Boston suburb. But living at sea level hasn't hurt his ability to acclimate fast at rarefied altitudes. "It's a genetic thing," he says. "Either you have it or you don't, and no amount of training can give it to you." In addition to bouldering on the rocks near Bloomingdale's, Breashears works out regularly at a nearby Nautilus center, climbs the Harvard Stadium seats (all 37 sections) at a gallop, runs up to six miles at a crack and sometimes scales the high granite sides of Echo Bridge, a 19th-century aqueduct spanning the Charles River near his Newton Center home.

His apartment, with its high ceiling and glossy hardwood floors, is austere and uncluttered. Despite his superb physical conditioning, he is not a prig about fitness: A few bottles of liquor stand on one shelf, and he doesn't object with a testy cough when a visitor lights his pipe. He even eats roast beef. There are books aplenty; Breashears has made up for his lack of a college education by reading intensively in many subjects. Recently he finished Son of the Morning Star, Evan Connell's study of George Custer and the battle of Little Bighorn. His musical tastes are as clean as his climbing: Mozart, Vivaldi, Schumann.

By way of explaining his climbing talents, he says, with a laugh, "I'm one of the few people blessed with what's called a Positive Ape Index. My arm span is five-and-a-half inches greater than my height." Demonstrating, he stands on a staircase, reaches down with one arm to touch the step below his feet, and stretches the other hand straight up, nearly half a foot higher than his erect height. "It's a virtue in rock climbing," he says.

Breashears is again putting virtue, as well as his courage, to the ultimate test with his Everest expedition this month. What makes this new attempt particularly special is that Breashears and his fellow climbers hope to find the bodies of the two Englishmen who first attempted Everest more than 60 years ago. George Leigh Mallory and Andrew Comyn Irvine had disappeared on June 8, 1924 near the cloud-wreathed summit. Many mountaineers since have felt, perhaps wishfully, that at least one of the two climbers may have reached the peak. Several years ago a Japanese expedition, trekking at 27,000 feet on the north face of Everest, found the body of what they called "an English dead," dressed in old-fashioned mountain clothing. One expert believes that it may have been Mallory's corpse, or Irvine's, since no other climbers have been known to die near that spot.

"It's possible that we might recover the ancient vest-pocket Kodak cameras they were carrying," Breashears says. "At that altitude and temperature, the film could still be good. But it would be so delicate that we'll have to develop it on the mountain before it thaws. The main thing is, instead of just shooting for the summit, we're going to have to do a job of work up there. We're going to go for the summit, too. We have a deal with ABC and Mutual of Omaha to try to put the first American woman on the top of Everest." The women accompanying Breashears are all experienced climbers: Mary Kay Brewster, 28, Catherine Cullinane, 31, and Sue Giller, 39, who is making her third Everest trip.

Women of other nationalities have reached the Everest summit before, but none from the U.S. In 1979 climbers were chilled at the sight of a certain Mrs. Schmatz, wife of a West German expedition leader, frozen in a sitting position with her head on her knees at the edge of a route called the South Col. "She made it to the top, but she didn't get down," says Breashears matter-of-factly. "She's not there anymore. A storm must have blown her down into the Col. Last year on Everest, I found the bodies of two of my teammates from the year before, a Sherpa and a Nepalese. They'd died in a fall during our expedition. Good men, both of them. I pitched them down a crevasse. That's what I hope someone will do for me, if it comes to it."

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