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High Exposureby David Breashears
Most of the world knows David Breashears as an uncommonly intrepid filmmaker: the guy who brought back spectacular IMAX footage from the top of Mount Everest. Others associate his name primarily with Red Flag Over Tibet, the disquieting, Emmy Award-winning documentary about the Chinese occupation of the Buddhist homeland, which he made for the PBS series Frontline. Among a handful of Hollywood insiders he is celebrated, as well, for being the guerrilla cinematographer who smuggled a 35mm Arriflex into Tibet and surreptitiously filmed scenes that lent crucial authenticity to the big-budget epic Seven Years in Tibet.
The renown that Breashears has earned for his work in film is certainly deserved. But to a small, immoderately idealistic community of rock climbers who lived in Colorado in the 1970s (a community of which he and I were part), his most remarkable feat has nothing to do with making movies. Some of us believed — and still believe — that Breashears's defining moment was his authorship of a little-known climbing route, name of Perilous Journey, which rises in the foothills outside Boulder, Colorado. The large-format film, Everest, the Emmy Award, his four expeditions to the 29,028-foot summit of Everest — they all pale in comparison with his first ascent of this obscure rock climb, which measures scarcely 100 feet from bottom to top. If you want to understand David Breashears — if you hope to comprehend what really makes him tick — you need to know a little about Perilous Journey.
It was obvious that if the route could be climbed at all, it was going to be exceedingly difficult, right at the limit of what was physically possible at the time. It was also obvious that the absence of deep natural fissures would preclude the placement of aluminum nuts to safeguard his passage over the route's most severe section. If he lost his purchase on any of the minuscule finger- and toeholds, he would plummet into the jagged boulders that line the base of the cliff.
As it happens, the broad ledge that marks the summit of Perilous Journey can be reached via a routine scramble up a broken section of cliff nearby. Before attempting the route, it would have been a simple matter for Breashears to rappel down the cliff from the top, rehearse all the moves with a safety rope from above, and drill a series of expansion bolts that would erase all the danger from his ascent. But according to the climbing subculture's unwritten ethical codex, the practice of pre-drilling bolts on rappel and unlocking a climb's secrets with a top rope constituted a despicable sort of cheating. The whole point of doing a route like Perilous Journey was to test one's mettle — to challenge not only one's physical skills, but take measure of one's judgment and nerve as well. The nonexistent margin for error was soberly acknowledged, but it was celebrated rather than lamented. In our youthful, self-absorbed zeal, we liked to imagine that the gravely serious stakes set climbing apart from lesser pursuits (such as mainstream sports, or working for a living). No climber in Boulder believed more passionately in the unforgiving tribal ethos than Breashears.
On the chosen day (as he recounts later in this book), he bushwhacked up to the bottom of the Mickey Mouse Wall at dawn, accompanied by his friend Steve Mammen, who'd agreed to belay him. The morning smelled of pine and juniper. Nobody else was around. Breashears laced up his painfully tight climbing shoes, tied a rope to his waist harness, and dipped his fingers into a pouch of gymnast's chalk. Then he stepped up to the cliff and laid his hands on the brick-red sandstone. The climbing became diabolically difficult almost immediately. Crimping lentil-size pebbles with his fingertips, Breashears muscled and balanced his way slowly upward, shifting his weight from hold to minuscule hold with meticulous care, unraveling the route's defenses inch by vertical inch. Although the physical strain on his digits and forearms was nearly overwhelming, he maintained his poise and Zen-like focus, betraying none of the tremendous effort required simply to grip the rock, to say nothing of making upward progress.
Twenty feet above the talus, in the middle of an overhanging bulge, Breashears arrived at the route's first substantial hold: a shallow, angled slot wide enough to grip with both hands. This hold also presented him with his first opportunity to place protective hardware: He managed to wedge a nut into the slot, albeit not very securely, clipped a carabiner to it, then ran his rope through the carabiner. In the event that he fell, the dubious nut would almost certainly be plucked from the rock like a berry from a vine, but, Breashears recalls, "It was oddly comforting to see the rope running through that solitary, useless piece of protection."
The difficulties resumed immediately past the slot, and continued with scant respite for another twenty feet. Then, unexpectedly, he encountered a square-cut shelf about as thick as the spine of a hastily written book. When he pulled himself up to its relative security, he had reason to believe that the climb's major trials were over. The shelf stuck out from the wall no more than an inch and a half, but above it the cliff leaned back at an angle slightly less than vertical. By standing on the shelf and pressing his chest tightly against the rock, he could actually drop both hands to his sides and give his arms a desperately needed rest after twenty minutes of intense, nonstop effort. Better yet, the sandstone above his head was pocked with a series of Swiss cheese-like holes that looked big enough to accept his fingers to a depth of half an inch or more. Perilous Journey seemed to be a fait accompli.
When Breashears reached up and felt the lowest of the pockmarks, however, he was alarmed to discover that it was much smoother and shallower than it had appeared from below. He reached higher, and then higher still, but none of the holes provided the kind of handhold he was willing to trust his life to. He was four stories off the ground. A slip from this point would send him hurtling into the boulders below.
The gravity of his circumstances inspired him to redouble his concentration. A more thorough examination of the wall overhead turned up a rounded, jelly bean-size blister that he could wrap two fingertips around. Awkwardly reaching across his body until his right hand was above his left shoulder, he clenched the jelly bean, levered his body upward, and stretched as far to the left as he could. He smeared the soles of his boots onto a nearly featureless patch of sandstone, shifted his weight onto his left foot, and thereby managed to touch a small scoop that was slightly deeper than the other pockmarks were, and had a tiny ridge across its lower lip on which he could hook the callused pad of a fingertip. Twenty inches above this pathetic hold was a substantial ledge. Committing his life to the tips of two fingers on his left hand, he cranked for all he was worth, snaked his right hand up to the ledge, and wrapped his paws securely around its reassuring contours. A glance overhead revealed that the rest of the route was covered with large, in-cut holds. Within minutes he stood triumphantly atop Perilous Journey.
It was a visionary ascent, one of the boldest achievements in the annals of North American mountaineering, done in impeccable style. A handful of other climbs of comparable difficulty existed, but seldom, if ever, had such extreme difficulties been undertaken in circumstances where the climber was unlikely to survive a fall. Yet, to nobody's surprise, Breashears wasn't hounded by journalists for interviews. No mention of Perilous Journey appeared in any newspaper, local or otherwise. He received no remuneration or formal recognition of any kind. Word of the climb, however, filtered gradually through the mountaineering grapevine. His ascent was reenacted in pantomime, move by move, in climbers' camps from Yosemite to the Tetons to the Shawangunks of New York. He had achieved something he valued much more than wealth or fame: the respect and admiration of his peers.
In writing this foreword, my intent is not to nominate Breashears for sainthood. I have spent enough time in his proximity to know that he is impatient, driven, incredibly tightly wound. I have witnessed his explosive temper; indeed I have felt the sting of it firsthand. But he possesses, in abundance, a quality perhaps best described as "character." And I admire this trait even more than I admire what he has achieved in the arenas of film and mountaineering. Although I have disagreed with him both publicly and privately, I have always been impressed with his willingness to act on his convictions — even when his ire has been directed at me.
Two decades after I first met David Breashears on a crag above Boulder, chance brought us together again on the slopes of Everest during what turned out to be a very bad season. When disaster struck, he placed the most important film project of his career in jeopardy, without hesitation, in order to provide assistance to those of us who were in trouble. That the creator of Perilous Journey emerged as one of the heroes of the 1996 Everest calamity came as no surprise to me.
Copyright © 1999 by David Breashears
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