David Breashears had climbed to the top of the world to film a movie, but he put his camera down when a storm moved in and ripped through the climbers struggling toward the top of Mount Everest.
Eight people died in the May 1996 storm, the single deadliest in the history of Everest expeditions.Breashears and his crew helped rescue Dr. Beck Weathers of Dallas, who had twice been left for dead as the tragedy unraveled. Weathers suffered severe frostbite, losing his right hand and most of his left hand.
Breashears was able to continue working on "Everest," a large-screen IMAX film that opened recently in Boston and on Thursday in New York.
"These guys basically created for themselves a legacy of doing the right thing at the right time," Weathers said. "They unselfishly put everything they had on the mountain at that time, including that film and the millions with it, aside."
The disaster spurred the best-selling book, "Into Thin Air," an alternate account, "The Climb," and ongoing controversy about professional guides who sell trips to the 29,028-foot peak straddling Nepal and Tibet at prices as high as $65,000 per person.
Breashears' crew stayed on the mountain after the disaster, setting out for the top on May 23 - and passing the frozen bodies of friends who had died 13 days earlier.
At the summit, Jamling Norgay - the son of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who in 1953 made the first successful ascent with Sir Edmund Hillary - tied a Buddhist prayer flag to a stake and placed photos of his parents and the Dalai Lama in a mound of snow.
"As a filmmaker you want to communicate with people. Here's a place you love, where you've spent much of your adult life, how can you make people feel what it's like to have been there?" Breashears said.
The film, displayed on 80-foot-high wraparound screens, certainly puts the viewer there, with magnificent panoramic shots of the jagged ice-capped Himalayas.
But it also creates something of an illusion, with all the clear blue skies and seemingly endless views. It is not a benign place: 154 people have died trying to reach the summit.
Despite the dangers, Breashears acknowledges its strong allure.
"We left Everest not in any way feeling triumphant or any joy in '96," he said. "We didn't know whether to laugh with delight or cry. I didn't want that to be my last experience on Everest. I wanted to go back and have some kind of a resolution."
He returned last year for his fourth successful ascent. At the summit, he promised never to return. Now he's not so sure: "Who knows when I wouldn't feel the tug of that mountain again?"