This year marks two major anniversaries in the history of Mount Everest. It has been 60 years since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first to reach its summit, and 50 years since the first five Americans did it, including the epic first ascent of the West Ridge by Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld.
David Breashears, who was deeply inspired by Hornbein and Unsoeld as a teenager in Denver, became an iconic rock climber in Eldorado Canyon in the 1970s and went on to make history of his own on Everest. Now he’s more concerned about a different kind of history being made there.
The glaciers around Everest and throughout the Himalayas are receding rapidly.
“They are the ultimate canary in the mine,” said Breashears, who summited Everest five times between 1983 and 2004. “They respond very quickly to changes in temperature and climate, and they’re such big pieces of evidence.”
A graduate of Thomas Jefferson High School in 1975, Breashears broadcast the first live television pictures from Everest’s summit in 1983. His IMAX film on Everest, released in 1998, grossed $148 million in its theatrical run.
In recent years, Breashears has made 15 expeditions to the Himalayas to take high-resolution photographs documenting what is happening to glaciers there. Many can be seen on his GlacierWorks interactive website.
“Policy makers and people of influence often need to be shown very, very clear-cut visual evidence to support the science they hear about, which often comes in charts and graphs, in order to really become affected by it and understand it better,” said Breashears, 57, who lives now in Marblehead, Mass.
The inspiration for GlacierWorks came in 2007 when PBS producers approached Breashears about a series they were doing on climate change.
“They said: ‘Where can we go find an iconic glacier in the Himalaya? If we’re going to talk about climate change,
we need to talk about China.’ I said, ‘I’m sure we can find a place to do a comparative photograph on the north side of Everest.’ “Breashears went to Tibet and photographed Everest at the precise spot above the Rongbuk Glacier where George Leigh Mallory photographed it on a British reconnaissance expedition in 1921.
“I didn’t need to look at the picture I had taken to compare them and see the change,” Breashears said. “I was stunned by what I had seen. I was astonished by how little I knew about what was going on. When we talked about climate change back then, the Himalaya very rarely came up. It was Antarctica, Greenland or Arctic sea ice. It caused me to want to know more, because there is a story between those two pictures.”
The issue of climate change is controversial, but for those who believe that man plays a role in causing it, there is great concern over what is happening in Asia.
“There will be 500 million more people in this part of Asia — India, Pakistan and China — by 2050,” Breashears said. “It will place tremendous demands on all sorts of resources. And several hundred million will move from the poverty level to the lower middle class or the middle class, and they tend to increase their carbon footprint and their consumption rate 12- to 15-fold.”
When he was a teenager, Breashears voraciously read books about mountaineering adventures that he checked out of the Denver Public Library. He became a student
of Everest, absorbing every story he could.When he reached Everest’s summit 30 years ago for the first time, only 130 people had stood there. Now it’s not uncommon for that many to climb it in a single day. Meanwhile, Breashears is content to do his “field work” on glaciers.
“I just love being out there,” Breashears said. “We’ve compiled a really unrivaled sequence of photographs and high-resolution imagery and photo points that will serve future generations of scientists, who can reoccupy these points from a very precise GPS location, do their own comparative photography and see the change. They won’t have to wait 86 years — between Mallory’s photo in 1921 and mine in 2007 — because in certain areas the change is going to be much more rapid.”