New Everest Doc Goes Beyond 'Into Thin Air'

As night fell over Mount Everest May 10, 1996, the deadliest storm in the mountain's history roared in to take the lives of five climbers near the summit of the world's tallest peak. Almost 12 years to the day later, a new documentary, "Storm Over Everest," set to air tonight on PBS's "Frontline," recounts the horrifying tragedy and chronicles for the first time the revelations of climber Sandy Hill, who was characterized in the media at the time as a spoiled, cappuccino-machine-toting socialite.

"It left a lasting impression on me," said David Breashears, the documentary's Emmy Award-winning filmmaker who was at an Everest camp that night in 1996 shooting an IMAX movie. "Not only because of the fact that good friends were up there and a couple of them died in the storm, but also because when you were down lower on the mountain as we were, to watch that storm just come sweeping up and encompass the mountain, and to hear that wind through the night, it was just a fearsome roar. It was just so unnerving because it was dark and snowing, and it was loud up high. We could tell it was terrible conditions. We knew that people were out in those conditions, but we didn't think it was possible to survive."

Throughout the night, exhausted, oxygen-starved climbers struggled to overcome 80-mile-per-hour winds and minus-35 degree temperatures to descend to the safety of the lower camps.

"Things were not good," Breashears said. "And we didn't hear from anyone until the morning. All through the night we just thought they'd make it back to the camp. These are talented, strong mountaineers. And when we woke up, we were in disbelief. It just couldn't be happening."

The incident was famously chronicled by climber Jon Krakauer in the best-selling book "Into Thin Air." Breashears' new documentary includes interviews with climbers and sherpas, some of whom have never spoken before on American television.

Although Krakauer never got Sandy Hill to speak, in his documentary, Breashears did. Hill, a survivor who wrote a story for Vogue magazine about her experience but has not granted interviews until now, was roundly criticized after the incident and characterized as a spoiled socialite, although she does not speak to this characterization in the film.

"Other people, when they have, when their life is at a difficult spot, turn to drugs or drink or credit cards," she told Breashears. "I go to the mountains. That's always worked for me."

She described her feelings as she ascended Everest.

"When you leave Camp Three on the Lhotse Face, it's the first time that you can actually see the summit. Your goal is visible. And that's very thrilling. What blind faith it's been this whole time climbing this far without having your goal in front of you."

When Hill's team left Camp Three, she immediately noticed the effects of the altitude.

"This was the first time that I remember registering the air is much, much thinner here than anywhere else I've ever been."

Later, as the climb progressed, Hill worried that her team might be behind schedule even before they had departed from Camp Four, the highest camp on the mountain. And by the time the team had reached the summit and started their descent, they had missed their intended turn-around time and the weather had started to deteriorate. Hill's group was almost able to make it back down to their camp despite the storm, but got lost on the South Col, a vast, expansive flat with steep drop-offs on either side.

"One side's the Kanshung Face and the other side is straight down the steepest section on Everest on the Nepal side. And it was literally, it would have been walking off a cliff."

Hill's group huddled together to survive in the freezing, stormy cold.

"I remember thinking I don't want to die. I don't want to die here."

However, Hill was in no shape to descend to camp with her fellow climber, Neal Beidleman.

"Trying to get up, trying to get on your feet with a pack on your back on unstable ground and in the condition that I was in, was not possible in the amount of time I needed to stay with Neal."

Fortunately, a Russian climber named Anatoli Boukreev, came to help her and other stranded climbers.

"We could see a headlamp coming vaguely in our direction, but certainly not striding purposefully, but it was a light. And with a light came a glimmer of hope. And soon it became clear that it was Anatoli."

"Anatoli had promised me that he would be right back. At a certain point, I lost hope that he was going to come back. Because it seemed like he was taking so long. It was a glorious sight seeing that tiny little headlamp in the distance growing larger and larger."

She was saved, but five other climbers died in the storm, enticed by the challenge of Everest but doomed to perish on the deadliest day in the mountain's history.

In the film one climber, John Taske, describes the decision to leave behind two fellow climbers who were suffering from frostbite and were barely conscious.

"The decision to leave [them] where they were was not really a difficult decision," Taske said. "Here were these other people exposed to phenomenal winds, at least 80 miles an hour, 20, 30 below zero at night. We thought it was kinder to leave them rather than cause them pain, even in a semi-conscious state, by dragging them over to where we were. They were basically dead."

Breashears added: "You get to really experience the ferocity of that storm and the despair and the difficulties that the climbers were experiencing trying to get off the highest levels of the mountain. There's something extremely compelling about looking into the eyes of someone who's telling you that they just wanted to drift away and go to sleep so that the pain would go away."

Breashears, 52, said it took years for him to decide to make a documentary about the Everest tragedy.

"It never occurred to me until many years afterwards to make a film about that event," he said. "It takes time to take in something like that in your life -- not for me, but for the survivors to look back and know how it affected them and have a proper perspective on it. It was a lot for them to digest."

And in the immediate aftermath of the storm, the tragedy of the deaths threatened to be overshadowed by media controversy about the fateful events of that night. Numerous reports in magazines, books and television shows criticized the commercialization of Everest ascents, with more and more climbers every year paying big bucks for guided tours to take them to the summit.

"The feeling is that if you try that, you get what you deserve," Breashears said. "We're all very quick to form opinions and assign blame, sometimes too quick."

So not only did survivors have to contend with the impact of the tragedy but also with the controversy swirling around them.

"There were two storms for many of them -- the storm on Everest and then the media storm afterward," he said. "And many people said to us 'They didn't know us. They didn't know what we'd been through, but they judged us.'"

Now Breashears, who shot 62 hours of emotionally charged interviews edited down to 40 minutes in the film, hopes that viewers will "see themselves up there in the humanity of these characters."

One character who lost his life was Rob Hall, an experienced climbing guide. The film features an interview with Helen Wilton, the base camp manager who connected Hall by satellite phone, freezing to death on top of the mountain, to his pregnant wife in New Zealand so he could say goodbye to her.

"I guess nobody wanted to admit to themselves that it was going to be their last call," Wilton said. "It was something that was just never said. And as I put the call through and held the microphone of the radio against the satellite phone, I was almost doubled up holding my hands up with the phone because I was crying so much…"

"It nearly broke my heart, but I was glad that I could do that for them. And every time [Rob] spoke to [his wife] Jan, he lifted. And so that's the most important thing I think I've ever done."

For Breashears, who has ascended Everest five times, his love affair with the mountain dates back to the age of 11, when he saw a photo of sherpa Tenzing Norgay standing on the summit in 1953 after becoming the first person, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, to accomplish the feat.

"It wasn't man against man or even man against mountain -- it was man against himself," Breashears said. "When you stand on top of that mountain, there is the distinct feeling that you've done something extraordinary that separates you from everyone else around you."

But, he said, the true meaning of Everest comes not from the mountain, but from man.

"Everest is just a lump of rock and ice, the highest lump of rock and ice on the planet, but what it really means is what we project onto it: all of our hopes, all of our aspirations, the romance of it, the heroism of it."

"Storm Over Everest" airs Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS. Click here to watch the trailer.

Visit the film's Web site by clicking here.