Feb. 20, 1998 Tuesday, February 24 at 8pm ET on PBS, narrated by Jodie Foster
In the wake of the Mt. Everest disaster that killed eight climbers in a single day in 1996, a NOVA team headed by three-time Everest summiteer and filmmaker David Breashears returns to the mountain to shed new light on the effects of extreme altitude on decision-making.
NOVA goes to new heights to learn why rational people can make astonishingly poor, and sometimes fatal, decisions on the world’s highest peak in “Everest—The Death Zone,” airing Tuesday, February 24 at 8pm ET on PBS (check local listings). Narrated by Jodie Foster.
Accompanying Breashears are Ed Viesturs, attempting his fifth Everest summit (a feat he has accomplished three times without supplemental oxygen) and David Carter, who had a failed attempt on Everest in 1991.
In the course of the climb, Carter nearly dies when an upper respiratory infection takes a severe turn. Trapped at high altitude without access to professional help, his life hangs on radioed instructions from the expedition doctor at Base Camp.
“Everest—The Death Zone” takes viewers all the way—from Base Camp at 17,600 feet, through the Khumbu Icefall that has swallowed a score of climbers, up the precipitous Lhotse Face, into the Death Zone above 25,000 feet, past the high-altitude death traps of 1996 where corpses still litter the route, and on to the very pinnacle of the Earth at 29,028 feet.
During the ascent, oxygen dwindles from one-half of sea-level pressure at Base Camp, to one-third in the Death Zone. As cells begin to die from oxygen deprivation, breathing becomes an act of desperation. One by one, body systems start shutting down. The brain barely functions. Motor skills deteriorate. Bottled oxygen helps, but it must be saved for the moments of greatest need on the upper mountain. Wind, cold, extreme dehydration, and blinding solar radiation add to the misery.
In this punishing environment, Breashears and his NOVA team perform the first systematic tests of mental acuity ever done during an actual Everest climb. The tests involve responses to specially designed questions transmitted from Base Camp that gauge each climber’s ability to reason and perform simple mental tasks. The responses serve as an index to the state of the brain from Base Camp to the top of the mountain.
MRI scans of each climber’s brain are also done pre- and post-climb to look for possible long-term damage due to the low oxygen environment. In the process, scientists discover structural abnormalities in one of the climber’s brains.
Even with “the best technology, the best training,” says Breashears, “you can still end up frozen to death at 27,500 feet. That’s what makes Everest Everest.” In May 1996, when the tragedy that claimed eleven lives on Everest’s icy slopes unfolded, NOVA was on the mountain and reported on the worldwide web in real-time with its first-ever NOVA/PBS Online Adventure that captivated the world’s attention. The 1996 Online Adventure and its subsequent 1997 Adventure can still be found online at http://www.pbs.org/nova/everest/.
“Everest-The Death Zone” is a NOVA production by the WGBH/Boston Science Unit in association with Channel 4, produced and directed by David Breashears and Liesl Clark, written by Liesl Clark.
Now in its 24th season, NOVA is produced for PBS by the WGBH Science Unit. The director of the WGBH Science Unit and executive producer of NOVA is Paula S. Apsell.
Major funding is provided by the Park Foundation, Inc., dedicated to education and quality television. Additional funding is provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and public television viewers.
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