Mountaineer David Breashears brings his Himalaya glacier project to Aspen
IF YOU GO
What: “Everest to Aspen: An Evening with David Breashears”
When: Tonight, doors at 5 p.m., presentation at 5:30 p.m.
Where: Wheeler Opera House
Cost: $15 general admission, $55 w/reception
One of America’s greatest mountaineers wants to inspire people to take action to curb climate change without beating them over the head with a doom-and-gloom message.
David Breashears has developed an incredible project to illustrate how global warming is affecting the Himalayan glaciers. He founded the nonprofit GlacierWorks that uses art, science and adventure to show how the vast majority of 49,000-plus glaciers in the Himalaya are retreating at a rate higher than natural melting.
Breashears and his team have retraced the steps of pioneering mountain photographers from 50 to 100 years ago and captured modern images to compare with the historic record. He will give a presentation on his findings tonight at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen. His presentation is titled, “Everest to Aspen: An Evening with David Breashears.”
Breashears, 62, has devoted a large part of his life to traveling the Himalaya as an adventurer and filmmaker. In 1985, he reached the summit of Mount Everest a second time, becoming the first American to reach the world’s highest point more than once. He has now summited Everest five times.
“When you trod on those glaciers yearly or bi-yearly you don’t notice the changes outright,” he said Thursday while boarding an airplane to Aspen.
But on a filmmaking assignment to the North Face of Mount Everest in October 2007, something monumental struck him as he was looking at a photo taken by English mountaineer George Mallory.
“I stood there holding out the black-and-white Mallory photo from 1921 and I was just astonished,” Breashears said. “I didn’t recognize the terrain, the glacier.”
Much of the glacier had disappeared. Even more has disappeared since Breashears took his first photo from the same vantage point in 2007.
The discovery inspired him to rush to Kathmandu to research photos of the south side of Everest taken by a Swiss team in the early 1950s. He sought out the same terrain to gather matching photos.
“It wasn’t part of what I was supposed to be doing, but I said, ‘You know what? Somebody’s got to get this message out and I have my climbing and filmmaking and storytelling experience so I better get started,’” he said. “We’ve had 18 expeditions collect photos to compare with historical ones.”
It hasn’t been easy work. Many of the expeditions are to some of the most inaccessible places on the surface of the planet.
The historical and current photos are part of GlacierWorks’ exhibit, “Rivers of Ice, Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya.” Some of those images will be used in his Aspen presentation.
The GlacierWorks’ website takes a very pragmatic approach to the issue. There isn’t preaching or complicated scientific analysis. Breashears believes the comparisons of his team’s images with historic photos speak for themselves. He wants to present the evidence and inspire people to take action to reduce their personal carbon footprint and act to bring change on a global scale.
The exhibit has been displayed around the globe, including an 11-month run in 2012-13 at MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Breashears is thrilled because he is convinced that exhibit influenced the right people, including students graduating in the earth sciences.
“We don’t just want people looking at the photos and saying, ‘That’s horrible,’” he said. “We want bright people who are going to have influence and could have impact.”
Breashears was brought to Aspen by The Keeling Curve Prize, which awards 10 grants of $25,000 each annually to projects that reduce greenhouse gases or increase carbon intake, and John Wilcox, owner of Ashcroft Ski Touring and Pine Creek Cookhouse. Wilcox is an outdoor adventure film producer who helped Breashears get established as a filmmaker. Breashears said Wilcox shares his concern for the Himalaya.
Breashears is guardedly optimistic that the rate of loss of the Himalayan glaciers can be slowed though not stopped. Black carbon from poorly combusted fuels from brick kilns, slash-and-burn farming, wood fires and coal-fired plants rains down on the glaciers, accelerating the melting. Dust often has the same impact on the Colorado snowpack, he noted.
“There’s tremendous pressure on these glaciers,” he said. “What we’re doing is trying to get the air cleaned up from those sources.”
The potential impact of the melting glaciers on global stability is huge. The glaciers are the source of water for numerous major rivers in Asia.
Breashears said the imagery produced by his team is meant to convey, “Change is coming, what does it mean and are you prepared?”
“Being prepared means adaptation and resiliency,” he said.
He plans to continue for the foreseeable future to share his images of the Himalaya and try to inspire action.
“I wouldn’t be in this game and doing this work if I didn’t believe some minds are changed,” Breashears said. “I’ll do this until I can’t walk in the Himalaya. My knees are good, so that’s not going to happen anytime soon.”
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International visitors have traditionally accounted for 10 to 20 percent of Aspen Skiing Co.’s skier visits in recent past seasons. Travel fears and restrictions tied to the coronavirus are expected to wipe out most of that market for 2020-21.