Is ‘Everest Air’ A Feel-Good Documentary or Did Reality TV Finally Go Too Far?

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The trail to the summit of Mount Everest is littered with films and TV shows. From the 1975 classic The Man Who Would Ski Down Everest, which won an Academy Award for best documentary feature, to David Breashears' blockbuster Imax film Everest, about the tragedy during the 1996 season, the mountain has been a frequent setting for some of the most dramatic tales on screen. Lately, it’s also been home to a fair number of reality TV shows, including Discovery Channel’s Everest: Beyond the Limit, which featured the colorful commercial expedition leader Russell Brice and ran for three years. Into this crowded market enters the Travel Channel’s all new series, Everest Air. The show follows a high-altitude rescue team led by American medic and mountaineer Jeff Evans. “Patrolling Everest's slopes from Base Camp to its Balcony, Evans and the Alpine Rescue Service team go higher and further than any group has gone before to aid climbers in need,” the show’s description reads. True to its promise, Episode 1 premiered last week, with plenty of buzzing helicopters, comatose patients, and guys shouting into radios.

But some in the Everest community question the show’s premise: The Alpine Rescue Service was fully funded and organized by the TV production, and the group had no experience working as a team before they showed up in the Khumbu Valley this spring, camera crew in tow. “They’re not recognized as a rescue team, and have no real formal training,” says Russell Brice of the Sherpa team. “They went around basecamp telling teams that if they needed rescue and agreed to be filmed, that they would do the rescue for free.” Indeed, the show’s hyperbolic language — which claims the highest mountain rescue in history, among other things — doesn’t appear to be well vetted. In 2001, Dave Hahn, Tap Richards, and Jason Tanguay rescued two climbers from the Third Step on the North Ridge of Everest at 28,500 feet, more than a thousand feet higher than the Balcony, at 27,300 feet. Well-respected medical clinics run by nonprofit foundations providing free healthcare to the local populations already exist at Basecamp and a day’s hike down valley, in Periche. So did Everest TV finally jump the shark? We sat down with star Jeff Evans to find out.

What’s your day job and what led you to Everest?

I’m a physician’s assistant by trade for 17 years now, working primarily in the emergency room. I’ve also been guiding treks and pretty easy climbs over the years in the Himalayas and all the major mountain ranges, and specifically I’ve been guiding Erik Weihenmayer [the first blind person to summit Mt. Everest]. We’ve climbed everything from El Cap to Everest and Denali and Aconcagua. But by trade I’m a medical guy.

Tell us about the genesis of the Alpine Rescue Service.

This guy named Anthony Gordon, an adventure film guy, was over in Nepal doing some other project and he befriended a group of the younger generation of Sherpa. They’re just as strong as their uncles and dads but now they’re more savvy: Facebook savvy, media savvy. And their commentary to Anthony was that they had taken note of the fact that there was a void of a dedicated Sherpa search and rescue teams on Everest and in the Khumbu. They had interest in doing it, but didn’t know how to do it. So Anthony said, "How 'bout we put some GoPros on you to tell your story and then sell it to the network to subsidize the whole thing, get you guys paid and pay for some helicopter time."

Before I signed up I had a pretty significant conversation with the production staff and said, "I don’t want to be a part of this unless we open up our services and make our services available to everyone and not just the wealthy Westerners who are running up and down the hill and getting in trouble." So I made them promise me that we would be available to Nepalis and Sherpas throughout the Khumbu Valley for free.

Some of the first few rescues that we were apart of were Nepalis… A young boy with a small bowel obstruction and a Sherpa who was working up on the hill and ended up getting coronary artery spasms, like a really, really profound cardiac event.

The show’s presser said something about the highest rescue ever achieved on Everest. How did that go down?

Well, I’m not even sure whether that’s true or not, to be honest with you. I don’t even know which rescue they’re talking about. I know our Sherpa team evaced a couple of Slovaks from way up high on the West Face, which in my mind was one of the most badass efforts that’s probably ever been done. That was from 8,000 meters. I don’t know if it is the highest. I don’t like those kind of statements, you know, "highest rescue ever." That’s kinda bullshit if you ask me, because I don’t want this to be a pat on the back for us to say "Look what we did." That’s been the conflict for me all along, that it’s gonna look like we made the TV show to do this [create this rescue team], when in fact we did this and then the TV show was a result.

Was there any moment that sticks out?

It was on my birthday, May 7. I was flying with captain Kieran, and we got a call that there was a Spaniard who was at one of the higher camps on Makalu, so we flew in to go rescue this dude named Jesus. The weather was terrible and so we flew up valley and the pilot kept having to find all these little holes in the clouds and fog, like connect the dots. We were just hovering right next to these big fleeted ridges, and it was this combination of full-on adrenaline and excitement that we were going to be able to go get this guy. We were hearing he’s not gonna live beyond this day, because his pulse was really, really low. So we went and found these little sucker holes in the weather, got over to the other side of the ridge, and scooped him up and made it back. I think that was probably the spiciest trip out in the bird, and it was satisfying that some good came from it, too.

How many rescues did you perform?

We did 38 operations, and out of those 38, I think, like, two dozen of them were really substantial, cases where I felt like we really saved this person’s life. The others were more cases of just — go up there and throw 'em in the bird and take them down to Lukala and send 'em to the Starbucks.

The Himalayan Rescue Foundation has been operating Everest ER at basecamp for 14 years, and there’s also the American Himalayan Foundation’s Perch Clinic, and you’re flying up to those locations to render medical care when there’s already free health care available there. What was different about what you guys were doing? Why not just volunteer for Everest E.R. or the Perch clinic and join an existing established effort versus going and starting something new?

I wanted to work with Everest E.R., but what we were told was they were gonna charge us a substantial amount of money to be able to bring cameras into the E.R. to film.

Hopefully, if we do Season 2, we can figure out a way to showcase them more — I see it as being an opportunity to create a relationship, and because they’re a non-profit, they need folks to support them, and so for me it’s like we could showcase them, draw attention to them, and they’ll be able to leverage off of that to be able to keep working.

I know some felt like, you know, "Hey you guys are coming in and doing this just for the TV show." If they saw what we were doing, hopefully we could work together.

Did you guys have any patients who asked not to be filmed?

No, we didn’t. I was concerned because I knew some folks would be like, "Whatever, man, real cool with the whole camera work and the TV show and the glorification of the dark side of it." I knew we were gonna get some pushback, and I just accepted that because I was doing the right thing with the right people, and we didn’t do anything that was manufactured or weird or contrived. I think a good indication is your question: Did anybody bug out and say don’t film me? No. Not one person, so to me that was like, "Oh, turns out we’re doing alright."

On a personal level it must be a weird experience being followed with cameras while working. Did that get annoying?

Yeah, of course it did. And I had to just remind myself a few times when they were like, "Okay you’ve had this long day, now you’ve gotta sit down and talk to the cameras again," and I was like, "Okay, I signed up for it." I would think to myself, "This is how it’s being subsidized, from our efforts to do this, so I have to commit to it and finish the job."

So the experience was good overall?

I like the fact that our Sherpa team received a lot of credit for being up there. As you know with all this stuff, there’s so many moving parts. I’m blown away, man, like all these people from New York and L.A. are all sort of positioning the show and doing all these things — it’s just not my world. I’m just kinda standing by and trying to navigate through all of these shark-infested waters with this whole thing. But I enjoy this project a lot. Medically it was cool for me to get to work with this team. And it was awesome to fly around in a freaking helicopter for two months in the Himalayas. That’s pretty rad. I got to fly under and beside a lot of big peaks, and obviously get the shit scared out of me — you know, pretty intense.

Are you gonna go back next year?

I hope so. Because we created impact, we did a lot of things right. There’s definitely a lot of things I think can be done better. The communications have to be better between ourselves and other folks, but I think the bottom line is: If we can replicate it again, there’s good that can come from it, and I would go back for sure. And this time I would actually tack on a little climbing trip of my own, so I don’t have to watch everyone having all the fun. So yeah, I’d go back again. I love Nepal. It’s so meaningful to me, the folks and the culture and the people and just the magnificence of that place. I can’t get rid of it, it’s in my mind.

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