Mountaineer shoots vanishing glaciers

By Sunil Kupperi

In Bangalore

It is tough enough to scale a summit like Everest. Then it is difficult to shoot high-quality photographs from such a cold, risky, low-pressure place that tests the limits of your body and the camera’s. Photographer and mountaineer David Breashears has overcome all these challenges and even more to produce his latest exhibition. He has retraced the steps of famous mountain photographers of the past century to recapture images of the Himalayan mountains and glaciers from exactly the same vantage points where they had shot from.

The outcome is Rivers of Ice: Vanishing Glaciers of the Greater Himalaya, an exhibition at Asia Society and Museum in New York.  In this project undertaken in collaboartion with the Glacier Research Imaging Project (GRIP), Breashears shows his photos alongside corresponding historic images.

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Main Rongbuk 1921: Main Rongbuk Glacier, Northern Slope of Mount Everest, Tibet Autonomous Region, China. 1921 (Photo: George L. Mallory, courtesy of Royal Geographical Society)

So they reveal the alarming loss in ice mass over the intervening years due to climate change. It is a strong statement on vanishing glaciers and global warming. Camera does not lie. So this daring act of photo documentation is a contribution to scientific research into the Himalayan glaciers.

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Main Rongbuk 2007: Main Rongbuk Glacier, Northern Slope of Mount Everest, Tibet Autonomous Region, China. 2007 (Photo: David Breashears, courtesy of GlacierWorks)

David Breashears, 54, is an American moutaineer and filmmaker, who has made eight expeditions to Everest, five successful. He guided mountaineer Richard Bass to the summit of Everest, thus helping him complete his ascent of the Seven Summits. He has worked for feature films such as Seven Years in Tibet and Cliffhanger, as well as the documentary Red Flag over Tibet. He is the recipient of four Emmy awards for achievement in cinematography.

In the latest project, Breashears has retraced the steps of the 1921 British Mount Everest Reconnaissance Expedition Team. He used photos taken by surveyor and photographer Major Edward O. Wheeler and amateur photographer George L. Mallory, who would later perish attempting to reach Everest’s summit in 1924. Returning to the same vantage points, Breashears has meticulously recreated their shots, pixel for pixel.

“Many of the Greater Himalaya’s glaciers are in China, and the rivers that flow out these mountains and from these frozen reservoirs will help determine the fates of people from Afghanistan to the North China Plain,” says Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. “What the world chooses to do about climate change, will determine the fates of these glaciers and these peoples.”

 Known as the “Third Pole,” the Himalaya are home to the world’s largest sub-polar ice reserves. The meltwaters of these high altitude glaciers supply crucial seasonal flows to the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Salween, Irrawaddy, Mekong, Yangtze and Yellow rivers, which hundreds of millions of people downstream depend on for their livelihoods.

Images of special note include a photograph from 1899 by Vittorio Sella, and 55-inch video displays of two gigapan photographs (ultrahigh resolution panoramic images at a size of over one billion pixels that are comprised of multiple photographs stitched together), showing

extraordinary detail, and two 21 foot wide panoramas, comprised of six photographs. Additional video footage is also included in the exhibition and its accompanying website featuring interactive gigapan photographs.

Since 2007, David Breashears has been trekking and photographing in the greater Himalayas, most often to the glaciers surrounding Mount Everest. His goal is no longer this highest peak, but a series of ledges and outcroppings scattered among the glaciers. His photographs reveal a startling truth: the ice of the Himalaya is disappearing. A strong statement that would make climate change skeptics silent.