Fans of Brian Blessed will know of his fascination with Mount Everest. Some will know that he climbed high on the mountain without oxygen in 1990, 1993, and 1996.
I climbed with Brian Blessed on Mount Everest as his film crew in 1990, and then as his mountain guide in 1993, and I will never forget how courageous and funny he was at high altitude.
Working and climbing with Brian was one of the highlights of my nine expeditions to Everest. When you share a tent and rope with someone you get to know them very well and I will say this: he’s a great guy. Here’s more on the story.
Brian Blessed’s Expeditions to Everest
Brian Blessed is no stranger to mountaineering. His expeditions include:
1988: Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. (19,341 ft.) (5,895 metres)
1990: Mount Everest North Ridge. 25,200 feet (7,700 m)
1993: Aconcagua in Argentina. 22,838 ft (6,961 metres).
1993: Mount Everest South-West Ridge. 28,200 feet (8,600 m)
1996: Mount Everest North Ridge. 25,200 feet (7,700 m)
Did Brian Blessed Climb Everest?
Brian Blessed did not quite get to the summit of Mount Everest, but he climbed to 28,200 feet (8,600 m) in 1993 (source: Wikipedia).
How? In 1990 the director John-Paul Davidson got funding for a BBC film about Mallory: Galahad of Everest. The high-altitude cameraman was David Breashears, already making his name in the field, and soon to be a famous IMAX film director.
Most of the filming was to be on the north side of Everest in Tibet. My job was to record sound and assist David in changing the reels of 35mm film on the Arriflex cine film camera.
The chief character in the film was Brian Blessed, an actor I knew was fascinated by Mallory and the early Everest expeditions, and who had been pushing hard to get this film made.
After my hire car caught fire on the M4 motorway I only just caught the flight to Kathmandu, where I met David Breashears and Jean-Paul Davidson. I liked the team immediately. Brian Blessed, our star, was a huge man in every way, with an unlikely physique for a climber. He looked rather like a yeti (see Top Ten Yeti Sightings).
Films and Documentaries featuring Brian Blessed and Everest
Galahad of Everest from 1990 was a fine film, Brian’s only film about his beloved mountain and one of his best performances. You can watch the whole thing below:
Brian Blessed on Everest Expeditions
During the filming of Galahad of Everest with Brian, we had to get to Tibet quickly after repairing the Arriflex camera. When we arrived at the frontier post in the vast gorge of the Bhote Kosi river we were all a bit nervous because of some doubts about visas. At the unfortunately named Friendship Bridge between Nepal and Tibet there was a stiff reception from the People’s Army soldiers in their thin, green cotton uniforms. We queued up and handed our passports over.
The immigration officer started examining them closely and our hearts sank. There was a sudden stir, the guards jerked round and the safety catches clacked off their guns. I spun round. To my horror Brian Blessed had picked up one of the guards bodily and was staggering off towards the 100-foot drop into the river!
Then Brian started bellowing with laughter, there was a pause, and the immigration officer began chuckling, too. The man’s colleagues giggled nervously, and Brian put him down. The spell was broken. The passports were handed back. We were through.
We joined the 1990 Earth Day 20 International Peace Climb, a combined American–Soviet–Chinese expedition led by Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Everest. It was the first time that the three nations had collaborated to climb a mountain. As Whittaker wrote in the 1991 American Alpine Journal,
‘This was before glasnost, before perestroika, before the Reagan–Gorbachev summit, before Gorbachev went to Beijing. We would hold the summit of all summit meetings, enemies becoming friends.’
The International Peace Climb certainly required diplomatic leadership. We were in Chinese-controlled Tibet, and the Chinese had not allowed Soviets on their soil in 30 years. Whittaker went to both countries to get their leaders’ support, and it was a good effort on his part. Ed Viesturs was one of the American climbers, here on his first Everest summit.
In the end, David Breashears, Brian Blessed and I, carrying an Arriflex film camera, 35mm film magazines and a tape recorder, managed to climb to where my cousin Howard Somervell sat down to die of asphyxiation on the North Ridge, at approximately 25,500ft (7,750m) [you can read more about Somervell’s frostbitten larynx here].
Because of a family story and a letter from a 1930s Everest climber, Frank Smythe, I knew that Mallory’s body that Smythe saw was just a few hundred yards away, but there was nothing I could do [you can read more about Smythe’s secret here].
Brian performed heroically in getting himself to that height, and we filmed him there putting on one of his loudest performances. Changing the exposed 35mm cine film in a light-proof bag was difficult at that altitude. Brian was exhausted and he could go no higher. As it was, we had to support him back into camp.
In the end Galahad of Everest was a fine film and one of Brian’s best performances under enormous pressure. George Mallory, the subject of the docu, was discovered on Everest in 1999.
We sent Brian down the North Col slopes ahead of us, and David Breashears and I rolled up all our tents and cooking gear into a huge roll the size of a car. I tried to carry it down the route but it was just too heavy to haul on to my back.
David tried to lift it, too. No luck. So we dragged the great, baggy, multi-colored roll to the edge of the North Col and peered over the edge. We could see Brian far below, waddling down the snow slopes towards Advanced Base Camp like a hungry bear. Or maybe a Yeti [Yeti article].
Carefully aiming the roll of baggage well away from him we pushed it off. It started slowly, and then gathered speed, then it started curving inexorably towards the tiny figure on the enormous slopes of Mount Everest. We watched, silent and appalled, as it accelerated and started bouncing in great leaps.
Then David and I shouted ‘Brian! Brian! Look behind you!’
Brian, who performs a lot of pantomime, ignores shouts of this kind. The roll took one huge leap and burst above him, showering him with pots, tents and soiled underclothing.
Pulling a wet sleeping bag off his head Brian slowly turned and shook his fist up at us with rage. “…You…f******…bastards…!” echoed across the mountain, and in the far distance an avalanche kicked off, detonated by the Blessed bellow.
In 1993 Brian and I decided to have another crack at climbing Mount Everest from the other, southern side, this time without carrying a cine camera. I was hired as his mountain guide and off we went post-monsoon in 1993. We spent 12 weeks tied together on the same rope.
This time I summited the mountain and Brian managed to get up to the South Col, left the tents and made a bee-line for the summit. He didn’t make it, but his performance was astonishing for a man of 57 in the notorious Death Zone. And even at high altitude he would leave us helpless with laughter.
On the descent, though Brian and I were very nearly killed in an avalanche in the notorious Icefall (read more about how climbers die on Everest here).
In 1996 Brian made another attempt at climbing Mount Everest from the North side but got no higher than we had in 1990. But he did succeed in reaching the tops of Aconcagua in Argentina and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
As an actor Brian Blessed was a good fit for Mount Everest. I worked in BBC Drama with hundreds of actors from Dame Judi Dench to Sir John Gielgud and I would say Brian didn’t excel at subtle characterisation but he had more raw power than any actor I knew.
After two expeditions to Mount Everest you really get to know a man. Brian Blessed was always a courageous climber and a good companion.