Andreas Breitfuss has snow in his veins. Growing up in Perisher Valley where his parents operate a popular lodge, he clipped on his first pair of skis as a toddler. At seven, he became a competitive skier and by 18 was representing Australia in the freestyle ski team. Racing down slopes and bouncing over moguls for the national team for four years resulted in a knee injury and ended his dream to compete in the 1992 winter olympics in France. At 23, Breitfuss was forced to retire from competitive skiing.
Breitfuss during his skiing days.
But fast forward 20 years and the 42-year-old, who lives in Pokolbin’s sumptuous five-star Tower Lodge where he is maitre de maison and general manager of Tower Estate, has just made a far more daring dream come true.
After an intensive 12-month training regimen, which included the ascent last October of 7000-metre Mount Pumori, known by climbers as ‘‘Everest’s daughter’’, and two months acclimatising in the Himalaya, Breitfuss reached the pinnacle of all human heights.
On May 19, after 22 hours of climbing, Breitfuss, who is known as ‘‘AB’’ by friends and colleagues, reached the summit of Mount Everest.
Breitfuss is home safe now, which is no surprise to those who know him well. ‘‘I was never worried because he’s a perfectionist,’’ says his Austrian-born father Franz who still skis at 76. ‘‘He did a lot of preparation and is very skilled. He has lived most of his life in the mountains.’’
‘‘I was never going to turn back,’’ Breitfuss replies matter-of-factly when asked if he had any doubts. ‘‘When I was at the gym getting myself ready for the climb, I’d be running on the treadmill and looking at a spot on the wall at that angle,’’ he continues, pointing his left arm towards the ceiling, ‘‘and I’d think, that’s my sherpa in front of me, he’s at the summit and I’m joining him.
‘‘Everest is an endurance test and the last part of the climb is beyond a physical challenge because you’re so depleted. You’ve already lost 10 to 15 kilos over the two months you’ve been there, you’re physically not in great shape, you’re not at your peak fitness. It’s all about mental strength.’’
A photograph by German mountaineer Ralf Dujmovits of a conga line of 150 climbers attempting to reach the summit the same day as Breitfuss was published by British newspapers with reports about overcrowding on the world’s tallest peak. In light of what has been described as an exceptionally busy season, those few summer weeks which offer a window of good weather ahead of the monsoon, debate has raged about the commercialisation of Everest and the lack of experience among the growing number of ‘‘leisure’’ climbers.
In a world first, Breitfuss carried a GPS the entire distance to the top, which enabled his progress to be tracked online and exact measurements to be recorded by a German software company developing 3D images. Like many climbers, he got caught in the infamous bottle neck at the Hillary Step, an imposing 12-metre rock wall between Camp IV, the final camp atop the South Col, and the summit, an area known ominously as the ‘‘death zone’’. Climbers are often forced to wait up to three hours at an altitude of 8000metres for their turn to negotiate the fixed rope. Breitfuss and his companion George Andreou, who became the first Cypriot to reach the summit, waited 2 hours with their six expedition company guides.
‘‘The weather was closing in and the climbing window was about to shut so everyone raced up the mountain,’’ he recalls. ‘‘By the time we got to the Hillary Step, 60 or so climbers were coming down, single file, and we had to stand there and wait until they passed so we could ascend. Tashi [the head sherpa] was lowering our oxygen levels because he was worried we might not have enough to summit.
‘‘We’d lost communication with base camp and friends and family could see from the GPS signal that we weren’t moving. Everyone was worried that I’d been injured. At that altitude and after climbing through the night, you’re exhausted and death is a very real possibility.’’
The golden rule of ‘‘summiting’’ Everest is to do it no later than 2pm because you are at greater risk of injury and death as darkness and poor weather close in during the more dangerous descent to Camp IV, a gruelling 1.7kilometres away. The majority of fatalities happen on the return trip because fatigued climbers succumb to exhaustion, lack of oxygen and altitude sickness. Breitfuss reached the snow-covered peak just after the deadline and only had about 10 minutes to take in the breath-taking view, snap photos and phone loved ones, including girlfriend Kim Hutchison, the marketing and communications manager at Tower Estate. (Always meticulous, Breitfuss had written a list of things to do on the summit and given it to Tashi in case his memory was affected by lack of oxygen).
Breitfuss describes reaching the summit as ‘‘an amazing experience’’, though if climbers are searching for a moment of solitude while looking down upon cloud-covered valleys and dramatic neighbouring peaks, they will be disappointed. ‘‘Everest at the top isn’t that steep, it’s like a rounded snow drift,’’ he describes. ‘‘There’s a trigonometry station completely covered in colourful prayer flags. You could sit 20 to 30 people up there and you are never alone. We were lucky that while we were there we shared the moment with only 10 or so people.
‘‘George and I were the two strongest climbers in our team of 12. The rest of our group didn’t make it to the summit because they were slower and got to camp IV later and the weather turned. They had to retreat to camp II.
‘‘There were people up there who I thought shouldn’t be there,’’ he adds. ‘‘They slow the whole process down and they get in the way of quicker, fitter climbers. Two people who arrived at the summit while we were there died not long after – a Canadian woman and a sherpa.’’
The Canadian woman, who was later named as Shriya Shah-Klorfine, was one of four climbers who died on May 19. Eerily, the 33-year-old appears in some of Breitfuss’s photographs and is easily recognised by her vivid red and white thermal parka and maple leaf patches.
The majority of climbers who die on the mountain are left there and the well-trodden south-east route is referred to as ‘‘the morgue’’. In Shah-Klorfine’s case, her expedition crew risked their own safety by carrying her body to camp II, a low enough altitude to enable a helicopter to land.
Andreas Breitfuss, general manager of Tower Lodge, in his professional realm. - PICTURE: PETER STOOP
The comfortable lounge area of the boutique, 12-suite Tower Lodge with its plush antique furniture, high ceilings and log fire could not be more removed from the oppressive cold and gruelling terrain of Everest. Breitfuss, who spent his childhood with his three brothers chatting to guests at his parents’ lodge, Perisher Manor, and working in the kitchen and dining room, is equally at home in both settings.
‘‘I can sit here and share the most expensive bottle of champagne with my guests and be comfortable doing that,’’ he says, indicating the small bar lined with bottles of alcohol, ‘‘but I’m also comfortable sitting at 6000metres in my tent. It’s a good balance.’’
Breitfuss arrived in Pokolbin three years ago as general manager of Tower Estate, which includes Roberts restaurant and Peppers Convent, after working in hospitality in Australia and Europe (in 1993 he joined Rydges Hotels and Resorts and became the youngest person to be appointed to a senior management role). He favours the more traditional, European style of hospitality he inherited from his father, who arrived in Australia in 1956 and established the first Austrian-style pension in Perisher, Chalet Sonnenhof.
‘‘My father is like the consummate Austrian who shovels snow first thing in the morning and has a couple of schnapps with guests at night,’’ he says. ‘‘Dad always said that you shouldn’t go to bed until your last guest does so I do a lot of long hours. It can be hard sometimes, especially when I start at 9.30am and don’t get to bed until 2am, but my guests are why I am here and why I enjoy my job.’’
Every Friday and Saturday night, Breitfuss hosts pre-dinner drinks that begin with a champagne sabrage. His specially designed sabre takes pride of place in the lodge’s award-winning, intimate downstairs restaurant, Nine. The well-heeled guests, who pay $810 a night, hail mainly from Sydney, though overseas travellers have been lured to the lodge since it joined the ranks of the world’s most prestigious group of hotels and restaurants, Relais & Chateaux. Hunter residents also visit and one couple stays for a long weekend about six times a year, treating the lodge as their second home.
The immaculately groomed and focused Breitfuss used his surrounds to prepare for his Everest expedition. To build his strength, he loaded his backpack with 30kilograms of water bottles and attacked the climbing wall at the rear of the Sante Fe-inspired lodge until he could barely stand. Up, down, up, down.
He used a hypoxicator at night to simulate the oxygen deprivation that happens at high altitude. Once a week he would carry the heavy pack during a 40-kilometre walk through the nearby Pokolbin State Forest. He hit the gym most days and in the month before his departure, he eased off on the physical regimen and packed on fat reserves by eating ice-cream, chocolate and cheese.
‘‘It helps to arrive with a bit of a belly,’’ he says, smiling. ‘‘Tim [Rippel, expedition leader and operator of Peak Freaks] says it’s the really lean climbers who struggle in the end because they lose too much weight by the time they’re heading for the summit.’’ (When Breitfuss arrived home, he was overcome with a craving for Vegemite on toast and fresh milk – he polished off a loaf of bread in a few hours.)
Just listening to him recount his training schedule and the cost of the expedition – ‘‘You won’t get much change from $80,000’’ – is offputting, let alone the challenge of actually reaching the summit. But Breitfuss isn’t perturbed. He is hoping to participate in a trek to the south pole during which a helicopter delivers you to the isolation of Antarctica. The expedition will still involve his beloved snow, but this time no mountain.