Jeff Evans ended up the star of the latest Travel Channel adventure series on accident. The Boulder resident didn’t start out on the cast.
His six-episode show, “Everest Air,” premiers on the Travel Channel.
As Evans tells it, a production crew originally reached out to him for some consulting advice for a possible new Travel Channel series. The idea: Follow around rescue helicopters in the dangerous Himalayas, specifically Mount Everest, and chronicle the crazy stories of people attempting to conquer the highest peak above sea level in the world.
He told them their idea was close, but he had a better idea. After all, Evans had a lifetime of rock climbing, which started when he moved to Boulder at age 19, as well as 16 years as a physician assistant in Denver’s St. Joseph Hospital’s emergency department.
He’d made it to the top of Everest, as well as the other highest peaks of each continent — the “Seven Summits” — and Denali three times, as the principle guide for famous blind climber Erik Weihenmayer. Evans had spent many years in Nepal leading mountain excursions. He knew the mountains, and he knew medicine; his specialty was where the two intersected: dehydration, frostbite, altitude sickness, gastrointestinal problems, climbing injuries, broken bones. He calls it “mountain medicine.”
“I’ve seen so much over a 20-plus-year mountaineering career. You name it. If it happens clinically, it happens in the mountains, and if it happens in the mountains, it’s worse,” Evans says. “Everything’s more profound when you’re up in the hills.”
Evans told the TV crew they were onto a good idea — hundreds of people have died trying to climb the mountain — but for the real story, they needed their own medic and crew in the helicopter.
And that rescue group shouldn’t just help Westerners stuck on Everest. The medical care should also reach out to help the struggling, rural communities near the peak.
That’s when consultant became TV star. The filmmakers asked him if he’d lead their medical team.
Filming began in February for two months.
The show, “Everest Air,” runs for six weeks, and follows the real experiences of Evans and his group of helicopter pilots and Sherpas. That was another one of his stipulations: To do the best job, they needed to employ local Sherpas, who had deep connections with the terrain and the community.
The Sherpas were a dedicated team up on the mountain at all times, specifically just for rescues, Evans says.
“When a call would go out, those guys were there. They secured the patient and called me to let me know what they needed,” he says.
Each hour-long episode of “Everest Air” aims to show another side of Everest: the dangers, but also the heroes, who put their own lives at risk to save others.
Of the 38 rescues over the two months of filming, more than 24 were locals or Sherpas, and not just on the mountain, but also down in the valley. Several cases required travel outside of the Everest region. There was a young Nepali woman who was hemorrhaging after a miscarriage. A 19-year-old man with a bowel obstruction. A 52-year-old woman who had fallen 40 feet out of a tree and broken her back.
“There were no roads. She couldn’t ride a yak or horse. She was going to die, sitting right there, but we scooped her up, stabilized her and got her to a neurosurgery unit,” Evans says. “She’s now back in her village.”
The Everest rescues were “pretty much what you’d expect,” he says. He treated people for altitude sickness, brain swelling, a ruptured Achilles, a broken rib that punctured a lung, hypothermia, snow blindness. (Turns out, he knows something about guiding blind people on Everest.)
Evans says that in the end, he felt proud to be a part of something that made a difference, not just for the climbing community, but also for the local community.
“It means a lot for me to make sure that we’re there for the right reasons: to help and be of service to other people,” Evans says. “I think people are going to be surprised by that. With a name like ‘Everest Air,’ you might think, ‘Oh boy. He’s going to fly around Everest and pick up a bunch of rich white dudes.’ But we were very close with the local folks.”
Beyond the drama of the mountain, which is a given, Evans says he hopes viewers gain a deeper appreciation for the region and Sherpa community. He says the images are powerful and provide an intimate view of Everest. You get a sense of the grandeur and majesty, as a backdrop for what Evans considers even more beautiful: the local culture.
Courtney White, senior vice president of programming for the Travel Channel, said in a written statement that the mix of “incredible beauty, awesome risk and the promise of a life-changing reward make Mount Everest one of the most compelling places on the planet.”
The show provides a unique perspective of what can happen when you try to tackle the peak, she said.
Evans graduated from the University of Colorado in 1994 with a degree in anthropology, and he attended physician assistant school in Pennsylvania, in between mountain climbing.
“It was not easy,” he says. “I was in Pharmacology 101 within a week of standing on Denali. My feet were still sunburned and I was as skinny as I could be. It was a two-year suffer-fest.”
“Everest Air” wasn’t Evans’ first time volunteering medical help in Nepal. After the second big earthquake last year, he was part of a team that treated more than 1,000 injured patients in the backcountry.
Evans says he hopes to film another season, especially now that the infrastructure is already set up. This TV show literally saved lives, and he says he hopes there’s the budget to save more.
“Some people may think the TV component may diminish the rescue component, but man, that’s what paid for it. We hooked up some GoPros and saved some lives,” he says.
Evans also appeared on ABC’s “Expedition Impossible” in 2011 (a similar concept to “The Amazing Race”). As part of Weihenmayer’s team, he has appeared in award-winning documentaries, “Farther Than the Eye Can See,” “Blindsight” and “High Ground.”