Beck Weathers ’ obsession with climbing was destroying his marriage even before he missed his 20th wedding anniversary to join the ill-fated 1996 Everest climb. But when Weathers was badly injured in the May 10th disaster that claimed the lives of eight climbers, it was his wife. Peach, who organized a daring helicopter rescue that brought him down to safety.
In the following excerpt from Weathers’ new book, Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest, the Dallas pathologist and former president of the medical staff at Medical City Dallas recounts the doomed expedition, his dramatic rescue, and his ongoing physical and spiritual recovery.
ON THE EVENING OF MAY 10. 1996, A KILLER BLIZZARD exploded around the upper reaches of Mount Everest, trapping me and dozens of other climbers high in the Death Zone of the Earth’s tallest mountain.
The storm began as a low, distant growl, then rapidly formed into a howling white fog laced with ice pellets. It hurtled up Mount Everest to engulf us in minutes. We couldn’t see as far as our feet. Wind speeds that night would exceed seventy knots. The ambient temperature fell to sixty below zero.
The blizzard pounced on my group of climbers just as we’d gingerly descended a sheer pitch known as the Triangle above Camp Four, or High Camp, on Everest’s South Col, a desolate saddle of rock and ice about three thousand feet below the mountain’s 29,035-foot summit.
Of the eight clients and three guides in my group, five of us, including myself, never made it to the top. Of the six who summitted, four were later killed in the storm. They included our thirty-five-year-old expedition leader. Rob Hall, a gentle and humorous New Zealander of mythic mountaineering prowess. Another sad fatality was diminutive Yasuko Namba, forty-seven, whose final human contact was with me, the two of us huddled together through that awful night, lost and freezing in the blizzard on the South Col, just a quarter mile from the warmth and safety of camp.
Four other climbers also perished in the storm, making May 10, 1996, the deadliest day on Everest in the seventy-five years since the intrepid British schoolmaster.
George Leigh Mallory, first attempted to climb the mountain.
MAY 10 BEGAN AUSPICIOUSLY FOR ME. I WAS BATTERED AND BLOWING from the enormous effort to get that far, but 1 was also as strong and clearheaded as any forty-nine-year-old amateur mountaineer can expect to be under the severe physical and mental stresses at high altitude. I already had climbed eight other major mountains around the world, and I had worked like an animal to get to this point, hellbent on testing myself against the ultimate challenge.
I was aware that fewer than half the expeditions to climb Everest ever put a single member-client or guide-on the summit. 1 also knew that approximately 150 people had lost their lives on the mountain, most of them in avalanches.
I fell into climbing, so to speak, a willy-nilly response to a crushing bout of depression that began in my mid-thirties. On a family vacation in Colorado I discovered the rigors and rewards of mountain climbing, and gradually came to see the sport as my avenue of escape. Once in the mountains, I could fix my mind, undistracted, on climbing, convincing myself in the process that conquering world-famous mountains was testimony to my grit and manly character.
High-altitude mountaineering, and the recognition it brought me, became my hollow obsession. When my wife, Peach, warned that this cold passion of mine was destroying the center of my life, and that I was systematically betraying the love and loyalty of my family, I listened but did not hear her.
OUR CLIMB BEGAN IN EARNEST ON MAY 9. WE WERE GOING TO get up with the sun and climb all day to get to High Camp on the South Col late that afternoon. We would then rest for three or four hours, get up again and climb all night and through the next day to hit Everest’s summit by noon on May 10, and absolutely no later than two o’clock.
We reached High Camp on schedule late that afternoon. The South Col is part of the ridge that forms Everest’s southeast shoulder and sits astride the great Himalayan mountain divide between Nepal and Tibet. Four groups-too many people, as it turned out-would be bivouacked there in preparation for the final assault: us, Scott Fischer’s expedition, a Taiwanese group and a team of South Africans who would not make the summit attempt that night. Altogether, maybe a dozen tents were set up, surrounded by a litter of spent oxygen canisters, the occasional frozen body and tile tattered remnants of previous climbing camps.
Our group started out first. We moved across the South Col. heading to the summit face. There was nothing to it, really. All you have to do is steand rest, step and rest-hour after endless hour-until halfway up the face we shifted over in a traverse to the left.
I gradually realized, to my deep annoyance, that I couldn’t see the face of this mountain at all, and the reason 1 couldn’t also slowly dawned on me. I am nearsighted and struggled for years on various mountains with iced-over lenses, balky contacts, and all sorts of gadgets designed to keep my field of vision clear.
Nothing worked. So a year and a half before I went to Mount Everest, I had my eyes operated on so thai 1 would he safer in the mountains. The operation was a radial keratotomy, in which tiny incisions are made in one’s corneas to alter the eyes” focal lengths and (presumably) improve vision. However, unbeknownst to me and to virtually every ophthalmologist in the world, al high altitude a cornea thus altered will both Ratten and thicken, shortening your focal length and rendering you effectively blind.
At first I wasn’t really worried, I expected that, once the sun was fully out, even behind my jet-black lenses my pupils would clamp down to pinpoints and everything would be infinitely focused.
In the predawn darkness, however, I was too blind to climb. So I stepped out of line and let everyone pass, going from fourth out of thirty-some climbers to absolutely dead last.
As I expected, my vision did begin to clear, and I was able to dig in the front knives on my boots, move across, and head on up to (he summit ridge. Then I compounded my problem by reaching to wipe my face with an ice-crusted glove. A crystal painfully lacerated my right cornea, leaving that eye completely blurred. That meant I had no depth perception. My left eye was a little blurry but basically okay. But I knew that I could not climb above this point, a living-room sized promontory called the Balcony, about fifteen hundred feet below the summit, unless my vision improved.
At 7:30(1.11)., Weathers, believing his vision would clear, wanted to proceed. Rob Hall, his guide, gave him thirty minutes. If after that time he still couldn’t see. he was to await Hall’s return.
By noon three other climbers had descended from the summit, but Weathers declined their invitation to follow them down to High Camp. If he left his spot. Weathers reasoned. Hall wouldn’t know if he ’d made it back safely or if he had inadvertently fallen off the mountain. If never occurred to Weathers that Hall wouldn’t make it down from the summit.
I expected Rob no later than three. The hour came and went, as did four and five. I began to worry. The light went flat. It began to get a little colder. The wind picked up. The snow began to move, and I realized I “d stayed too long at the party, I was trapped. Although I’d been breathing bottled oxygen and was not hypoxic, I had been standing or sitting for ten hours without moving much. The cold was beginning to act like an anesthetic on my mind. I hallucinated seeing people.
Another half hour or so passed, and here came Mike Groom with Yasuko. She looked like a walking corpse, so exhausted she could barely stand. Fortunately. Neal Beidleman and some other members of the Fischer group also came along just then, including Sandy Pittman. Charlotte Fox. and Tim Madsen. all of whom had sum-mitted. and all of whom were close to the limits of their endurance. Yasuko and I were the acute problems, however. Neal took her. and headed on down the Triangle. Mike short-roped me, which is exactly what it sounds like. One end of a rope went around the waist of the downhill climber, me. Twenty feet back was Mike, who’d use muscle and leverage to stabilize me as we descended.
Only a quarter-mile away from the safety of High Camp. Weathers and the other climbers were trapped in a deafening blizzard. Guide Neal Beidleman would later say that it was like being lost in a hot-tie of milk. Peach Weathers knew nothing of the growing crisis.
WE INSTINCTIVELY HERDED TOGETHER; NOBODY WANTED TO GET separated from the others as we groped along, trying to get the feel of the South Col s slope, hoping for some sign of camp. In the space of a few minutes, we lost all sense ol’ direction; we had no idea where we were facing in the swirling wind and noise and blowing ice.
We continued to move as a group, until suddenly the hair stood up on the back of Neal’s neck.
“Something is wrong here.” he shouted above the din. “We’re stopping.” We were not twenty-five feet, from the seven-thousand-fool vertical plunge off the Kangshung Face. From where we slopped the ice sloped away at a steep angle. A few more paces and the whole group would have just skidded off the mountain.
LlFE AND DEATH WERE NOW THE ISSUE FOR ALL OF US, WITH THE ODDS against the former lengthening each moment.
We rapidly formulated a plan. The strongest: among us-including Beidleman and Schoening-would make a high-speed trek in the direction of camp. If Sehoening had his directions straight, and if they found the blue tents of High Camp, they’d get help and rescue the rest of us.
If they didn’t make it, we were history anyway.
Neal, Mike and Kiev somehow did find High Camp that night, but were on their hands and knees by that time. They weren’t going to return for us: they couldn’t. There was no one else to try. except for the Russian, Anatoli Boukreev.
Anatoli did what no one else could, or would do. He went out into (hat storm three limes, searching both for Scott Fischer, who froze to death on the mountain, about twelve hundred feet above the South Col, and for us. Boukreev twice was driven back to camp by the wind and cold. The third time he located our little huddle by the face and brought in each of the three Fischer climbers-Tim. Charlotte and Sandy. He left behind Yasuko and me.
THE STORM RELENTED ON THE MORNING OF THE ELEVENTH. THE WINDS dropped to about thirty knots. Stuart Hutchison and three Sherpas went in search of Yasuko and me. They found us lying next to each other, largely buried in snow and ice.
First to Yasuko. Hutchison reached down and pulled her up by her coal. She had a three-inch-thick layer of ice across her face, a mask that he peeled back. Her skin was porcelain, Her eyes were dilated. But she was still breathing.
He moved to me. pulled me up, and cleaned the ice out of my eyes and off my beard so he could look into my face. 1. like Yasuko, was barely clinging to life.
What do you do? Hutchison didn’t really need a second opinion here. Yasuko and I were going to die anyway. Il would only endanger more lives to bring us back.
Hutchison and the Sherpas got back to camp and told everyone that we were dead. They called down to Base Camp, which notified Rob’s office in Christchurch. which relayed the news to Dallas. On a warm, sunny Saturday morning the phone rang in our house. Peach answered and was told by Madeleine David, office manager for Hall’s company, that I had been killed descending from the summit ridge.
“Is there any hope?” Peach asked.
“No.” David replied. “The re’sheen a positive body identification.”
Peach was devastated. “My worst nightmare had come true. It was the same as when you break your leg. Numb. I couldn’t cry. I just kept thinking, ’Oh my God, what will I do now?’ I didn’t want to have to tell either of my children that their father was dead, and so I tried to postpone doing so. Instinct rules when catastrophe strikes. My instinct was to draw in my strength. So I called my Brother Howie in Atlanta, and our Dallas friends….”
DEAD MAN WALKING
Back on the mountain, entombed in ice and left for dead, Weathers suddenly regained consciousness and stood up, at first believing he was a! home in Texas. Then, in what he describes as an epiphany. Weathers saw his family clearly in his mind’s eye. He stumbled toward the blue tents of High Camp.
“YOU ARE NOT GOING TO BELIEVE WHAT JUST WALKED INTO I>camp,” I hey radioed down to Base Camp. The ’ I response back was “Thai is fascinating. Bu! il changes nothing. He is going to die. Do not bring him down,”
They left me alone m Scon Fischer’s tent thai night, expecting me to die. On a couple of occasions I heard the others referring to “a dead guy” in the tent. Who could that be? I wondered as 1 slipped in and out of wakefulness.
Nearly everyone packed up to break camp al daybreak, and they did so very quietly. I didn’t hear any of it. Besides myself, only Jon Krakauer. and Todd Burleson and Pete Athans. who were guiding the same expedition together, remained in camp.
I heard a noise outside.
’”Hello!” I yelled. “Anybody out there?” Krakauer. who was checking out each tent before he. loo. headed down the mountain. stuck his head inside. When he saw me. Jon’s jaw dropped right down to the middle of his chest. I was supposed to be dead.
Conventional wisdom holds that in hypothermia cases, even so remarkable a resurrection as mine merely delays the inevitable, When they called Peach and told her that I was not as dead as they thought I was-but I was critically injured-they were trying not to give her false hope. What she heard, of course, was an entirely different thing.
Any pain Peach felt as a result of her husband’s emotional and physical séparat ion from his family was instantly put aside. He was alive. “I know now that Madeline David probably was trying to prepare me for the inevitable. But all I registered was hope. My focus was on just gluing it together, just keeping it going. We were not worried about getting Beck off the mountain. We didn’t know that was any kind of big deal, or what it entailed. We just knew he was in critical condition, and he probably was going to need better medical attention than what was available in Nepal. That was it.”
I BEGAN HEARING RUMORS 01- A HELICOPTER RESCUE-PEACH’S hidden hand. It sounded like a fairy tale: Ain’t ever happened. Ain’t ever gonna happen. The lowest camp on the mountain was way above the rated ceiling of the helicopter in question, an American EuroCopter Squirrel belonging to the Royal Nepalese Army. The air was so thin and unstable at that altitude that we’d simply fall out of the sky.
However, nobody told Peach about this. And since she didn’t know it could not he done, she did it. Assisted by her bunch of North Dallas power moms-any one of whom 1 believe could run a Fortune 500 company out of her kitchen-they proceeded to call everybody in the United States.
They enlisted Kay Bailey Hutchison, as well as Tom Daschle, the Democratic Senate minority leader, who lit a (ire under the State Department, which in turn contacted a line young man in the embassy in Katmandu. David Schensted. who worked with a beautiful Nepalese woman, Inu K.C. The initials stand for Khatri Chhetri, and they mean Inu is a member ol’ a warrior caste, the warrior caste of Nepal.
To he K.C. is a very serious mailer. You live according to a much more demanding personal code than others. After several pilots had declined (quite reasonably) to attempt the rescue. Inu told Schensted, “I know a man who believes thai he lias a brave heart, but he’s never heen sufficiently challenged to know if this is true. I will ask him.”
They found fony-lwo-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Madan K.C. just as he was taking his second shot on the first hole of the Royal Nepal Golf Club. Rather than refusing such a perilous mission, as any mortal might, Madan K.C. accepted the challenge. “1 will do this thing,” he said. “1 will rescue the Beck.”
After one of the most dangerous helicopter rescues in mountaineering history. Beck Weathers was plucked off Mount Everest. His return to Dallas was painful in every sense: He was physically debilitated and a stranger to his wife and children. Angry, relieved, and hopeful. Peach Weathers reached out. “I just felt tremendous relief that he was home. I was totally unbothered by his appearance. He didn’t look good, but Beck is Beck. I was just taking things In order, one crisis at a time.”
WHEN I CAME OFF THE MOUNTAIN. 1 FIRST HAD TO DEAL WITH what I was, and where I was. That first evening at hoirie. Peach told me the years of climbing and obsession had driven her and the children away. I told her that I was to blame for everything that had happened to me. and that I’d have to hear the consequences. She did not have to slay through this-certainly not out of pity. She said. “No. I’m going to give you one year. If you’re a truly different person at the end of that year, we’ll talk about it.”
1 decided at that moment that I ’d dedicate all my obsession, drive, and determination, and at the end of that year I truly would be a different person. Somehow I’d reclaim not only her love, but the trust I’d lost.
One of the odd twists to this story was that nobody-including me-knew how badly I was injured. I wouldn’t know the whole unhappy truth of my medical condition for weeks.
All the photographs I’d ever seen of frostbite were of horribly swollen and blistered hands. At the clinic in Katmandu, my hands were cold and the gray color of a piece of meat that’s been left in a leaky freezer bag for a couple of years. But there was no swelling, gross discoloration or blistering. 1 knew what frostbite was. When the tips of my fingers were frostbitten on Denali. it was really painful. This time there was no pain at all.
Back home in Dallas it was arranged for me to meet the hand surgeon. Mike Doyle. He asked me to spread my fingers, make a fist and cross my fingers on both hands, all of which I was able to do.
Mike said. “You’re probably going to lose most of your fingers on your right hand, and the lips of your fingers on the left. We need to get a scan done so we can look at the vessels.”
He called me later that day. 1 could tell he was really upset. “1 don’t know how to tell you this,” he began, “but you don’t have any blood supply in your right hand. Il stops above the wrist. And you have very little in your left hand. I don’t know what to say.”
This was a terrible surprise. 1 basically had a set of dead puppets. I was still (temporarily) able to pull the strings on them, because the controlling tendons extended into my forearms. But my hands were as good as gone.
Mike Doyle found a reconstructive plastic surgeon lor me, Greg Anigian, who would operate to save whatever function possible in my ravaged left hand.
There were some grimly funny moments. 1 remember silting in a chair when a big chunk of my right eyebrow, hair included, fell off in my hand. Later, as I was walking down the ball, my big toe fell off and went skittering away.
THE LAST OF THE MAJOR MEDICAL PROJECTS WAS MY NOSE. IT HAD BEEN frozen pretty deep into my cartilage and bone. There wasn’t much to save. But before the whole works was cut away, they took an impression of the original, using a piece of chewing-gum wrapper. When Greg Anigian went back to work, he’d use the wrapper to recreate my nose’s contours.
They grew me a new nose. First, a vaguely nosey-looking object was cut out of the skin in the center of my forehead. Then, using pieces of cartilage from my ears and skin from my neck, they shaped my new nose to give the whole thing some structure, and got it growing, upside down, on my forehead. 1 was careful not to allow the kids to lake pictures of my upside-down nose, lest they sell them to the National Enquirer.
I think they did a pretty fair facsimile of the real thing, and I was happy with my new nose, with a single reservation. Since the nerve supply remained intact when it was swung down, every lime I ’d lake a shower and the water hit my forehead, my nose would itch.
MANY INDIVIDUALS HAVE ASKED ME HOW THE EVEREST experience changed my perception of the spiritual, and did 1 pray on the mountain?
I was raised in a religious household, but as a young man 1 drifted away from spirituality, more out of apathy than any revolt or rejection of dogma, 1 fell that in old age 1 could return to these philosophical questions. Then I learned you can get pretty old. pretty fast.
I learned that miracles do occur. In fact. I think they occur pretty commonly.
If you’re going to come through an ordeal such asinine, you need an anchor. It may be your friends. It may be your colleagues, It may be your God. Or it may be. as it is for me. my family.
People ask me whether I’d do it again. The answer is: Even if I knew exactly everything that was going to happen to me on Mount Everest. I would do it again. That day on the mountain I traded my hands for my family and for my future. It is a bargain 1 readily accept.
For the first lime in my life I have peace. I no longer seek to define myself externally, through goals and achievements and material possessions. For the first time in my life, I’m comfortable inside my own skin. 1 searched all over the world for that which would fulfil] me. and all along it was in my own backyard.
Peach Weathers says that she and her husband deal with each other on a different level than they did in the years preceding the Everest tragedy. “The old Beck-and-Peach relationship is gone, but I don’t yet know what will replace it Today, I do not consider my relationship with Beck to be fragile. Nor do I worry now that my anger might snowball or explode. I think my anger has turned to sadness for all that never was.”