From May 10 to May 11, 1996, nine people died during an attempt to scale the world’s tallest mountain in an event that is now referred to as the Mount Everest disaster. Writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer was one of the 34 people trying to ascend the frozen peak – and the large number of climbers is said to have been one of the factors behind the tragedy. This high traffic led to delays, with the majority of those who reached the top doing so after the advised turnaround time.
Unusual weather conditions are believed to have sent oxygen levels plummeting by 14 percent, and a blizzard on Everest’s southwest face also reduced visibility for the descending climbers, several of whom got lost and disoriented in the worsening storm. Between them, the mountaineers suffered exhaustion, hypothermia, frostbite and hypoxia.
As far as the world was concerned, Beck Weathers was dead, another fatality in the worst climbing tragedy on Everest.
Vicious winds and bone-numbing cold had closed around the mountain while Weathers and his companions struggled down from the summit. Lost and exhausted, he apparently succumbed to hypothermia, his body lying exposed on the South Col at more than 26,000ft.
Over the next 24 hours, a mountain guide and then a doctor checked on his condition. Both pronounced Weathers, a Texan pathologist, beyond salvation. Nobody had ever woken from a hypothermic coma before, especially at high altitude. His wife was told; the mourning began. Then something amazing happened. Weathers woke up.
Four years on, at his Dallas home, he shifts his weight in his armchair with what remains of his arms and smiles slowly. ‘I’ve been a story-teller all my life,’ he says, ‘it’s just I never had a story before. Now I’ve got a dandy.’
But despite his terrible injuries that saw him lose parts of his arms, face and foot, Weathers is happier than ever. ‘For the first time in my life I have peace,’ he says. ‘I no longer seek to define myself externally, through goals and achievements and material possessions. For the first time I’m comfortable in my own skin.’
Because while what he suffered on Everest has ended his climbing career, it has helped him overcome the suicidal depression that dogged him for much of his adult life. His terrifying ordeal began on 10 May 1996. As part of New Zealand mountain guide Rob Hall’s expedition, Weathers had sunk around $65,000 into climbing Everest, the biggest and hardest challenge in his ambition of reaching the top of the highest peak on each of the seven continents.
At 49, he was one of the older climbers that season. He had staked a great deal on getting to the top – his 20-year marriage to Peach, the affection of his children, even his life – but he seems hardly to have been conscious of that. A genial, wise-cracking front masked deep insecurity; he did not just want to climb Everest, he needed to.
Looking down at the suburbs of Dallas from the air, you get a sense of where his mental illness and the obsession it spawned originated. As in the opening scene of American Beauty, each leafy street seems the same as the last, secure, insulated, ordinary. Weathers enjoyed the material comforts his successful career afforded him, loved his family, but for long periods felt utterly bereft.
‘Depression was a controlling aspect of my life,’ he says. ‘I got pretty suicidal for a while, to the extent that it was scaring the hell out of me.’ He sought escape in a string of obsessions, everything from CB radio to sailing. ‘The one thing that did help was driving my body to extremes. If you’re working yourself hard physically, it gives you this wonderful sense of drawing into yourself and all the problems of your existence disappear. Climbing became a very logical extension of that.’
Before the storm, setting off from their high camp on the South Col, Weathers was close to fulfilling his ultimate obsession. The weather was clear, he and his team-mates were hopeful. As they shuffled off into the night, crampons squeaking on the snow and ice, they faced a 12- or 14-hour climb to the summit. But Weathers was destined not to make it there.
Before leaving for Nepal, he had undergone a radial keratotomy, effectively tiny incisions in his corneas, to correct his short-sightedness. At altitude, however, his adapted corneas changed shape, leaving him half-blind in the darkness. He was forced to move off the trail and watch as his companions traipsed past toward the summit. He was not beaten. Weathers figured that with bright sunlight his iris would close to protect his retina and give him an immense depth-of-field, bypassing the cornea problem. So it proved, but in wiping his fuzzy eyes, he had scratched an ice crystal across his right cornea, leaving it blurred. Although his left eye worked fine, he had no depth perception, a real handicap on such dangerous terrain.
Hall forbade him from going higher, and instructed him to stay put until he returned. ‘Cross my heart, hope to die,’ he promised Hall. But Hall did not return, instead becoming marooned close to the summit with Doug Hansen, a Seattle postal worker who was too weak to make it down. Despite being encouraged to abandon Hansen, Hall stayed put, dying the following evening.
When Hall had left him, at a little after 7.30am, Weathers waited patiently throughout the day for his return, refusing offers from climbers going down the mountain to join them. But by 5pm he knew something was wrong. Jon Krakauer, who later wrote Into Thin Air, the best-selling account of that season on Everest, reached Weathers on his way down from the summit. He told Weathers that Hall was stuck on the summit ridge. Weathers knew now that he should go down, but refused Krakauer’s offer of help. He elected instead to wait for another guide from his team, Mike Groom, who helped Weathers scramble down to the South Col as part of a group of weary stragglers destined to endure an appalling night in the open.
Close to their tents and safety, the afternoon storm now swelled, clouds boiled over the South Col and the wind thundered. One climber described it as like being lost in a bottle of milk. Disoriented, confused and desperate, the small huddle of climbers almost walked off the edge of the mountain looking for the camp. In the process, Weathers lost his right glove, his hand freezing instantly. Exhausted, and with a huge drop ahead of them, the climbers hunkered down, waiting for a break in the clouds and the chance of rescue.
By the time it came, Weathers was beyond salvation. As his companions watched in horror, he stood up against the raging wind, his arms outstretched, his naked right hand frozen solid, like a joint of meat. Standing on the South Col in the middle of the night, deranged with hypothermia and hypoxia (oxygen deficiency in body tissues), he was dying.
‘I’ve got this all figured out,’ he shouted, before the wind toppled him from his feet and he disappeared into the maelstrom, apparently for ever. His friends were rescued by Anatoli Boukreev, but the Russian guide judged Weathers already dead.
Next morning, Canadian doctor Stuart Hutchinson and three Sherpas went out searching for Weathers and a Japanese woman, Yasuko Namba, who had also been left behind the night before.
Namba was barely alive and Hutchinson had to peel a carapace of ice from her face to examine her. There was, he judged, nothing to be done; Namba’s skin was porcelain white, her eyes dilated. Moving on to Weathers, now partially buried in snow, Hutchinson saw the stiff right arm frozen above his head, the jacket opened to the waist, the ice-encrusted face and judged the man in front of him as ‘being as close to death and still breathing’ as any patient he had seen.
The news was released that Weathers was gone. Then, at around 4pm, the miracle occurred. ‘I was so far gone in terms of not being connected to where I was,’ he says. ‘There was a nice, warm, comfortable sense of being in my bed. It was really not unpleasant.’
Disorientated by the white clouds and snow, his ungainly arm gave him something to focus on. He banged it against the ground. It sounded like wood. With adrenaline seeping through his system, he began to grasp his predicament. ‘This was not bed. This was not a dream,’ he says. ‘This was real and I’m starting to think: I’m on the mountain but I don’t have a clue where. If I don’t get up, if I don’t stand, if I don’t start thinking about where I am and how to get out of there, then this is going to be over very quickly.’
As a pathologist, used to watching how the body’s cells function through a microscope, does he speculate on what saved him?
‘As far as I know I’m the only person to have come out of a hypothermic coma in that setting. That awakening is something I don’t understand. I’ve looked at it from the most spiritual and most physical angles. There are things that changed physically during that day which may have been sufficient. And the core of your body can withstand drops in its temperature far beyond what I would have believed.’
This was not a brush with death: as Weathers might say, it was the full spring clean. When he walked into camp, none of the climbers still there could believe the apparition in front of them was the dead Beck Weathers.
‘This man had no face,’ one recalled later. ‘It was completely black, solid black, like he had a crust over him.’
Everyone there who was still thinking clearly also assumed he would be dead by morning. He was put in a tent on his own, and left alone. His wife was later outraged that her husband should be abandoned to die with no one to comfort him.
Weathers is more forgiving. ‘Everyone was exhausted. Everyone who was rational was frightened. And I think in terms of the hard choices of what could be done for me – well, they’d done it all. Nobody had any expectation that I would live through the night. But it never occurred to me at that point that I would not live through it.’
The events of that day and night on Everest have been mired in controversy, partly because of the media interest that live internet coverage generated. In total, eight climbers died on the mountain. By the time Weathers was on his way to base camp, journalists were arriving in Kathmandu to interview him.
‘They told me this trip was going to cost me an arm and a leg,’ he joked to his rescuers as they helped him down. ‘So far, I’ve gotten a little better deal.’
Within hours he was on his way to Kathmandu in a helicopter. Weathers was on the cover of Newsweek and made every TV news bulletin, but any thought of cashing in quickly on his experiences was forgotten. He may have joked with his rescuers, but now he feared the return of his depression, terrified that now it would overwhelm him. And leaving aside his physical injuries, his marriage was all but destroyed by the obsession that had left him physically ruined.
‘That would have been vastly more difficult to deal with,’ he says of Peach’s doubts about staying. ‘I simply don’t know, because I didn’t have to face it, whether I could have coped.’
Instead, she agreed to stay while he adjusted to his injuries. His right arm had thawed and withered. ‘It looked,’ says Weathers, ‘like it had been incinerated.’ He had frostbite in his left hand also, in his left foot and all over his face. Nothing could be done for his nose. The frostbite had extended through the soft tissue, his skin and cartilage, right into the bone. Before it was cut away, plastic surgeon Greg Anigian took an impression in tin foil of the original. Weathers was forced to spray the now-exposed nasal passages to keep them moist while surgeons then grew a new nose – upside down – on his forehead, taking cartilage from his ears and skin from his neck, before relocating it where his original had been amputated. He had to be careful, he quips, not to let the kids take a picture for National Enquirer.
His right arm was amputated just below the elbow; the left side is better, with what is effectively a fleshy mitt and a crude thumb. He lived through a year of pain as the severed nerves in his arms settled down, like ‘constantly being hit on the funny bone’, he says. ‘It may not look all that fancy, but the reconstruction on the left side is very hi-tech. They did a helluva job. To have any movement and to be able to pick up something.’
He shakes his head. ‘It’s amazing how functional you can be. Four months after they cut my hands off, I went back to work.’
When he finally came to write his story, simply telling the world about how he survived was not enough. He and Peach decided to write about how they put their life back together, something climbing had almost destroyed. ‘For us, the rationale to do this was not to cover the mountain story but the drives which put you there, the price you pay in terms of relationships. Having had the experience of dying once – it’s fine, it’s doable. But you don’t pay the big price. Knowing that stripped me of a lot of my rationalizations and denial.’
He also says he is no longer plagued by depression and although he misses climbing he feels liberated. ‘That sense of having to prove myself externally has simply gone. I don’t think about things in that way anymore and it has been a huge relief. I think that happens to most people, it just often happens a lot later.
‘It seems right to say that I live each day as if it’s my last, that the colours are brighter, the sense of the wind in your face is more intense. But it’s true, at least for a good part of every day, and that’s an exquisite pleasure.’
‘Left For Dead’ is the book written by Beck Weathers, with Stephen G. Michaud and is published by Little Brown.
Source Credits: Best Counselling Degrees. Also Ed Douglas in The Observer dated 22nd October 2000