SURVIVING MOUNT EVEREST
Weathers is online today to tell the story of how he was reported dead after lying in subzero weather for eighteen hours, how his wife orchestrated the rescue that brought her husband home to Texas, how his experience led to amputation of his frostbitten hands, and his recovery.
with Dr. Beck Weathers
Thursday May 11, 2000 1:30 EDT
On May 10, 1996, nine climbers died in a blizzard on Mount Everest, the single deadliest day ever on the peak. Today's guest, Dr. Beck Weathers, author of Left for Dead: My Journey Home from Everest, was one of the survivors.
Have you ever wondered what would possess someone to take such a phenomenal risk? Now is your chance to find out.
Dr. Beck Weathers practices medicine in Dallas, Texas, where he lives with his family.
Send your questions and comments to Beck Weathers NOW!
I'm so glad you survived.
Many people have read the account of your expedition in "Into Thin Air." Do you take exception to anything in that book? Does the record need to be set straight in any places? And what do you think of the way the author Jon Krakauer conducted himself on Everest?
Dr. Beck Weathers: "Into Thin Air" is Jon's story of his 1996 experience. The story is told through his eyes and voice, and as such mirrors his opinions of both the place and people. Everything in Jon's book I believe he believes, and therefore is intellectually honest. There would probably be as many different stories as there were people there that day. Jon's behavior was entirely honorable.
Ann Arbor, Michigan:
I read that climbers suffer brain damage from oxygen deprivation at high altitude. Did you experience any temporary or lasting impairment? Did you know of this risk? If so, why would you willingly kill brain cells?
Dr. Beck Weathers: Climbers that ascend with oxygen suffer a reversable neurologic deficit. Without oxygen, the damage may be permanent. It's almost impossible to know what you don't know, so how can you be sure that you haven't lost a significant number of neurons? I can only say that I still practice medicine, but on the other hand, you don't have to be that smart to be a doctor.
Were you in an unconscious state for most of the 18 hours you were in subzero wheather?
Dr. Beck Weathers: I was unconscious for about fifteen hours out of the 22 hours I was in the storm.
I am curious as to whether you have read both "Into Thin Air" by Krakenauer and "The Climb" by Boukreev, which tell differing accounts of the Mt. Everest disaster, and which version of events you consider to be more accurate?
Dr. Beck Weathers: I consider Jon's account to be accurate.
Beck, first of all congratulations on your miraculous survival.
My question: I've read that you believe Jon Krakauer's book is pretty accurate; are you still in touch with Jon? Do you blame him at all for having crashed out in his tent while so many were stranded up the mountain?
Dr. Beck Weathers: I talked to Jon only last week and will probably see him in two weeks. I don't blame anyone for what happened to me. It was my decisions that took me there and my decisions that kept me there. The blame game has already been played enough.
What was it like when you were waiting on the mountain? Did you have a near death experience? Did you lose consciousness?
Dr. Beck Weathers: Before the storm, it was a pretty good day, and after the storm, the struggle to stay alive dominated all other thoughts. I did not have a near death experience; as such I don't know what caused me to open my eyes. I can think of explanations ranging from the most physical to the most spiritual. Maybe the next time I die I'll get that answer.
How much and what type of climbing experience did you have prior to your summit attempt? Would you recommend that others attempt to climb Everest despite your experience? Do you believe that the tragedy of 1996 resulted from the high numbers of climbers attempting the summit or from other factors such as the weather?
Dr. Beck Weathers: I had climbed the other six of the seven summits prior to Everest. I'd also climbed the Mexican volcanoes, New England ice, and ice snow and rock in Colorado. In addition to simply climbing, I'd also spent weeks at the Colorado Mountain School working on skills including crevasse rescue, snowclimbing, ice climbing, and rock climbing to include aided climbing and big wall techniques.
I would recommend that Everest be climbed by anyone with the desire and experience as long as they don't have children, anyone who loves them, and is willing to place a revolver with one round in the chamber to their head and pull the trigger. The odds of dying on the upper part of Everest remain one in six.
Looking forward to reading your book--how has this experience changed the way you live your life--you must feel that every day you live is a "gift" of sorts.
Dr. Beck Weathers: My wife Peach and I wrote "Left for Dead" to tell the story of what drove me to be obsessed with climbing and to tell the price that is paid by those who remain behind. Although the mountain stories are prominent, part of the book, the part which interests me most, is what happens when you come back and must rebuild relationships, trust, and a body shattered. Both Peach and I tried to tell how two people who love each other could be driven apart, and then be reunited by tragedy. If I had not returned wounded from Everest, I would now be divorced and estranged from my children. I traded my hands for my family and my future. And you are right, that every day is truly a gift and it ought to be that way for each of us.
What was the hardest part of getting down the mountain and getting home from the trip?
Dr. Beck Weathers: The hardest part of getting down the mountain was the moment that I stood up from that ice. Dying at that moment would have been as easy as letting go of a rope.
I'm an Everest enthusiast and have read both Krakauer's and Boukreev's account's of the 1996 tragedy. Would you ever consider another Everest summit attempt? Do you still climb?
Dr. Beck Weathers: I do not still climb. If I knew everything that was going to happen to me before I went, I still would have gone. I gained so much more than I lost. It saved my marriage and my relationship with my children. If I had not gone through this, I would be alone at the end whether it was at that moment on the mountain or decades hence. I am happier and more at peace than at any time in my adult life.
What part did hubris play in your decision to make the climb?
Dr. Beck Weathers: The chief drive in all my climbing was the attempt to define myself outside of my own skin. I'd been profoundly depressed for years and the monastic ritual of extreme exercise, work, and trips to the high mountains was an attempt to escape from my life. I certainly was selfish in such solitary pursuits, but I don't think that arrogance played a role. The value of summits diminishes the longer you climb as you realize that climbing is a journey and not a destination. Men do not conquer mountains any more than a flea conquers an elephant by climbing up its back.
Was your family bitter that you took such a huge risk with your life?
Dr. Beck Weathers: Peach certainly became very angry at me as she could not understand how anyone could keep leaving to pursue risks of mountaineering if they really loved their family.
My children were more anxious than angry. It was all too easy to dismiss their fears as I knew there was no way that I would ever be injured. You always assume the other guy is going to pay the price. If you really thought you were going to be hurt, you wouldn't go. Denial is a wonderful thing.
Is it true that socialite Sandy Pittman, a member of your team, wore herself out before the assault on the summit by hiking down the mountain for a picnic? How if at all did her actions contribute to the loss of life?
Dr. Beck Weathers: I like Sandy and she certainly is not the anti-Christ. It should be remembered that this was her third attempt at Everest. On that day in May she probably could not have summitted the mountain without aid or gotten down without help from others. I can certainly sympathize with the second half of that sentence. Sandy is very much a self-promoter, but that also is not uncommon on Everest. Sandy did not cause the disaster. The storm did. I understand the desire to find someone to blame in every tragedy, but the cause of deaths on Everest are mostly random events. Each individual must bear the consequences of their own actions and decisions.
Even though this tragedy happened 4 years ago and much of the publicity has died down, I immediately recognized your name when looking at the weekly list of discussions. Do people recognize you? Do you find most to be supportive? I'm sure there are people who don't understand at all the allure of climbing, do they give you a hard time?
Dr. Beck Weathers: There are individuals who do recognize me as being part of this story. This is no doubt helped by the fact that I would be pretty easy to describe. I don't think I would have much future as a bank robber. Fortunately, most individuals do not recognize me as I would think that kind of attention could make one feel very uncomfortable. I find people to be very supportive. The biggest problem I suffer from strangers is their desire to be too helpful.
There are certainly people who do not understand climbers or climbing and lump almost all into the jet set-peak bagging dilletante category. There are as many reasons to climb as there are climbers. I don't expect to change their attitude.
Hello, Many people, faced with life and death, often attribute their rescue to God. Did you then, or do you now consider yourself a religious person? Or was it yourself, Beck Weathers, who was mentally, physically and spiritually responsible for getting down that mountain?
Dr. Beck Weathers: It is impossible to undergo an experience like this without questioning your own spirituality. I was not a particularly churchly person when I went to Everest. I thought that I could explore my feelings about God in my old age, but I got old pretty fast. I'm more open to spirituality now than in many years, but I don't have the answer. This is a work in progress.
I must confess that "Touched by an Angel" is one of my favorite shows. But oh well, philosophy defined in prime time.
They call it faith because it requires faith.
Unfortunately we're out of time. Thanks so much to Beck Weathers and to everyone who participated.
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