The first time Beck Weathers was left for dead, he lay comatose and unseen in a fierce blizzard, with his exposed hands and face literally freezing 26,000 feet up Mount Everest.
Just a few feet away were four companions, lost and huddled together in the night, convinced they were going to die. Struggling against the howling winds, Russian guide Anatoli Boukreev managed to get three of them to the marginal safety of tents a quarter-mile away. Weathers and Yasuko Namba, a Japanese woman climber, were left behind.
The second time Weathers was left for dead it was after dawn. By that time, the 50-year-old Dallas pathologist had been lying exposed for 12 hours. Four Sherpas and a physician from Montreal, Stuart Hutchinson, found him and Namba. Both were buried in snow and ice--only their hands and feet stuck out. Weathers was missing his right glove.
Hutchinson chopped ice away from their faces and to his astonishment discovered they were still alive. Weathers mumbled but couldn't sit up. To Hutchinson he appeared as close to death as a person could be and still be breathing.
Hutchinson left them where they were--they were too far gone and he needed to save his group's strength for those who could be helped. At least four people were still missing.
He radioed to Everest Base Camp, and within a few hours, Weathers's wife, Peach, was told in Dallas that he was dead. "Is there any hope?" she asked. "No," she was told. "There's been a positive body identification. I'm sorry."
Namba died but Beck Weathers--despite the storm, his frozen hands and face, his many, many hours with no oxygen to supplement the deadly thin air--survived. Eight climbers died in the storm on those now-famous 1996 expeditions, including legendary mountain guides Rob Hall and Scott Fischer. Before it was all over, Weathers would be left for dead yet again--and still he survived.
Why? How? Such a survival of someone whose body has become so severely hypothermic is virtually without precedent in the history of climbing.
In a new book, "Left for Dead: My Journey Home From Everest," written with Stephen G. Michaud, Weathers tries to explain: "About four in the afternoon, Everest time--22 hours into the storm--the miracle occurred: I opened my eyes. . . . In my confused state, I at first believed that I was warm and comfortable in my bed at home, with Texas sunlight streaming in through the window. But as my head cleared I saw my gloveless hand directly in front of my face, a gray and lifeless thing.
"I smashed it onto the ice. It bounced, making a sound like a block of wood. This had the marvelous effect of focusing my attention: I am not in my own bed. I am somewhere on the mountain--I don't know where. I can't see at any distance, but I know that I am alone."
At that point, Weathers had a vision so powerful it both saved his life and changed it.
Seaborn Beck Weathers is an intense man with a somewhat stocky build on a 5-foot 10-inch frame. The son of an Air Force officer, he grew up all over the world: Georgia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, France, Texas. He went to college and medical school in Texas, specialized in pathology, got married, had a son and a daughter.
Through it all he struggled with depression. From the time he was a teenager, Weathers says in his book, he was never "all that happy. I existed in what you might call a steady state; I could do my work and function day to day, but I was never at peace or happy or really ever felt good." When he was a college freshman, his first true depression descended, a condition that shaped much of his later life.
"I didn't mention anything about it to anybody," he writes. "I just crawled into bed and stayed there. If I admitted I was depressed, then I'd be admitting a weakness, which I wouldn't do. . . . But I did think about suicide."
Only once, after revealing his suicidal feelings to Peach, did Beck ever seek professional help. The only result was that a rifle, four pistols and a pellet gun in their house were turned over to the local police.
In one of the frequent passages in the book written by Peach, other members of Beck's family and friends, Peach describes how his depression colored the marriage.
Peach--Margaret Olson--grew up in Beck's home town, Griffin, Ga., but they didn't meet until he was in medical school. "It took me a while to figure out that Beck probably was depressed when we married--and he remained depressed, more or less, from then on," she says. "I had never been around a depressed person. I didn't know what it meant when he'd complain about this hurt or that hurt and would go to bed."
Beck's method of coping with the "black dog" of depression became staying so busy that it could be pushed into a small corner of his mind. In some cases, his work as a pathologist--he was in private practice with several other doctors--was the anodyne. But he also immersed himself in hobbies and finally, more than a dozen years ago, he discovered mountaineering. The intensity it required helped him, and the trips and the training began to consume his life, leaving little room for his family.
Family vacations stopped, and Beck often wasn't there for events like his daughter's first real date, school performances, even his 20th wedding anniversary.
"Beck got up at 4 in the morning to exercise, and had to be in bed by 8 o'clock at night," recalls Peach. "It was very boring. We had no social life."
"He'd work out all day, and I'd never see him," writes their daughter, Meg, who will be a freshman at Harvard University this fall. "Then he'd go and climb these mountains for weeks at a time. It was really kind of hard on me, just because I missed my dad and I wished he was here."
Bub, their son, who is a rising senior at Duke University, uses less forgiving language: "I never really noticed when he was gone, because he was absent when he was here. He'd come home at 6:30, eat, unwind and go to bed."
Peach started blaming herself. "I knew that Beck was in pain. . . . Not until much later did I understand that this wasn't my fault. All I knew at the time was that I could have packed up and left with the children, and Beck would not have noticed until the house payment came due."
In 1989, Weathers failed to reach the summit of his first big mountain, Alaska's Denali, the highest peak in North America, because of high winds and storms. On that trip he saw his first bodies on a mountain, three British men who had fallen to their deaths. His group also encountered two climbers unable to move because of hypothermia--loss of body heat so severe that those affected often become totally disoriented, shed their clothes and fight anyone who tries to help them. His group guided one to safety while the other had to be dragged down.
Nevertheless, Weathers's feeling afterward was: "Wow! Wasn't that great." And somewhere along the way he started thinking about going for the "seven summits"--the highest peaks on the seven continents. He conquered Russia's Mount Elbrus, Europe's highest; Kilimanjaro in Africa; Aconcagua in South America; Carstensz Pyramid in the East Indies/Australia region; and Vinson Massif in Antarctica. That left only Everest and Denali.
On the Vinson Massif trip, he was stuck at a primitive airstrip in Antarctica for more than a week with no communication possible. Peach had no idea whether he was alive or dead. "I don't think Beck had a clue of the distress this episode caused me," Peach writes. "My hair started falling out, and I lost about 40 pounds over a three-month period."
Then came Everest. It was the final straw for Peach: "I deeply love my husband and always have. But when Beck left for Mount Everest in March of 1996--he spent our 20th anniversary there--I decided this was the last time he would run away from us. Beck was living only for his obsessions, and I saw no further hope of making our marriage work. . . .
"Beck seemed selfishly determined to either kill himself or get himself killed. He'd never admit this, but I think he went to Everest half convinced that he was going to die there. I sensed he was scared."
It was shortly before midnight May 9 when Weathers, along with three expeditions' worth of climbers, set out from Everest's South Col camp for the summit 3,000 feet above. Aside from the usual lack of sleep, fatigue, dehydration, inability to eat and nausea that plague most climbers at even lower altitudes, he developed a problem so serious that he should never have been so high on the mountain: He went virtually blind.
He'd had a radial keratotomy for myopia, not knowing that the low atmospheric pressure of extreme high altitude would affect his corrected corneas. About 1,400 feet below the summit, he couldn't see his feet. His guide, Rob Hall, made him promise to remain where he was until Hall returned later that day from the summit.
For 12 hours Weathers sat at 27,600 feet, in what's known as the Death Zone, above 26,000 feet, where there is so little oxygen one's body is always wasting away and hallucinations are routine.
"I fully participated in that mistake," Weathers says now. "Part of that was it was just an extraordinary day. There was something about being up there, sitting alone with that incredible panorama and knowing that once you took that first step to go down, it was over. You had worked so many years to be there. I wanted to hold on to it. Unfortunately, as you do that, what you don't recognize as happening is, you're not moving and so you begin to get very cold, and you start to get apathetic."
Hall never came back. Trying to save a client, he died near the summit. Other returning climbers finally roused Weathers and he started making his way down with them, but as the raging storm descended they stopped, lost and exhausted, a quarter mile from camp. It was late the following afternoon, after the would-be rescuers came and left, that Weathers had his vision. He struggled to his feet and started walking.
"If I fell down, I was determined to get up," Weathers writes. "If I fell down again, I would get up again. . . . Both my hands were completely frozen. My face was destroyed by the cold. I was profoundly hypothermic. I had not eaten in three days, or taken water for two days. I was lost and I was almost completely blind."
Somehow he found the camp. American climber Todd Burleson later described his arrival: "I couldn't believe what I saw. This man had no face. It was completely black, solid black, like he had a crust over him. His jacket was unzipped down to his waist, full of snow. His right arm was bare and frozen over his head. We could not lower it. His skin looked like marble. White stone. No blood in it."
They put Weathers into the tent of expedition leader Scott Fischer--by now also dead on the mountain--in two sleeping bags with hot-water bottles. They gave him a shot of steroids and left him alone.
"At that point, none of us thought Beck was going to survive the night," Hutchinson told Jon Krakauer, author of the bestseller "Into Thin Air." "I could barely detect his carotid pulse, which is the last pulse you lose before you die. He was critically ill. And even if he did live until morning, I couldn't imagine how we were going to get him down."
Another radio message went out to Base Camp: "You are not going to believe what just walked into camp." The response came back: "That is fascinating, but it changes nothing. He is going to die. Do not bring him down."
That night the blizzard blew open the doors of Fischer's tent and filled it with snow, and somehow Weathers was partially driven out of the sleeping bags. At times the wind-flattened tent threatened to suffocate him. He could do nothing because of his frozen hands--not even remove a wristwatch that was cutting off the remaining circulation to his left hand as his arm swelled.
"I can sort of understand why no one was able or willing to risk their lives to rescue Beck or Yasuko," Peach writes. "I even sort of understand the medical edict from Base Camp that Beck should be left to die at High Camp. What I don't understand is why they left him all alone. . . . Where was their basic compassion?"
Even the next morning every member of his expedition, save one, headed down without checking on him. Weathers had been screaming to get someone's attention, but because of the storm no one had heard. Finally Krakauer, the last one left, did.
Krakauer found him "lying on his back across the floor of the collapsed shelter, shivering convulsively."
Weathers was not only alive but actually was ready to descend with the help of Burleson and another American climber, Peter Athans--and two liters of warm tea, which caused him to urinate in his down suit. With one in front and the other behind holding on to his harness, they headed down the fixed rope on the dangerous Lhotse face, 5,000 vertical feet of steep ice. Partway down he was handed off to Ed Viesturs, Robert Schauer and David Breashears, who were there making the IMAX movie "Everest."
Breashears says that all the way down Weathers, to keep his mind off his pain, kept up a stream of jokes. "They told me this trip was going to cost an arm and a leg," Weathers quipped. "So far, I've gotten a little better deal."
Another unprecedentedly good deal awaited lower on the mountain. Without use of his hands, Weathers had no idea how he would negotiate the treacherous route through the Khumbu Icefall above Everest base camp, 2,000 vertical feet of constantly moving ice with yawning crevasses and shifting ice towers the size of buildings. Without hands, there was no way he could cross the countless crevasses spanned by shaky aluminum ladders.
But back in Dallas, Peach had started pulling political strings to arrange a rescue. With the help of the State Department, the embassy in Katmandu, Nepal, found a pilot who was willing to try something that had never been done before: fly a helicopter through the thin air of Everest and pluck someone from the top of the icefall at 20,000 feet. The man was 42-year-old Lt. Col. Madan K.C. of the Royal Nepalese Air Force. K.C. stands for Khatri Chhetri, the brave warrior caste of Nepal.
The woman who was ready to leave her husband had found a way to save his life.
Uncharacteristically, Weathers called Peach at the first chance he had, from a Katmandu clinic about 1:30 a.m. her time.
"It was unspoken, but I immediatedly sensed something completely different about my husband. He'd been transformed by something--I didn't yet know what--that went beyond a lucky brush with death. He'd had those before," she writes.
The following day, when he was interviewed on the "Today" show, she and the world learned what had changed him, what had prompted him to wake up and get to his feet after being left for dead in the South Col.
As he was lying there, he says, he had an epiphany. "Suddenly, my family appeared in my mind's eye--Peach, Bub and Meg. This was not a group portrait or some remembered photo. My subconscious summoned them into vivid focus, as if they might at any moment speak to me."
On Terra Firma
Epiphany or not, a hard, painful and uncertain road lay ahead. Weathers faced repeated operations on his hands, including amputation of his entire right hand and, on his left, all of his fingers except for a tiny stub of a thumb.
His right hand was replaced with a beige extension he uses like a clamp. On his left hand, three fingerlike projections were rebuilt with tissue rather than bone.
A new tip for his nose had to be created with bits from various parts of his body; it was grown upside down on his forehead before it was cut loose and folded down and put in place. The operations continued for more than a year.
And his relationship with his family was still in shreds.
When he got back to Dallas, Peach writes, "I was just taking things in order, one crisis at a time. He's sick, so let's deal with that. I must have liked him at some time."
"The first evening at home Peach told me the years of climbing and obsession had driven her and the children away from me," Beck writes. "She'd had all she could stand, and had decided while I was on the mountain that as soon as I got back into Dallas, she was going to inform me our marriage was over, and that she would then leave.
" 'Damn you for doing this to me,' " she said, adding, " 'I'm going to give you one year. If you're truly a different person at the end of the year, we'll talk about it.' "
While he was recovering, the other doctors in his medical group supported him financially. Because he was a pathologist, mostly analyzing tissue samples, he was able to return to work by hiring an assistant to move things around, even as his recovery continued.
Book after book came out on the '96 Everest tragedy, but Weathers resisted writing one because he didn't know how the story of his family would end, whether "we come out of it intact or whether it would have been just a glass dropped on the floor and shattered in a thousand pieces."
The burdens on Peach grew exponentially--for a time she even had to help Beck go to the bathroom, supervised his showers and put on his socks. She watched and waited. He seemed to truly focus on the family now.
"I did see evidence that he'd reformed himself, in part," she says. ". . . He appeared genuinely contrite for all the pain he'd caused. What's more, Beck seemed to see the kids and me in a new light, maybe the light that awakened him on Everest."
What eventually convinced her that Beck had truly changed was something many people would take for granted: When her brother developed liver cancer, Weathers helped him over the four months he lived, fought for better treatment, attempted to arrange a liver transplant--things Peach believes he would never have done before.
"I took what Beck was doing as proof of his love for me and for my family."
She urged Beck to finally start his book.
A transformed Beck wanted to share the message of his epiphany. While writing, he started making speeches around the country.
Ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things, he tells audiences. And "you can undergo very difficult times and you can come out of that better than when you went in."
But what he most wants to tell people is this: "The people in your lives are what matter first, last and always.
"But I was never comfortable enough in my own skin to think that that was enough. So I was trying to find myself externally as a mountain climber or whatever.
"At some point . . . you are going to look around and realize that you have not been there for the people in your life, that they have had to make a life without you and move on without you. You are going to wind up being a lonely old man. You may be the most successful man you know, but I suspect it will be a fairly meaningless achievement."
Beck's family has responded with forgiveness, and he says of Peach and himself, "I think things are better than they have ever been in our marriage."
"Today, I do not consider my relationship with Beck to be fragile," Peach writes. "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."
"I understand what he did, and I forgive him," says Meg.
Bub is just thankful to have a dad now. "As I've gotten older, we also have had more and more common threads to share, like dirty jokes and R-rated movies," he writes. ". . . He knows that when you love someone you should tell them because you don't know about the future. He's become a goofy dad figure.
" 'You know what, son? I really love you!'
" 'Sure, Dad, I'll be home by midnight.' "