I am neither churchly nor a particularly spiritual person, but I can tell you that some force within me rejected death at the last moment and then guided me, blind and stumbling—quite literally a dead man walking—into camp and the shaky start of my return to life.
On May 10, 1996, nine climbers perished in a blizzard high on Mount Everest, the single deadliest day ever on the peak. The following day, one of those victims was given a second chance. His name was Beck Weathers.
The tale of Dr. Seaborn Beck Weathers's miraculous awakening from a deep hypothermic coma was widely reported. But the hidden story of what led the pathologist to Everest in the first place, and his painful recovery after his dramatic rescue, has not been told until now.
Brilliant and gregarious, Weathers discovered in his thirties that mountain climbing helped him cope with the black dog of depression that had shadowed him since college. But the self-prescribed therapy came at a steep cost: estrangement from his wife, Peach, and their two children. By the time he embarked for Everest, his home life had all but disintegrated.
Yet when he was reported dead after lying exposed on the mountain for eighteen hours in subzero weather, it was Peach who orchestrated the daring rescue that brought her husband home. Only then, facing months of surgery and the loss of his hands, did Beck Weathers also begin to face himself, his family, his past and uncertain future. Told in Beck Weathers's inimitably direct and engaging voice—with frequent commentary from Peach, their family, their friends and others involved in this unique journey—Left for Dead shows how one man's drive to conquer the most daunting physical challenges ultimately forced him to confront greater challenges within himself. Framed by breathtaking accounts of his near death and resurrection, and of his slow and agonizing physical and emotional recovery, Left for Dead offers a fascinating look at the seductive danger of extreme sports, as in rapid succession a seemingly unstoppable Weathers attacks McKinley, Elbrus, Aconcagua, Kilimanjaro—before fate stops him cold, high in the Death Zone of the world's tallest peak.
Full of deep insight and warm humor, Left for Dead tells the story of a man, a marriage and a family that survived the unsurvivable. Candid and uncompromising, it is a deeply compelling saga of crisis and change, and of the abiding power of love and family—a story few readers will soon forget.
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Beck Weathers has become a much-sought-after speaker before professional, corporate and academic audiences. He lives with his family in Dallas, where he also practices medicine.
Stephen G. Michaud is the author or co-author of nine books, including The Evil That Men Do and The Only Living Witness. His website is www. stephenmichaud.com.
Our climb began in earnest on May 9. By then we'd successfully negotiated the Khumbu Icefall, surmounted the Western Cwm, and now were halfway up a moderately steep, four-thousand foot wall of blue ice called the Lhotse Face, which the prudent climber will traverse very carefully.
This extreme care is a function of the physics involved. With hard ice such as that found on the Lhotse Face, there is no coefficient of friction; you are traction free. Fall into an uncontrolled slide, and your chances of stopping are nil. You're history. A Taiwanese climber named Chen Yu-Nan would discover the truth of this, to his horror, on the morning of May 9.
Because the Lhotse Face is a slope, you pitch Camp Three by carving out a little ice platform for your tent, which you crawl into exhausted, desperate for some rest. No matter how tired you are, however, you must remember a couple of fairly simple rules.
One, don't sleepwalk. Two, when you get up in the morning, the very first thing you've got to do, without fail, is put those twelve knives on each climbing boot, your crampons, because they are what stick you down to that hill.
Chen Yu-Nan forgot. He got out of his tent wearing his inner boots, took two steps, and went zhoooooooop! down into a crevasse, leading to his death.
Our plan was simple. 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.
This point had been drilled into us over the preceding week: Absolutely no later than two. If you're not moving fast enough to get to the summit by two, you're not moving fast enough to get back down before darkness traps you on the mountain.
We reached High Camp on schedule late that afternoon. The South Col (from the Latin collum, or "neck") 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 the tattered remnants of previous climbing camps.
If you wander too close to the South Col's north rim, you'll tumble seven thousand uninterrupted feet down Everest's Kangshung Face into the People's Republic of China. Make a similar misstep on the opposite side, and you zip to a crash landing approximately four thousand feet down the Lhotse Face.
The wind was blowing quite hard when we crawled into High Camp. It was cold. And at some visceral level I was secretly grateful because I knew that we couldn't climb in those conditions. I was pretty hammered. I said to myself, If you can just rest tonight, you are bound to feel better tomorrow than you feel right now.
This was rank self-deception. The whole point is to arrive at High Camp with just enough energy to get to the summit and then retreat in one piece. I wasn't going to get any stronger up there. Quite the opposite. They call it the Death Zone, because above 25,000 feet, the mountain slowly kills you, whether or not you ever leave your tent.
So we turned in. Doug Hansen, Lou Kasischke, Andy Harris and I all lay under the tent in our sleeping bags, listening to the wind howl. Then about ten that night, the gale quite suddenly blew itself out. A perfect, albeit frigid calm came over the Death Zone.
"Guys," Rob said, sticking his neck into our tent. "Saddle up! We're going for it!"
I started pulling my gear together, thinking to myself, Well, maybe you've timed this okay. Yeah, you feel pretty crummy. But you feel better than you thought you were going to feel.
But I was very concerned (prophetically so) for two members of our group. In the sleeping bag to my immediate left was Doug Hansen. Doug had been sick and wasn't climbing well. He looked like he'd been worked over with an ice ax. Even more so than the rest of us, he hadn't been feeding and watering and resting the machine that has to carry you up the hill.
Being turned around the year before, so close to the top, had come to possess him, to rule his every waking thought. Doug came back to Everest in 1996 vowing that under no circumstance was he going to be turned around again.
I, too, was fanatical about mountain climbing, but I wasn't crazy in that way. I lived by mountaineering's general rule that going to any summit is optional. Getting back down is mandatory.
Also, I was like the great majority of climbers in that the only competition I felt was with myself. Before arrival in Nepal, I had set as my personal goal to get at least as far as the South Col. I'd accomplished that. If I didn't make it to the top this time, I'd still feel the trip was worthwhile. Before leaving Dallas I'd told my colleagues that I simply wanted to experience Everest and all it had to offer. I'd probably rephrase that sentiment today.
One of the things that you must honestly ask yourself on a mountain-it is a moral obligation to your fellow climbers-is, With this step, how much do I have left? Can I still turn around and get back down to safety?
I didn't think Doug knew that any longer, and I didn't think he cared.
The other person for whom I was concerned was Yasuko. She was an itty-bitty waif of a person, could not have weighed more than ninety pounds dripping wet. But the gear she had to carry weighed exactly the same as mine and everyone else's. I just didn't think that tiny body of hers could cash the checks that Yasuko's mind was writing.
We got out of the tents and put on our oxygen masks-MIG fighter-pilot surplus. Now we looked like a bunch of homeless top guns on Halloween. We also pulled on our enormous down suits, the kind of thing your mom sent you out in to play in the snow. You can't do much more than waddle in them.
Our group started out first. The Mountain Madness climbers and the Taiwanese were about an hour behind us. It was an exquisite evening as we began to move across the flat expanse of the South Col leading to the summit face. The moon peeked at us over the 27,790-foot summit of Makalu in the distance. The wind was absolutely still. The temperature was about ten below zero, which is quite warm for a big mountain.
Besides our headlamps, there was no artificial light anywhere, which allowed the stars above us to shine with incredible brilliance. You even could see them reflected in that cold blue ice beneath your feet. They seemed so close, as if you could just reach up and pluck them from the heavens, one at a time, put them in your pocket and save them for later.
Our pace was that slow, rhythmic, metronome-like gait ingrained in the frame of my being through years of prior climbing. With each step those knives bite into the ice with a distinctive creech-ch-ch. As you move and shift your weight in the cold, the metal in your boots and the bindings on your pack squeak in response.
We moved across the South Col, heading to the summit face. There was nothing to it, really. Just keep plowing straight up. You travel in a private bubble of light from your headlamp, the rest of the world as lost to you as if you were alone on the face of the moon. All you have to do is step and rest, step and rest hour after hour after endless hour-until halfway up the face we shifted over in a traverse to the left.
A traverse is an inherently more dangerous kind of move in mountaineering. It is harder to protect a traverse. You've got to be able to see where you're putting your feet. And that spelled a private disaster for me.
As we started up the summit face, I was fourth in line, following Ang Dorje, our chief climbing Sherpa, Mike Groom and Jon Krakauer. Over the preceding weeks I'd tried to conserve my strength. The philosophy is to start slow and back off, because you know it is not how strong you are on day one that counts. As a result, I had strength in reserve as we moved up.
But I gradually realized, to my deep annoyance, that I couldn't see the face of this mountain at all, and the reason I 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 that I would be 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, at high altitude a cornea thus altered will both flatten and thicken, shortening your focal length and rendering you effectively blind. That is what happened to me about fifteen hundred feet above High Camp in the early morning hours of May 10, 1996.
At first I wasn't really worried. I'd experienced minor problems with vision shifts in the past, most recently at Base Camp and when we went through the Icefall. I'd had more than my usual difficulty seeing at night, as well as in the morning until the sun was out enough to require sunglasses.
But I felt more inconvenienced than handicapped by the problem and did not mention it to anyone. Nor did I panic when the shift recurred in the dark at 27,500 feet. I really couldn't see, but I knew coming to me in the next couple of hours would be a solution to this problem-daylight.
The sun at that altitude is an enormous ball of light so powerful that it can burn the inside of your mouth and the inside of your nose. If you take off those p...
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