Days of Reckoning
09/29/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
SOMETIMES WHEN HE DREAMS, Dr. Beck Weathers finds himself back on Everest. Once again, freezing air searing his lungs, deep snow clutching at his legs, he is climbing, climbing, climbing toward a summit he will never reach. "In the dreams," he says, "I still have my hands."
When Weathers awakens in his Dallas home, it is to the realization that he no longer does. But Peach, his wife of 21 years, is beside him, and his children Beck II, 18, and Meg, 16, sleep peacefully in their rooms. Outside are ranch-style suburban homes and the hum and hiss of sprinklers on summer lawns. There was a time when the Dallas pathologist took every opportunity to escape this domestic tranquillity, leaving his home for months on end to test himself against the world's great mountains. Now, though, it has become very precious to him. "I traded my two hands for my family and future," he says. "If all this hadn't happened, I could see myself achieving everything in life that wasn't nailed down, then winding up alone."
Buried for more than 14 hours in the snow and ice of a sudden storm that killed eight climbers last year on the world's highest mountain—a story told in chilling detail in Jon Krakauer's bestselling Into Thin Air—Weathers, 50, was given up for dead. He survived, but at terrible cost. Destroyed by frostbite, his right arm was amputated just below the elbow, as were the fingers of his left hand. During 16 hours of microsurgery, doctors covered the remaining hand with skin and cut through the palm to create a new thumb and middle finger. "It looks more like a small catcher's mitt than a hand," Weathers says, but it allows him to grasp and hold objects.
Surgeons also had to build Weathers a new nose with cartilage from his ears and skin from his neck. For three months as new tissue grew and blood flow became normal, it rested, upside down, on his forehead before surgeons placed it in the proper position on his face. "It isn't exactly original equipment," he says, "but the surgeons did an amazing job."
Despite the trauma and the physical limitations with which he is learning to live, Weathers speaks cheerfully about the insights he has gained. "There is no question that my life has taken a hit," he says, "but I can look back on it all and see the positives. Most important, it has saved my marriage."
Peach, 47, agrees. "If Beck hadn't changed," she says, "I was gone." She never understood her husband's restlessness and is still angry at the infatuation with high places that took him away from her and the kids so much. "I'll never get over it—he missed out on so many wonderful things related to our family," she says. "Beck was always searching for something."
What he was searching for was the next mountain by which to measure himself. "Was I driven? I'd have to say so. I had this idea that a person's accomplishments were what defined him," says Weathers, who collected the highest peaks like trophies. "Today I'm a lot more at peace with myself. I no longer feel a need to come up with new things to challenge myself."
Weathers likes to say that the old Beck officially died on May 11, 1996. That was the day that Peach got a phone call from Madeline David of Adventure Consultants Ltd. in Christchurch, New Zealand. David's boss, Rob Hall, had taken a group of climbers including Weathers up Everest. David told Peach that the group had been ambushed by a sudden storm and that Weathers, along with Hall, was among the dead.
Three hours later David called back. Weathers was in critical condition, but alive. He had somehow awakened in the snow, where he had collapsed and struggled to the climbers' high camp. Two days later, airlifted to a hotel in Kathmandu, an already evolving Weathers began to reflect on his life and near death. "I was looking out the window at all the greenery," he says, "and the fact that I was still alive really overcame me. I can't tell you the euphoria...knowing I was going to see my loved ones again."
The son of an Air Force pilot, Weathers, who grew up on military bases, was a late-blooming climber who was close to 40 when he succumbed to the lure of the mountains. He promptly scaled five of the world's most challenging peaks, including Kilimanjaro in Africa and Aconcagua in the Andes. By 1996 he thought he was ready for Everest. He was 400 feet short of the summit when snow blindness stopped him.
In the 16 months since he came down from Everest, Weathers has had to learn to dress and shave and brush his teeth. And since January he has been putting in a full day at the four-doctor pathology lab where he has worked since 1977. He has had to have equipment modified—a foot pedal rotates the turrets on his microscope and a touch pad replaces his computer mouse—and he has hired 35-year-old Kim Ledford as his full-time assistant. "Fortunately," he says, "to look at slides and make decisions only requires eyes and a brain."
At work his colleagues had been nearly as disappointed in him as Peach had. "For a number of years before the event on Everest," says Dr. John Trufan, who has known and worked with Weathers since they interned together in 1971, "I had seen him become less interested in his work and his family, letting his drive to do these other things become consuming. But there has been a change in Beck; he went through a long learning process about values and priorities and has greatly benefited from the experience."
Now that his surgeries appear to be finished, Weathers has begun to exercise again. He swims daily and recently began to experiment with Rollerblading. "All I'm doing," he insists, "is exercising to be physically fit. If it isn't fun, I'm not going to do it."
He has found satisfaction, too, in the family activities he once spurned, going to the movies with young Beck, teaching Meg to drive and taking Peach with him when he travels on speaking engagements. "The kids seem amazingly unaffected by all this," says Weathers. "It was almost as if I came home and they ran in and said, 'Hey, Mom, look what Dad's done this time; he lost his hands.' "
For Peach, bewildered and resentful of her husband's obsessions, the turning point in the family's renewal came in January, when her brother Howard, 56, was dying of cancer in Chicago. "I got a call saying he didn't have long to live," she says. "Beck, who was still in a great deal of pain, asked to go to Chicago with me. That told me a great deal; it wasn't something he would normally have done."
Beck Weathers sleeps better these nights. The mountain is losing its hold over his dreams, and he has a new reality. When he returned home, he told his wife he would understand if she chose to walk away. "That she didn't leave is not only the greatest gift I ever received but a testimony to her incredible strength," he says. "There has been a lot said and written about the heroes that were involved in what happened on the mountain. To me, Peach is the most heroic."
CARLTON STOWERS in Dallas