Dead Man Climbing
06/17/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT
HALF-FROZEN AND LOST IN A storm, Seaborn Beck Weathers felt himself slipping toward death. His already blurred vision dimming, his knees buckling, he lay down in the snow, engulfed by the blizzard that swept across Mount Everest on the afternoon of May 10. The storm hit suddenly, a dense squall that collided with the world's highest peak just as 150 climbers were aiming for its 29,028-foot summit. By the next day eight of them were dead—the worst one-day loss of life in the history of climbing Everest—and Weathers had been given up for lost. But when dawn fell across his snow-covered body, something miraculous happened: Weathers woke up.
Three weeks later the wind is roaring outside Weathers's north Dallas home, ripping branches off the trees. But this time, Weathers, 49, a pathologist at Medical City Hospital, is safely sheltered in the comfort of his den with wife Margaret (known as Peach), 47, and children Beck II, 17, and Meg, 14. Frostbite has severely damaged his hands and his face, which still bears patches of black, dead skin from wind-burn. His frostbitten hands wrapped in gauze, Weathers explains why he spent the past decade trying to touch the top of the earth. "I always had this fear of heights," he says. "I thought it'd be interesting to face it and see what happens."
Such understatement belies a steely determination. The son of an Air Force pilot, Weathers grew up at military bases all over the world and went to college in the flatlands of Wichita Falls, Texas. Already close to 40 when he first hiked in the Colorado mountains in 1986, he was swept away by the beauty and challenge of the hills. A self-described "physical-fitness nut," Weathers learned mountaineering basics at Estes Park's Colorado Mountain School, then set his sights on one of climbing's loftiest goals: the Seven Summits. Ascending the tallest mountain on each of the seven continents takes some climbers a lifetime. Weathers's goal was to climb one mountain a year. By 1995 he had attempted six of the peaks, summitting all except Alaska's Mount McKinley. ("I got my fanny kicked up and down that mountain," he says.) The last untried mountain was Everest.
In search of an expedition, Weathers called Rob Hall, whom he'd met two years earlier while climbing in Indonesia. A New Zealander who led expeditions to Everest through his Adventure Consultants, Ltd. guide service in Christchurch, Hall had an impressive record of success: In the past four years he had delivered 39 climbers to the top of Everest. Weathers paid Hall's $65,000 fee and joined an eight-person team that left for Nepal in April. "It was a strong group," Weathers says. "Rob felt we all had a very good chance of reaching the summit."
On May 5, after a month of acclimating to the altitude (Everest's base camps are 18,000 feet above sea level), Weathers, Hall and their teammates set out on the six-day journey to the summit. On the afternoon of May 9, the group joined climbers from two other expeditions at the high camp, 28,000 feet up Everest's south slope. Like the others, Hall's team rested for a few hours, then set out for the top at midnight, the path lit by the glow of their headlamps.
At first, Weathers led the way. "I was at the head of the pack," he says. But when his vision began to blur—probably a result of an airborne ice splinter—he fell back in line. When the group reached the Southeast Ridge just before dawn, Weathers was nearly—though temporarily—blind. Only 400 feet from the summit, he made the painful decision to wait until his vision cleared, or until descending climbers could steer him back to the high camp. But Hall, who didn't like to see his group divided, made Weathers promise to wait until he could lead him down personally. "I made him that promise," says Weathers. "I had no choice."
The morning was windy but clear, a near-perfect summit day, and eventually climbers started making their way back to camp. When teammate Jon Krakauer found Weathers on the ridge, he told him Hall was at least three hours behind but that climbers Yasuko Namba and Mike Groom, who were carrying a radio, were just 20 minutes upslope. Weathers decided to wait for them and then radio Hall that he was descending. "That 20 minutes was fateful," says Weathers.
Minutes after Krakauer left, wind gusts swelled into a gale, and snow began to fall. By the time Namba and Groom reached Weathers, the temperature had plummeted to-148°F, and visibility was almost nil. As darkness neared, Americans Tim Madsen, Charlotte Fox and Sandy Hill Pittman joined the trio to begin edging down the mountain. "We formed into a tight pack, forcing everyone to stay awake, to keep moving," says Weathers. "You would slap each other on the back, anything to keep movement going and make sure no one fell asleep." Feeling his right hand going numb, Weathers took off his glove and put his hand beneath his jacket to try to warm it. Disastrously, he lost his grip, and the glove vanished into the night. With it went the last of Weathers's strength. "I remember the voices getting dim, faint, far away," he says. And then he doesn't remember anything.
During the next 24 hours, the storm claimed eight climbers, including the Japanese-born Namba, 47, who collapsed near Weathers; Renton, Wash., climber Doug Hansen, 46; New Zealand guide Andrew Harris, 31; Seattle guide Scott Fischer, 40; Indian climber Dorje Murup, 48; Taiwanese steelworker Chen Yu-Nan, 35; T. Samamla, 38; and Hall, 36, who, exhausted and without oxygen after attempting to save Hansen, had managed to make a heartbreaking last radio call from Everest home to his pregnant wife in New Zealand. Russian climber Anatoli Boukreev was able to lead Madsen, Fox and Pittman down to the high camp, but when Canadian climber Stuart Hutchinson found Namba and Weathers half-buried in fresh snow he assumed he was too late. "I thought Weathers was dead," Hutchinson told TIME. "I unburied him and broke the ice off his face."
The grim news was relayed to base camp, then to New Zealand and finally, in a 7:15 a.m. call from Hall's assistant Madeline David at the Adventure Consultants, Ltd. offices in Christchurch, to Peach Weathers in Dallas. "I have terrible news," David said. At first, Peach didn't get it. "You mean he's missing?" she asked. No. Her husband was dead; his body had been identified. Still in shock, Peach phoned friends and her husband's brother Dan, 47. "I started thinking about whether they would be able to retrieve his body," she says. Mostly, Peach wondered how she would tell her sleeping children that their father was dead.
Then, three hours later, she received another call: Beck was in critical condition, but he was alive.
Weathers—with ice on his face and his right hand frozen, as he recalls, "like a rock"—had awakened, disoriented, in the snow. Gradually grasping his situation, he began thinking about his wife and children—"the things I wouldn't be able to say to them"—and found the strength to climb to his feet. Near blind and staggering, Weathers eventually—and almost miraculously—found the blue tents of the high camp, where the astonished climbers cut the frozen clothes from his body, gave him oxygen and warmed him with a hot water bottle. After another stormy night, when the tents nearly blew off the mountain, the badly weakened Weathers continued down in the company of climbers Pete Athans and Todd Burleson. Two days later, after they reached Camp 1, Weathers and severely frostbitten Taiwanese climber Makalu Gau, 39, were rescued by a Nepalese Army helicopter pilot, who braved high winds and dangerously thin air to carry them to safety. Bandaged and warm, lying in a Kathmandu hotel hours later, Weathers reflected on how close he had come to dying. "I was looking out the window at all the greenery, and the fact I was still alive really overcame me," he says. "I can't tell you the euphoria...knowing I was going to see my loved ones again."
The blizzard on Everest is over, but Weathers will always bear its imprint. He will almost certainly lose his right hand—and probably a good part of his left. Remarkably, doctors say, the dead skin on his face should fall away and leave him with only minor scarring. A small price to pay, he says, for the privilege of being alive. "All those things I worried I'd never get the chance to say to my wife and kids—I've had the opportunity to say." Smiling at her battered, but far from beaten, husband, Peach Weathers adds one thing: "The kids and I have suggested that Beck now take up bass fishing."
CARLTON STOWERS in Dallas