On the night of May 10, 1996, Beck Weathers huddled with 10 other climbers on an exposed stretch of Mount Everest, 26,000 feet above sea level. A blizzard churned the air into a slurry of ice and snow. Their supplemental oxygen was fully depleted, and they struggled for each breath. They yelled at one another and pounded on each other's shoulders to stay warm and conscious. Even a wink of sleep could prove fatal.
Weathers, a 49-year-old Dallas pathologist, was worse off than most. Earlier that day, he'd gone almost entirely blind — the altitude-induced effect of a recent corneal operation — and as the sun set, his body temperature dropped and his heart slowed. He then slipped from consciousness. "I don't remember this," Weathers says, "but at some point I stood up and announced, 'I got this figured out!' Then the wind hit me in the chest, and I went flying backward." At the time, they seemed like last words.
Weathers was hardly the only imperiled climber on Everest that night. Similar life-and-death dramas were taking place all over the upper reaches of the mountain. In the end, eight climbers, including Weathers' lead guide, Rob Hall, would die. It would prove to be the deadliest event in Everest's history up to that point, and it soon became the most famous, garnering headlines and being immortalized in Jon Krakauer's 1997 bestseller, Into Thin Air — and now, Everest, an Imax film starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, and, as Weathers, Josh Brolin.
While Weathers lay in the snow on Everest's South Col, most of the climbers in his group were escorted to safety. But both times rescuers reached Weathers, they deemed him a lost cause. He was breathing but appeared to be in a deep hypothermic coma, as good as gone. At 6 the next morning, Weathers' wife, Peach, got a call from his outfitter, Adventure Consultants. They were sorry to inform her that her husband was dead.
Nineteen years later, Weathers, now 68, sits in his spacious North Dallas home. There are no mountaineering mementos on the walls — no pictures of ?Weathers braving the Vinson Massif or the Carstensz Pyramid, no crampons or climbing ropes. The only object that evokes his mountaineering past is a photo of his post-Everest reunion with Peach — his hands covered in bandages, his cheeks and nose charred black by frostbite.
Weathers' body is testament enough. His right arm, decimated by frostbite, was amputated between the elbow and the wrist. His left hand, robbed of all its fingers, has been surgically reshaped into an appendage that Weathers calls his "mitt." His nose has been completely rebuilt. It was constructed with skin from his neck and cartilage from his ears and, in a particularly surreal detail, grown on his forehead for months until it could become fully vascularized. (It was then sliced off and attached to his face.) His joints are creaky. His circulation is poor. He once worked out 18 hours a week, but now he gets his exercise by walking through a local mall. "I'm just ripping a corner around Nieman Marcus ladies wear, and I think to myself, 'How the mighty have fallen!' " he says, laughing.
(At Everest base camp prior to the disastrous climb. Photograph Courtesy Beck Weathers)
As soon as Weathers was off the mountain, it was clear to him that Everest would leave a deep mark on his life. But, he figured, "accidents occur on mountains all the time. There was no reason to imagine that this was going to capture the imagination the way it did."
But Weathers' story of survival has turned him into something of a celebrity. He has gone to the British Virgin Islands at the invitation of Richard Branson and to Hollywood, where he had a three-hour Jack Daniels–fueled bull session with Brolin, as the actor prepared for his Everest role. Weathers gets recognized by people who have been moved by his story, whether he's at home in Dallas or in a small village in northern India. And, for the last 15 years, he has told his story professionally as an inspirational speaker. (His big-league bookings this year included co-headlining the National Automobile Dealers Association's annual conference with Jeb Bush and Jay Leno.)
"People like Beck make me cry," Brolin says when I ask about his own attraction to Weathers' story. "There's something I find so moving about his experience. There were hundred-mile-an-hour winds; it was a hundred below zero — how did he survive after so many hours exposed to that? It's just not possible. There are still 200 bodies left up there that people are walking past all the time. Why isn't he one of them?"
Twenty-two hours after the start of the catastrophic storm and 15 hours after he entered the hypothermic coma, Weathers' body warmed to the point at which he miraculously regained consciousness. His first thought was that he might be back in Dallas. Then he saw his right hand. It was lifeless and gray — a piece of frozen meat. He whacked it against the ice, and it made a hollow sound. He was not in Texas; he was on Everest's South Col, and he needed to start moving.
"I looked up and the sun was about 15 degrees above the horizon and heading down," Weathers says. "So I knew that I had one more hour to live. Nobody has ever survived two nights on Everest outside."
Weathers set off in what he hoped was the direction of High Camp, where an hour later, he stumbled to safety. No one in camp thought he'd survive, but he regained some strength, and the next day, began an assisted descent, cracking jokes on the way. ("They told me this trip was going to cost an arm and a leg," Weathers said. "So far I've gotten a better deal.") He made it to the Khumbu Ice Fall, just below 20,000 feet, where a Nepalese army helicopter picked him up.
(Upon his return from Everest, Beck and Peach in 1996. Photograph by Bill Janscha / AP)
Weathers emerged as the Everest disaster's most unlikely hero. In Into Thin Air, Krakauer, who was one of Weathers' Adventure Consultants teammates, writes, "At first blush Beck came across as a rich Republican blowhard looking to buy the summit of Everest for his trophy case." But the more time Krakauer spent with Weathers, the more he came to respect him. By the end of the climb, Krakauer regarded him as "tough, driven, stoic. . . . Beck had simply refused to succumb."
Krakauer didn't know the half of it. As Weathers revealed in his own book, Left for Dead, for two decades before his Everest climb, he had battled a serious and at times life-threatening depression. The mountains were his only salvation from what he called "the black dog," the one place where he had a real sense of happiness and peace. ("Everything else in your entire life disappears, and it's just one step after the other," he says.) He'd been a committed motorcyclist and sailor but had gotten hooked on climbing on a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park when he was 40. He soon was pushing himself toward loftier, ever more treacherous goals — almost always at the expense of family life. He would wake up at 4 am to exercise, spend all day working at the hospital, then barely nod hello when he got home before dropping into bed at 8 pm. He would take multiweek trips to places like the Indonesian province of Papua and the Kabardino-Balkar Republic to climb the seven summits, the tallest mountain on each continent. Even on vacations with Peach and their two kids, Weathers would spend time training or hiking.
Peach told her husband that his climbing was eroding their life together, but Weathers persisted. It had long since ceased being purely therapeutic. Weathers' depression had "slunk off," and now climbing was about ego, what Weathers calls, "my hollow obsession." By the time of the Everest ascent, Peach decided she could no longer take it and planned to divorce her husband as soon as he returned. But after his near-death ordeal, she gave him another chance: "If you can prove to me in a year that you're a different person, we'll talk about it." Weathers saw what his future held if he continued on his pre-Everest path: "I had absolutely no doubt I'd end up as the most successful lonely guy I knew — divorced, estranged from kids, miserable."?
Weathers' house may lack evidence of his mountaineering past, but it does attest to his post-Everest transformation. When I arrive on a Saturday, Peach and her daughter-in-law are trying to corral one of the cats. The den is full of their grandson's toys, and Beck is in the middle of it all. "He's not constantly distracted," Peach says. "He's not constantly looking forward to something else."
Metamorphosis is not simple work, though. About a decade ago, Weathers, no longer able to climb, decided that he might as well pursue a new hobby: flying. Risky, adrenaline-spiking pursuits had, of course, caused problems for Weathers before, but he loved getting in the cockpit of his Cessna 182-Turbo. "When I heard that, it solidified everything for me," Brolin told me. "Hands or no hands, this guy has to do something."
Peach worried that it wasn't safe for her husband to be flying and let her husband know his exploits were once again driving a wedge between him and his family. Nearing 70 years old, Weathers figured it was time to bow to his wife's better judgment.
"You would think that undergoing something as life-changing as Everest would just permanently alter you," Weathers says. "But when you've spent 50 years with a certain form of driven behavior, it's pretty difficult to turn that around."
Weathers will always be a work in progress, never a man who will instinctually stop and smell the roses if there's a jagged column of ice looming on the horizon. But he is trying. And the interviews and the speeches and the not-so-gentle admonishments from Peach are helping. "Reliving it over and over," he tells me, "it brings the lessons back."