Shortly after I returned from Everest Base Camp in 2001, I went with my dad to hear Beck Weathers speak. Anyone that has read Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air or any of the other books about the 1996 disaster on Everest, is probably familiar with his story. Here’s my abridged version:
Beck was a pathologist from Texas that was climbing in New Zealand guide Rob Hall’s group during the 1996 Everest climbing season. He was high up on the mountain nearing the top when he went snow blind. So, Rob dug out a spot for him to sit and wait until Rob summitted with the other clients and returned for him.
Rob never returned for him because Rob died trying to help another climber and didn’t adhere to his turn-around time, the time when they needed to go back down no matter whether they’d summitted or not. But one of the other guides from Beck’s group came by and now that the storm was descending, Beck went down with them to Camp 4. They got within 150 yards of the camp but couldn’t find it in the blizzard conditions. As they circled in the storm, Beck just fell over and they left him lying in the snow. He laid there for 15 hours at 26,000 feet during a storm with his face and hand exposed.
And then he miraculously “woke up” and managed to make his way to camp. The other climbers were in complete disarray after the storm and were shocked to see him. They helped him into a tent – and then left him there, expecting that he’d die during the night. As Beck screamed because he couldn’t eat, drink or even keep himself covered with sleeping bags, they couldn’t hear him over the howling winds.
Beck didn’t die that night so the next morning the other climbers rallied to find a way to help him down the mountain as he was suffering frostbite to his hands, arm and face. He was short-roped (pretty much tied right to) a dream team of amazing climbers, Ed Viesturs and David Breashears. Ed and David weren’t from Beck’s group but were up there filming a Imax film about Everest and had aborted their climb to help others.
The Dream Team got Beck down to 20,000 feet where a helicopter that was rallied by Beck’s wife in Texas attempted to land. The air is so thin that the helicopter rotor blades could barely keep the machine aloft and to even try to do this once, the pilot off-loaded every bit of weight that he could. He was on the knife-edge of not making it when he came over the ridge to find the landing pad the Dream Team had marked with red Kool-aid.
And just as Beck is about to get on the helicopter, a climber who has more severe injuries from the Taiwanese team arrived. The helicopter could only take one person and Beck gave up his seat to the more injured climber. Beck assumed he’d just signed his death warrant because he couldn’t make it through the Khumbu icefall with his injuries, not even with the Dream team’s help because they’d have to cross huge blocks of ice on ladders. As he’s contemplating this, the helicopter rose one more time over the ridge – the pilot came back for Beck.
Beck lost his arm from his elbow down plus all the fingers on his other hand and parts of his feet. He had a prosthetic nose that they grew for 6 months on his forehead. He could never work as a pathologist again. He wrote a book called Left for Dead that recounts with detail those four times he was left for dead on Everest and began a second career as an inspirational speaker.
Sitting in the front row, I was transfixed watching Beck tell his story. Great story-tellers have a way of raising questions in us that have nothing to do with Mt. Everest. As author Brandon Mull said, “Sharp people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.”
Have you ever pursued a goal so obsessively you gave up everything else? Would you be able to keep going after being left for dead? Would you give up your seat to someone else that’s more injured or give up your IMAX filming to help someone else? Have you been able to find your way to a new career?
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(featured photo from Pexels)