The Incredible Story Of Beck Weathers - One Of The Few Survivors Of The 1996 Everest Disaster
Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world, beckoning climbers from all over the globe to summit its 29,029-foot peak. However, the mountain can prove deadly, and what happens to your body in such extreme weather is frightening—members of the 1996 Everest expedition became stuck in a blizzard, which claimed the lives of eight people. Beck Weathers was one of the members on that trip. He survived after nearly going blind, getting hypothermia, and waking up after a 15-hour coma. A combination of ego, weather, and timing all contributed to the tragedy in one way or another. Sadly, the 1996 Everest climb wasn't the deadliest day in the mountain's history. The bodies of those who died on Everest, among about 200 others, have found their final resting place in the treacherous mountain's ice and snow.
No One Knows Exactly Why Weathers Awoke From A ComaPhoto: Uwe Gille / Wikimedia Commons / GFDL
As the blizzard raged around him, Weathers, who was attempting to descend the mountain with a group of climbers, eventually lost consciousness and fell into a coma when a gust of wind blew him over. He was already weakened by his slowing heartbeat and quickly dropping body temperature. Weathers said that his last words before he entered a coma were "I got this figured out!" The others in his group reached safety, but rescuers thought Weathers was past the point that he could possibly recover. He miraculously woke up 15 hours after he entered the coma. He gained enough mental clarity to know that the Sun was about to set and that he needed to reach safety. He was somehow able to muster enough energy to hike for an hour and reach a camp. Even then, no one thought he would survive.
Weathers Nearly Blinded Himself When He Scratched His Cornea With An Ice CrystalPhoto: Chagai / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Shortly before his attempt to summit Everest, Weathers had surgery on his corneas. He was left partially blind when his barely-healed corneas reacted poorly to the high altitude. Weathers stopped climbing during the evening due to a complete lack of vision and decided to resume his journey when the Sun came up. He hoped the light would allow him to see. But Weathers injured his cornea when he rubbed his eyes and accidentally scratched the right one with an ice crystal. It caused an imbalance in his depth perception, which can prove deadly on Everest's unpredictable terrain. Weathers's guide, Rob Hall, told him that he had to stop, and Weathers complied.
Hall planned to climb further up the mountain then return for Weathers, but Hall became stuck with another climber. Both died, and Weathers continued to await Hall's return. Climber and writer Jon Krakauer offered to help Weathers down the mountain, but Weathers refused. Even though Krakauer told him that Hall was stuck, Weathers continued to wait, as Krakauer was not part of Weathers's climbing team. Eventually, Mike Groom, another guide, was able to help Weathers down. It was a little too late; by the time they reached the camp, Weathers had hypothermia, hypoxia, and was delusional. The wind blew him over, and everyone thought he wouldn't make it any further. A doctor said he was close to death, and the group left, telling the others that he died.
Weathers's Wife Saved His LifePhoto: SAC Faye Storer/MOD / Wikimedia Commons / OGL v1.0
The group with which Weathers was hiking, Adventure Consultants, called his wife, Peach Weathers, and told her that her husband was dead. Fortunately, Peach Weathers didn't accept their pronouncement, and she organized an impressive helicopter rescue.
Peach Weathers reached out to Texas state senator, Kay Bailey Hutchinson and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Daschle called the US embassy in Kathmandu. Though many helicopter pilots wouldn't take on the mission because of the extreme altitudes, Lieutenant Colonel Madan Khatri Chhetri eventually succeeded in rescuing Weathers.
Weathers Became Unhealthily Obsessed With ClimbingPhoto: Luca Galuzzi (Lucag) / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5
Climbing consumed Beck Weathers's life to the point that his wife was ready to leave him. In Weathers's book, Left For Dead: My Journey Home from Everest, he revealed that in the 20 years prior to his attempt to summit Everest, he struggled with severe depression and suicidal thoughts. He dealt with the depression by pushing himself physically in increasingly extreme ways.
After Weathers returned from Everest, his wife told him that she was indeed planning on leaving, but she decided to stay another year to see if he could change. Fortunately, he did.
Expedition Leaders' Egos Almost Certainly Contributed To The TragedyPhoto: ISS Expedition 26 crew / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
More than a few people displayed large egos on the 1996 Everest climb, including Beck Weathers. Jon Krakauer found him arrogant, though grew to respect him, which is how directors portrayed Weathers in Everest, a movie about his journey and survival. Weathers takes issue with the cinematic representation, but his wife says that he was indeed a bit of a jerk. However, she admits that his attitude helped him get to Everest and survive the near-death experience.
While Weathers's ego may have saved him, the egos of the expedition leaders almost certainly contributed to the fatalities of the day. Two groups were climbing during the blizzard, and they were led by competing companies. A rivalry existed between the two factions to reach the peak of the mountain. Rob Hall led Adventure Consultants, and Scott Fischer led Mountain Madness. At the point where they should have turned back, Hall saw Fischer pushing onward, and his group chose to do the same. The presence of journalists and the promise of publicity only fueled the fire. Even Krakauer agreed that his presence didn't help, as the groups pushed to summit the mountain when they should have turned around.
Weathers Wasn't The Only SurvivorPhoto: Stan En / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0
Weathers wasn't the only one to make it off the mountain the day of the deadly blizzard. Jon Krakauer, the journalist who later wrote Into Thin Air, made it down, as did socialite and former fashion editor Sandy Pittman. Michael Groom, the guide that helped Weathers, also got off the mountain, though he did lose both of his feet. Neal Beidleman, another tour guide, successfully descended as well. Lene Gammelgaard, like Weathers, wrote a book about the 1996 Everest experience titled Climbing High: A Woman's Account of Surviving the Everest Tragedy. Lou Kasischke made it down too, and he published After the Wind: 1996 Everest Tragedy—One Survivor's Story. Stuart Hutchinson, a Canadian doctor, also survived.