Going Up is Optional, Getting Down is Mandatory
Having forlornly decided against taking the $400 floor tickets for the Rolling Stones concert at PNC Park, Kerstin and I went to see a talk by Beck Weathers last night. Weathers, you will recall, was the 49-year old Dallas pathologist and amateur mountain climber who was left for dead, unconscious and partially buried in snow for 14 hours, during the tragic Mount Everest expeditions of May 1996 (in which nine climbers died) – but who somehow managed to come back to tell the tale.
I was only vaguely aware of the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster when I made my own considerably less ambitious trek of Sagarmatha (Everest) National Park in April 1997 (see photo below; I’m the hunched figure on the left). I had somehow missed Jon Krakauer’s first-person account in the September 1996 issue of Outside magazine. However, perhaps not surprisingly, there was a dog-eared copy of it available for me to experience for the first time -- inside a smoky lodge in the village of Dingboche, at 14,500 feet.
Sitting next to a stove burning yak dung for warmth, light-headed and slightly dehydrated from the altitude, I remember experiencing conflicting emotions as I read Krakauer’s tale. I had seen Everest’s peak, with its disarming, churlish cloud-cowlick, from several vantage points during my trek up to that point, imagining that all I really had to do if I desired was to reach out and touch it. During the trek I had been lulled into believing that it was an attainable goal for the likes of me. I could see myself in Krakauer’s portrayal of poor Doug Hansen, the postal worker from Seattle who would die in 1996 after reaching the summit, or of Dr. Weathers – I could understand the sense of optimism that they clearly had that such a dream was possible.
Yet, at the same time, I was also very aware of the toll upon my mind and body that even this paltry 14,000-foot trek could induce. Dehydration, loss of appetite, a general fogginess of consciousness in the evenings, a knee ache and a foot ache, sunburn . . . just imagine, I thought – the punishment you’d take just to get above base camp at 17,000 feet. Brain hypoxia, apoptosis, the gradual death of one’s own cells, at 26,000 feet on the way up – only to be turned away from the peak by weather or exhaustion or some other unforeseen obstacle. The weight of failure was surely more than just emotional when you’ve reached that height.
Then imagine being chased by your own mortality back down the mountain. For the light-headed reader I was, the thought was harrowing.
Weathers, who broke out into the first couple of bars of “Satisfaction” in an impromptu acknowledgement of the evening’s competing entertainment, bursts onto the stage and “acts” his tale, using the entire stage to show how he inched sideways across the blade of the summit ridge, and how he would draw lungfuls of breath after every painful step above 22,000 feet. He works the crowd like a brass-band throwback to the most entertaining of the “famous-for-a-moment” lecturers on the old vaudeville circuit.
Weathers never made it to the summit on May 10, 1996. A few years earlier, Weathers had radial keratotomy surgery to correct bad vision in his eyes, observing that eyeglasses were no man’s friend in the mountains. Although he had heard of the phenomenon before, apparently he had never experienced one of its rare side effects – a loss of vision at high-altitude low barometric pressures. He had reached the ice balcony just before the South Summit Ridge, but at that moment he had to admit his utter blindness. After informing his team leader that he couldn’t make the rest of the ascent, Rob Hall made Weathers swear that he wouldn’t move from the ice balcony until Hall returned from the summit with his other clients. Weathers had no idea that Hall would never return (Hall would later die on the mountain), and ended up standing there in below zero temperatures until nearly nightfall, when Mike Groom, one of Hall’s guides, came down and short-roped him. Weathers was so blind by this time that he would occasionally step off into dead air, causing Groom to have to catch him using every ounce of his strength.
Then the storm came -- a freak white-out that caused Groom, Weathers and several members of Scott Fischer’s rival expedition to lose their bearings. They hunkered down on the South Col, strength gradually succumbing to the elements; but when a short break in the storm occurred, Groom and a couple of the other ambulatory climbers felt their way down to “Camp Four” at 26,100 feet to find help. Anatoly Boukreev, one of Fischer’s experienced guides, came and rescued Fischer’s clients one by one, but Weathers and little Yasuko Namba -- who earlier that day, at 47, became the oldest Japanese woman to reach the summit -- were incapacitated. Weathers lost a glove trying warm his hand inside his armpit, exposing his right hand to wind chills 100° below zero. By the time another climber, Stuart Hutchison, arrived on the scene, Namba and Weathers had sunk into comas. Hutchison assumed they were irredeemably near death. Weathers’ wife and children in Texas were called and told that he had perished.
Namba, lying in the snow beside him, would not survive. But Weathers opened his eyes at some point during that second day (he’s calls that “the miracle” that saved him), and he banged his dead-frozen arms down on the ice to regain some sensibility, and he got up and staggered blindly into the wind toward camp like a mummy, his face blackened by frostbite.
Again, his compadres thought he wouldn’t survive the night. On May 12, however, he woke up asking for help, and he was short-roped down to “Camp Two,” where he’d heard that the Nepalese were going to attempt the impossible – a helicopter rescue at an altitude where the air was so thin there was no guarantee that a copter’s blades would be able to chisel into it for lift. Weathers’ wife, back home in Texas, had roused Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who had roused the State Department, who had roused the U.S. embassy in Nepal, who found KC Madan -- a Nepalese military pilot, who until that day had questioned whether he had ever done anything to challenge his courage to the limits. His white knuckle flights (two of them, to 21,000 feet) to save Weathers and Taiwanese climber Makalu Gau should have dispelled all doubt about such matters, Weathers observes.
Weathers made it back to Texas, eventually. He lost his right hand below the wrist, and surgeons managed to save an indistinct if partially functional paw for him on his left. His face was scarred by frostbite, and he says he’s rebuffed suggestions that he let a plastic surgeon fix them – he says he wants to remember this ordeal every morning when he looks in the mirror.
Those scars remind him, he says, of how much he values being home with his family.