If ever there was a competition for extreme cold-weather survival combined with nominative determinism, then Beck Weathers would win hands down. Actually, Beck lost his hands to frostbite, but he would win nonetheless. His is an incredible tale of pure stoic survival, caught up as he was in the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, infamous thanks to Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air, and the recent 2015 film Everest, when a blizzard swept the mountain, leading to the deaths of 8 climbers. Beck Weathers was not to be one of those.
On the morning May 10th, 1996, Weathers was close to fulfilling his mountaineering dream and nearing the summit of Everest with a group of 9 other climbers. However, as the team reached the Balcony at 27,000 feet, 2000 from the summit, Weathers’ vision began to fade. He had recently undergone radial keratotomy surgery, a corrective eyesight procedure that preceded laser eye surgery, and the high altitude and intense UV radiation had reduced his vision to near nothingness. His expedition leader, Rob Hall, wanted him to return to the last camp, but Weathers decided to stay out, believing that his eyesight would return when the sun came out again. When told by Hall to stay where he was, Weathers replied “cross my heart, hope to die,” a slice of black humour that he couldn’t have known would foreshadow upcoming events.
By this point, though, the elements were really beginning to rage, and a snowy blizzard billowed over the mountain ridges. The group of stragglers, obviously not having read our guide to surviving a blizzard, soon became disorientated in the whiteout, conditions one described as being lost in a bottle of milk. Completely lost, they almost walked off the mountain, and had to hunker down, exposed to blisteringly cold winds scything icy snow through the camp at 70 mph and temperatures way below zero.Weathers turned down numerous offers of help back down to camp, waiting instead for Hall to return, but as the weather on the mountain began to deteriorate, there was no sign of his guide. Eventually, Jon Krakauer passed Weathers and told him that Hall was stuck up on the summit ridge. Weathers knew it was time to leave, but waited for another guide from his group, Mike Groom, who led him and a bunch of other weary climbers stumbling down towards the South Col.
Weathers lost his glove, and his right hand began to freeze almost immediately, showing just how vital proper winter gear can be. Eventually succumbing to hypothermia and a lack of oxygen, Weathers got to his feet, frozen arms in the air, yelling “I’ve got this all figured out” (more likely due to confusion than his previous penchant for black humour) before being swept off into the whiteness by the howling winds.
Most of his fellow strandees were heroically rescued by Anatoli Boukreev, a guide on another expedition, but Weathers himself was nowhere to be seen, blown out of sight by the gale force winds. The next day, Stuart Hutchinson, a climber from the same team, returned with two Sherpas to check on the status of Weathers and the other stranded climber Yasuko Namba. Namba was motionless, with a veil of ice over her face, so Hutchinson moved on to Weathers. With one arm frozen above his head, jacket partially undone, and ice all over him, Hutchinson judged that Weathers was way beyond saving. News of his death was even put into circulation, with his wife Peach being informed.
For anyone else, that might have been the right call, but not Beck Weathers. He gradually slipped back into consciousness from a hypothermic coma, a remarkably rare feat, even if you know how to deal with hypothermia, and remembers feeling like “there was a nice, warm, comfortable sense of being in my bed. It was really not unpleasant.” Just like all of us in bed on a cold winter morning, though, Weathers couldn’t stay there forever. But rather than a mild chilly room before a cup of tea, he had to deal with that fact that he was on the side of Mount Everest, with frozen arms and face, all alone in a storm. But realise he did, and the other climbers couldn’t believe their eyes when he finally stumbled back into camp.
Nevertheless, and to his companions’ great shock, Weathers remained alive the next day, talking coherently. He was helped down on frozen feet to a lower camp, from where KC Madan, a Nepalese military pilot, made a high-altitude helicopter landing to bring him back safely to Kathmandu.His face was entirely black from frostbite, and in his frozen state, the others assumed he wouldn’t even make it to the next day. They put him in a tent with some sleeping bags, and tried to make him comfortable, but he was anything but. Unable to eat, drink, or even keep himself covered due to his frostbitten limbs, Weathers could only shout for help, shouts that were completely drowned out by the howling winds.
Weathers definitely suffered a great amount during his ordeal, and afterwards lost his right arm below the elbow, the fingers of his left hand, parts of both feet and his nose. Still, he didn’t lose any of his trademark black humour, able to joke with his rescuers on the way back to safety. “They told me this trip was going to cost me an arm and a leg,” he quipped, “so far, I’ve gotten a little better deal.”
An absolutely incredible feat of sub-zero survival on what remains one of the most dangerous places on Earth, even despite continuing controversial commercialisation of the mountain. Still, soon you’ll be able to go up Everest in virtual reality, so no need to get your nose froze! If you’re slightly mad and you do feel inspired by Beck Weathers’ story, maybe start small and check out some of our mountaineering tips for beginners.
With a master’s in Literature, Sam inhales books and anything readable, spending his working hours reformulating the info he gathers into digestible articles. When not reading or writing, he likes to put his camera to work around the world, snapping street photography from Stockholm to Tokyo. Too much of this time spent in Japan teaching English has nurtured a weakness for sashimi, Japanese whisky, and robot cafés.