This past weekend the fiancée and I traveled up to NYC to hang out some friends from her work and see her sister as well as enjoy more than a few of the finest places to get your fill of food and drink.

One of the things I love about going to NYC is getting the chance to lose myself in a book for the 4 hours or so each way it takes to get there on the bus.   If I don’t get too distracted, I can sit there with my water and a few snacks and power through at least one full book by the time I get home.  I don’t even realize how long the trip is.

On this weekend’s trip, I brought along my recently received copy of “Left for Dead”, written by  Beck Weathers.   Weathers, you might 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 first read of Beck in the book “Into Thin Air” by John Krakauer and I thought at the time that Beck’s certainly one of the most compelling stories of any of the survivors of that horrific  few days on Everest.  What struck me at the time was his indomitable spirit and will to live.  You see Beck, an experienced but amateur climber, was attempted to summit Mount Everest and had to stop because the extreme altitude was reacting in an unpredictable way with an eye surgery he had earlier to correct a vision problem.  This reaction  had left him nearly blind,  well into the death zone on Everest (the death zone is the area above 26,000 feet where the air is so thin, body begins slowly die and no one can survive for more than a few hours).

Beck was instructed to wait for his guide, Rob Hall, to come back from taking the rest of the team to the summit and we would help Beck down to a lower camp where he’d be safe.  Rob Hall, who would later perish on the mountain, never returned and Beck was finally coaxed down by other climbers and guides after being convinced Hall was not coming.

This group of climbers was later caught in a massive blizzard and several of the weaker or injured climbers, were forced to hunker down out in the open, despite the 100mph winds and temperatures hovering around -100 degrees while the rest of the climbers went for help.   When help came several hours later, it was determined that Beck, who was covered under a sheet of ice and snow and who’s hands and face were frozen solid, was too far gone to be saved and would be left behind.
You see, on Everest, it is a tremendously exhausting effort for an incredibly fit climber to get him or herself up and down the mountain safely. Many climbers describe the experience as being something like running 3-4 marathons in a row.   It takes so much endurance just to reach the top that many climbers end up dying on the way back down sheer exhaustion.  Unfortunately, that means rescuing a disabled or injured climber is out of the question.  If someone can’t make it down on their own power, they’re not going make it down at all.

So Beck was left behind that night, and it was assumed that he would be dead by morning.  At point Beck, who was near death, had a vision of his wife and children and decided he didn’t want to die right there on the mountain.  Banging his frozen hands against the ground to shock himself awake, he arose from the ice and stumbled and crawled his way to camp where a very stunned group of climbers got him into a tent and started warming him up.

Another night in the tent (which would end up ripping open that night and dumping snow on him), a harrowing trip down the mountain and heroic helicopter rescue later and Beck was in a hospital being treated for severe frostbite and exposure.

But Beck’s journey does not end there.  He returned to Dallas to face and angry and bitter family who blamed their family problems on his mountaineering adventures.  He also had to face a number of painful surgeries and rehab to try, ultimately in vain, to help him retain his hands (he would later lose both, along with most of his nose).

While not a gifted writer per say, Beck does a good job telling the story from his prospective.  The first third of the book recalls the tragedy on the mountain,  followed by the story of his life before Everest, and the final third talks about his life after.

While it’s the survival on the mountain that sells the book, I think the real story is in the last 60 or so pages.  You would assume that when Beck returned home, he’d kiss his wife, the music would come up and the credits would roll.   That works in Hollywood, but in real life Beck had an ever greater challenge to overcome when he returned home, his family.

Beck had to not only to face a long a long road to physical recovery, but mentally as well. His family, but most especially his wife, harbored a lot of anger, resentment and bitterness towards him and his mountaineer pursuits.  There are times where one has to wonder if it wouldn’t have been easier for him just to stay on the mountain.

But ultimately he rebuilds the relationship with his family, he regains more of his vocational abilities as a physician and another family tragedy forces him to become to the man mountaineering could never make him.

 

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