Beck Weathers was on the last leg of the Seven Summits quest (the challenge of climbing the highest mountain on each of the seven continents). In May 1996, after 10 years of climbing experience, the 49-year-old pathologist from Texas was ready for the ascent on Everest.
"High altitude climbing is not something you're going to do much after you turn 50," Weathers says. "The clock is simply running against you; you know you can't maintain the same level of intensity of training. Good, bad or indifferent, I decided to give it a shot. But nobody plans to be there on the day the mountain has its most horrific day in its history."
Several guided expeditions were overcome by a blizzard at night after the final ascent. Weathers wound up left for dead on the high reaches of Everest; his wife was notified that he was one of nine climbers who died in the storm on May 10. But after lying exposed for 18 hours in subzero weather, the dead man arose and walked into Everest's High Camp, blind and frozen.
Weathers, author of Left For Dead: My Journey Home From Everest (Villard Books, 2000), and the keynote speaker at Natural Products Expo East (Friday, Oct. 12 at 9 a.m.) spoke to NFM about the challenges he experienced on Everest—and the lessons he's learned.
Q: What drives people to put themselves at such risk? In particular, what drove you? What's the payoff?
A: Everybody wants to tell you all the good things about mountains. They're certainly spectacular. They're intrinsically beautiful; in some cases they're shrouded in a good deal of mystery. They're incredibly difficult to get on and beat. They're fascinating places with fascinating cultures; you meet a lot of interesting folks.
None of that, fundamentally, is why I wanted to do it. I did it for reasons more bad than good. I experienced many years of rather profound clinical depression, and it was almost by accident that I discovered that if I drove my body very hard, physically, that helped alleviate the depression or at least keep it at bay. If you push yourself to exhaustion, it's hard to think about anything else.
Mountain climbing was perfect for a variety of reasons. It required a great deal of physical commitment, which meant I had a justification for the kind of exercise I put myself through. It wasn't just that I was depressed—I had this great goal. It also appealed to a certain fatalistic streak. I think that people who suffer depression often get to the point where they struggle just to stay alive. The idea, frankly, of being killed on one of these mountains was not particularly frightening to me. At least I would be doing something that seemed, in some sense, bigger than myself.
The whole episode on the mountain, because it was so difficult—and not just on the mountain, but when you get back and really have to deal with the adversity that is the aftermath of such an event—you have to find strengths within yourself. And you have to rely on others around you because otherwise you simply can't make it. It was good in a lot of ways because the individual that I was, I couldn't be again. All of a sudden, how you define yourself and how you cope are stripped away in an instant. You cannot be that person again. You either learn to live with yourself and to rise above the difficulty of the moment, or you wind up giving in to it.
I had no intention of giving in easily. I realized that if I didn't struggle harder for the comeback than I'd ever done for the other stuff in my existence, there wouldn't be a comeback. I was afraid where that might lead. But fortunately it turned out very well. Being forced into very difficult circumstances, while it's certainly not anything I'd recommend as a method of coping with life voluntarily, does not have to be all bad. You temper steel to make it stronger; that's true with people as well. Once you're in a situation where you have to respond to difficult times, you learn an awful lot about yourself and about the people around you. What you hope to learn, of course, is that somewhere in there you've got the values that will sustain you, that you have people in your life who will sustain you.
Q: How did the events on Everest change the priorities in your life?
A: Most of it is obvious, in retrospect, like most things are. It's easy when you've been hit across the face with a two-by-four and you're forced to take a look at your life and see where you were headed. You've got to change, so you get to choose a new path. Most everybody knows the value of what they ought to be doing; the problem is most of us don't do it. You think there's always going to be some time in the future when you can say, 'Ollie, Ollie in free' and then you'll quit going a million miles an hour and you'll develop perspective and pay more attention to the people around you. But if not today, when?
Q: It's more than five years later. Frequently people will have something happen that changes their life, but with day-to-day living, it sort of wears off. Has the experience worn off?
A: One of the good things about being a storyteller is that retelling the story forces you to constantly reexperience the whole episode. To reexperience the mountain, to reexperience what the next couple of years were like when it was so intense—at least for me, it has not faded at all.
But you're right. It's easy to lose it; I don't care how big your epiphany is, if you spend 50 years going down the track at 110 miles an hour, it's pretty hard to turn that train. But the fact is, if you think about it all the time and you make a conscious effort to not lose it, it stays with you.
Each day I have to work at it. Mostly I'm successful; occasionally I catch myself starting to get upset about something meaningless in my existence. Usually when you recognize it, you feel like an idiot. When you're sitting there getting all fired up about somebody cutting you off in traffic, then you think to yourself, 'In the grand scheme of things, this doesn't amount to anything. Come on, snap out of it.' You remember what the heck's important to you, and recognize, certainly in my case, that every day is a gift. I think most people know that, but you still have to work at it.
I get a chance to travel around and meet people. I see so many individuals who are dealing with difficulties in their own lives and see how they handle it, and the struggles they have to undergo. Sometimes somebody will come up and say, 'What you said, it was helpful to me.' I'll talk about what's going on with them, and think to myself, I don't have the strength in my whole body that this person has in his little finger. They're dealing with stuff that would just take me apart, but they're doing it with grace and they're hanging in there.
Q: What do you think this experience taught you about the human spirit?
A: Well, one is, we are the toughest things to walk this planet. And it's not simply because we're a tougher kind of cockroach. The levels of possibilities within ordinary people are rather extraordinary. Everybody has the notion great individual acts come out of ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances. People have to deal with life as it comes to them. That means the good and the bad. But if they are aware that they are strong enough, that they have strength within them, it puts them in a position to believe in themselves, which is key. Certainly, if you don't believe that you can do something, you're apt to be correct. That's one of the nice things that you learn. It's one of the things that makes this story interesting, in that the person who's telling it is not someone who is uniquely gifted in any sense. I am an ordinary individual who was placed in a rather extraordinary circumstance. In this particular story, for the most part, everybody in it is pretty much an ordinary real person put in a hard place with hard decisions.
Q: Toward the end of the book, you spoke about faith. You said that what matters is not what you profess, but whether you live that faith's tenets. What do you believe are the important things in the way you live your life?
A: The important things in life are exactly what everybody knows them to be—the sense of honoring the Golden Rule, having a sense of values about how you want to live your life. Not that you're necessarily going to hit it every time, but at least you'll know what you're trying to achieve. It gives you a basis from which to make decisions. Having a value system, knowing how you feel about right and wrong, about being honorable, about being true to your word, defines you.
You can buy almost anything. You can buy intelligence, you can buy strength, you can buy speed—but you can never buy character. That's something that's earned. So while we give great value to some of these other things, what it really comes down to is this: Am I the kind of person my dog thinks I am? Am I the person I want to be? Do I know who that person is? It's easier with time. You get older and you see what works and what doesn't. You have to make your own decisions about where you're going to set the limits. I think character wins out. When you're no longer strong or bright or fast, character is the thing that you will always have, or you're forever lost.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 10/p. 18, 22-23