Anyone who read Jon Krakauer's account of the 1996 Everest disaster, Into Thin Air, will be aware of the story of Beck Weathers: the gregarious Texan climber who went snow-blind in the Death Zone below the summit and who spent a night out in the open during a blizzard that took the lives of a dozen colleagues and friends. Even as he staggered back into Camp 4 the next morning, Beck's condition was such that the other survivors assumed he would not make it back down the mountain. He was effectively left for dead, but drawing upon reserves of determination and courage he didn't know he had - as well as the extraordinary selflessness and bravery of a Nepalese helicopter pilot he'd never met - he finally made it to safety. Only then could a new battle begin: to rebuild his life with a family he'd taken for granted for too long.
This was the book that I had been looking forward to reading since I first read Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster many years ago. The amazing survival of a man left out in the snow to die for more than a day, who got up and staggered back into camp on his own, is quite a story. The problem with this book is that I expected most of it to be devoted to that story, when in fact only 89 pages related to the 1996 Everest disaster.
Beck Weathers is a selfish man. I'm not saying that to be spiteful, merely to indicate a point-mountain climbers are selfish. They admit to it themselves. You have to be, if you are going to take part in a dangerous activity that will probably kill you eventually, putting your ambitions ahead of your family, and leaving them at home in fear over whether or not you are going to come back alive. I can't imagine what it must be like for the wives and children of climbers but at the same time I do get the lure of these beautiful mountains. There are some really bad moments before Everest like when Beck feels suicidal at one stage and blames it on Peach not supporting him and his climbing hobby, and abandoning his family on a holiday to spend all his time drinking or climbing. How she stayed with him then I'll never know.
In this book, Beck's wife is at the end of her tether with his climbing career when he tells her that he is going to Everest and spending about $60000 on the trip. She is already considering divorcing him and you can understand why. Beck tells the reader that he suffered badly from depression, which I certainly relate to, and that discovering climbing helped him to cope with it. The problem is that it quickly became an obsession and he withdrew emotionally from his family when he was home from climbing. I can imagine the frustration of his wife Peach and how miserable it would be for his kids growing up with a father who seemed to care little about them. It is difficult to like the man and frankly I would have divorced him long before Everest came onto the horizon.
Moving on to the climb on Everest, this was the part of the story that interested me most. He talks about his initial friendship with Lou Kasischke and agrees that Jon Krakauer was right in his assessment that Beck never stopped talking and trying to be liked. Most of what he says before the final climb is concerned with his relationship with the team mates that he liked so much. It lets us get to know the team a bit better, which I liked, especially having read a lot of books about this expedition. I thought it was telling that he mentioned that Doug Hansen was ill but totally hell bent on getting to the summit this year.
On the final climb at the Balcony, Beck starts to have issues with his sight, possibly related to an eye operation 18 months earlier. After realising that it was not going to improve, he sat down to wait and see if the sun coming up would help with the intent of retreating down the mountain with help if it didn't. This is where the crazy stuff comes in. He should have been sent down with a Sherpa or a guide instead of being ordered to say there until Rob returned from the summit so Rob knew where he was and hadn't fell off the mountain or something. This meant Beck rejected offers of help from others to get him down safely much earlier ie from Frank and Stuart. It is insane that he was told to do this and led to him coming down the mountain as the storm hit, something that almost killed him.
Beck then talks about the sheer horror of being lost in the storm with no vision and extreme conditions, all of them afraid that they were going to die. Charlotte crying that she wanted to die quickly, Yasuko holding a hand out to Neal as he went for help, Sandy crying that she didn't want to die...it was really sad and moving. Beck has a lot to say about how Anatoli deserted his clients going up the mountain but risked his life in the storm to save them but that Beck and Yasuko from Rob's team were left to die. Beck does say that Anatoli should be remembered as a hero regardless of earlier events. His account of later events matches Jon Krakauer's.
Beck is scathing that Yasuko was not given the dignity of dying in a tent instead of being left out in the snow. I'm sure I'm not the only reader who wonders if she could have been saved if brought back to camp when first found. He also talks about waking up and finding the strength and will to get back to camp and live, which was fascinating. Even then his ordeal was not over. With everyone thinking he'd die in the night, he was left alone in a tent being attacked by the storm where he feared being blown off the South Col. Nice. His team prepared to go down the mountain the next day without checking on him until Jon Krakauer looked in and found him alive and upset. We then get the story of how he was nursed by the IMAX team and flown off the mountain by a brave pilot.
The rest of the book covers Beck's life before and after Everest. After coming back, he has to battle the injuries he received due to the frostbite and a year long battle to stop his wife divorcing him. Overall the book was a decent read and if you want a book with real insight into the life of an amateur climber with family issues living through a big disaster, that is what you get here. If you are looking for a more in depth look at the disaster itself, there are plenty good books about it to choose from.
Read June 2016.