The Power of Stories

Shortly after I returned from Everest Base Camp in 2001, I went with my dad to hear Beck Weathers speak. Anyone that has read Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air or any of the other books about the 1996 disaster on Everest, is probably familiar with his story. Here’s my abridged version:

Beck was a pathologist from Texas that was climbing in New Zealand guide Rob Hall’s group during the 1996 Everest climbing season. He was high up on the mountain nearing the top when he went snow blind. So, Rob dug out a spot for him to sit and wait until Rob summitted with the other clients and returned for him.

Rob never returned for him because Rob died trying to help another climber and didn’t adhere to his turn-around time, the time when they needed to go back down no matter whether they’d summitted or not. But one of the other guides from Beck’s group came by and now that the storm was descending, Beck went down with them to Camp 4. They got within 150 yards of the camp but couldn’t find it in the blizzard conditions. As they circled in the storm, Beck just fell over and they left him lying in the snow. He laid there for 15 hours at 26,000 feet during a storm with his face and hand exposed.

And then he miraculously “woke up” and managed to make his way to camp. The other climbers were in complete disarray after the storm and were shocked to see him. They helped him into a tent – and then left him there, expecting that he’d die during the night. As Beck screamed because he couldn’t eat, drink or even keep himself covered with sleeping bags, they couldn’t hear him over the howling winds.

Beck didn’t die that night so the next morning the other climbers rallied to find a way to help him down the mountain as he was suffering frostbite to his hands, arm and face. He was short-roped (pretty much tied right to) a dream team of amazing climbers, Ed Viesturs and David Breashears. Ed and David weren’t from Beck’s group but were up there filming a Imax film about Everest and had aborted their climb to help others.

The Dream Team got Beck down to 20,000 feet where a helicopter that was rallied by Beck’s wife in Texas attempted to land. The air is so thin that the helicopter rotor blades could barely keep the machine aloft and to even try to do this once, the pilot off-loaded every bit of weight that he could. He was on the knife-edge of not making it when he came over the ridge to find the landing pad the Dream Team had marked with red Kool-aid.

And just as Beck is about to get on the helicopter, a climber who has more severe injuries from the Taiwanese team arrived. The helicopter could only take one person and Beck gave up his seat to the more injured climber. Beck assumed he’d just signed his death warrant because he couldn’t make it through the Khumbu icefall with his injuries, not even with the Dream team’s help because they’d have to cross huge blocks of ice on ladders. As he’s contemplating this, the helicopter rose one more time over the ridge – the pilot came back for Beck.

Beck lost his arm from his elbow down plus all the fingers on his other hand and parts of his feet. He had a prosthetic nose that they grew for 6 months on his forehead. He could never work as a pathologist again. He wrote a book called Left for Dead that recounts with detail those four times he was left for dead on Everest and began a second career as an inspirational speaker.

Sitting in the front row, I was transfixed watching Beck tell his story. Great story-tellers have a way of raising questions in us that have nothing to do with Mt. Everest. As author Brandon Mull said, “Sharp people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.”

Have you ever pursued a goal so obsessively you gave up everything else? Would you be able to keep going after being left for dead? Would you give up your seat to someone else that’s more injured or give up your IMAX filming to help someone else? Have you been able to find your way to a new career?

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22 thoughts on “The Power of Stories

  1. Thank you, Wynne, for sharing this incredible post. I read “Into Thin Air” many years ago; but your perspective, of being a climber, gave it an authenticity that I was unable to understand at the time.
    As for your question, at least the part about pursing a goal obsessively? Yes, I did; and although it didn’t go the way that I intended, my lessons learned were greater than the achievement could ever have been. Here’s the link, in case you’re interested. Life works in mysterious ways.

  2. The willpower and determination to see things through to the end whether good or bad is what matters. Can’t leave a story incomplete somewhere in the middle. You talk about being left for dead literally, but many times situations can be worse if one has to live through them. I think facing, accepting, and working through it is the best strategy for any dilemma. It may not end as one wants but then it offers the strength to be prepared for the next one. I’m not one to easily give up especially if my peace of mind and well being depends on something. Writing is the course I’ve chosen and there’s no way that I will part from it. A beautiful and heartwarming post, Wynne. 🙂

    1. Wow, Terveen, what a powerful statement you’ve made in this comment. You are right, working through our dilemmas create so much strength. The middle often feels unworkable – but as we push forward, we find our way. Great comment – thank you so much!

  3. Wow! What an incredible story! Great questions you posed at the end as well. Regarding the last one-since I left my teaching career I’m trying to make my way as a musician (going fairly well) and a writer (still trying to figure that one out) but the challenge is interesting.

    1. From what I’ve seen of your writing and heard of your music, you are doing great in your second career! Thanks for reading and commenting, Todd!

  4. I’ve had many adventures and misadventures but this is another extreme entirely. I can’t imagine what I’d do, but I know I’m not especially disciplined or obsessive about anything, so it probably wouldn’t be good. I’m satisfied reading adventure books and great posts like this now.

  5. This article made me to browse the books mentioned in here and have to say it got me hooked up. It is so refreshing to see the adventure stories because the only one I read was Into the wild by Jon Krakuer.

    1. Oh, I’m so glad! I loved Into the Wild too and these other ones are great books as well. Along the same vein, Touching the Void by Joe Simpson is another incredible book.

  6. Very nicely written and shared. Really amazing story and thought-provoking questions you ask at the end.

  7. What an overwhelming experience! I have often wondered if I have what it takes to survive in certain situations. I don’t think you know until you are in the situation. This is an amazing story, Wynne! Thank you for sharing it. <3

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