By Angela Lingg
Moving across the stage, waving his ravaged left hand and one mechanical hand, Dr. Beck Weathers shared his story of survival with the audience at the Sports Arena.
At times, he whispered, and at other times he shouted. His voice shook with emotion as he told of the miracles that unfolded on that tragic day on Mount Everest.
Dennis Stoecklein was impressed with Weathers’ deliverance of the lecture. “He spoke for about an hour and five minutes with no notes and was very passionate about his message,” Stoecklein said.
On Feb. 16, Weathers was the first speaker in the 2016 Dillon Lecture Series. Weathers survived the shocking 1996 Everest disaster in which eight climbers lost their lives.
Twenty years ago this month, Weathers was training to climb the last of the seven summits — Mount Everest. On May 10, 1996, sometime around midnight, Weathers’ team began the final ascent to the summit. As the day went on, Weathers temporarily lost his eyesight, due to a prior, radial keratotomy eye surgery and the high altitude.
“The fact that I lost my eyesight saved my life…,” Weathers said. “The additional time on the mountain would have led to a greater amount of exhaustion.”
Rob Hall, the guide for Weathers’ team, instructed Weathers to wait where he was until the team picked him up on their way back down.
“[Hall said] ‘I want you to promise me you are going to stay here until I come back,’ and I said, ‘Hope to die.’ It never once crossed my mind that he would never come back. I waited through that morning. It was (otherwise) a glorious day,” Weathers said.
Even though Weathers regained his eyesight, when the sun fully rose, he declined offers to go back down with other climbers. He later regretted that decision.
When Hall’s group didn’t arrive by 5 p.m., he knew they had been there too long. Shortly after five, Weathers met up with several of his team members and they began the climb down.
“If you want to get yourself killed on a mountain, you do it coming down,” Weathers said. “Going up is dangerous, coming down is a whole lot more dangerous.” Add to that, Weathers could not see well.
About 150 yards from camp, a storm hit them. With a wind chill of 100 degrees below zero, the team was unable to keep moving. The strongest climber left the group to try and make it back to a high camp to get help.
As the night went on, Weathers and the other climbers fell into hypothermic comas.
“I’m not cold anymore — and even in my befuddled state I know this is not a good thing,” Weathers said.
Later that night a few climbers did make it back up to Weathers and his team members, but Weathers and others seemed too close to death to rescue, so they were left to die.
Weathers spent the night on the mountain, exposed to the storm.
On May 11, something extraordinary occurred.
“That afternoon, 22 hours into the storm, 15 hours face down on the ice, a miracle occurred,” Weathers said. “And that miracle simply stated was that I opened my eyes. That’s it.”
Driven by images of his family, Weathers got up and wandered down to the camp. He was made comfortable in a tent and once again left to die, because everyone thought he was too far gone. He did survive and the next day, with help he made it down to the next camp.
That same day Weathers was rescued by a helicopter. It was the highest-altitude helicopter rescue ever.
Weathers said of the pilot who rescued him, “He is to me the most extraordinary individual in this story, he doesn’t know me, he doesn’t know my family, and he has a family who he is the sole responsible provider. We are separated by religion, by culture by the entire realm of this world. But I will never forget him.”
The committee that puts on the Dillon lecture series thought that this may have been one of their best lectures. “Some feedback we heard from the committee that works on the lectures thought it was certainly one of the top ones we’ve had in all the years, in terms of not only the popularity of the speaker in terms of the crowd, but really the message and his ability to deliver it,” Stoecklein said.
Lorenzo Casteneda, Harlingen, Texas enjoyed the lecture and thinks he would like to climb Everest. “I want to take the challenge,” he said.
Weathers stressed to the audience to find their anchor in something or someone that truly mattered.
“I traded my hands for my family and my future and that is a bargain I readily accept,” Weathers said. “I have traveled the full world over seeking that which would fulfill me and make me whole — and it was in my own backyard.”