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Climbing Our Everests: Beck Weathers, His Fight for Survival and ME/CFS

February 12, 2018

The temperature was dropping that December night as I pulled the van into the Ritz Carlton in Incline Village.  Sitting about 6500 ft high a couple of miles from Lake Tahoe, I shivered as I remembered the forecast – temperatures in the 20’s with snow on the way. This was not a camping night – tonight I was going to hide out in a hotel.

Beck Weathers Everest story

Weathers’ struggle for survival on Mt Everest has inspired many. His struggle pales, though, compared to what many people with ME/CFS have to endure every day.

Beck Weathers, the speaker at Simmaron Research Foundation’s Donor Appreciation night, probably would have laughed. Weather was there to talk about what his remarkable escape from 29,000 ft. Mt Everest – a gripping survival story which formed the basis for 2015 film Everest – had taught him.

Beck Weathers charged into the Ritz like a storm slamming down the slopes of Everest. It’s been over 20 years since Weathers almost lost his life during the ill-fated Everest expedition that claimed nine lives, but for Weathers, it seemed like it was yesterday as he brought each of us up onto the mountain with him.

Weathers’ wife said Weathers could talk the ears off a rubber rabbit and I believe it. The man is a natural storyteller.  Those in the packed ballroom were in for a treat. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a more evocative story.

Sound effects (wind whirling, ice crunching) were in abundance as Weathers’ voice rose and fell as he brought the fear, the exhaustion, the determination, the beauty, the failures and the triumphs of that expedition to the Simmaron Research Foundation gala dinner. It was an incredible performance.

weathers mitt

Multiple operations formed Weathers left had into what he calls his mitt.

The scars were there, too. The missing tip of Weathers’ nose (doctors grew a new one on his forehead) and one missing and another mangled hand demonstrated the price Weathers paid for his time on the mountain.

Weathers was forty-nine at the time, an experienced amateur climber who’d summitted eight major mountains, but nothing left him prepared for what would happen on that May day in 1996. Of all the extraordinary stories to come out of that climb (read “Into Thin Air” and see “Everest“), his was the most remarkable.

Partially blind, Weathers and other climbers were caught by a sudden blizzard in the “Death Zone” above 26,000 feet on the slopes of Mount Everest.  In his book, “Left for Dead”, Weathers described what happened.

“Suddenly, the blizzard detonated all around us. It crescendoed into a deafening roar. A thick wall of clouds boiled across the South Col, wrapping us in white, blotting out every discernible feature…It quickly became incredibly cold.”

As the wind suddenly rose to 70 knots and the temperatures dropped to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit, the group struggled to survive, almost plunging off a 7,000 foot drop. A decision was made that the strongest two would try to make their way to camp.  Weathers and others stayed on the Col and huddled together.

That night, a Russian climber took three more of the group down. Weathers and a Japanese climber – each in a hypothermic coma – remained. The next morning, after the storm cleared, a cardiologist determined that Weathers was too close to death to be moved: anyone caught in a hypothermic coma that high on a mountain is going to die. The cardiologist returned to camp alone.

Dead Man Walking

Late that afternoon, however, Weathers woke to see his gray, frozen, gloveless hand. Bouncing it like a block of wood off the ice somehow revived him.

Weathers hadn’t eaten for three days or had any water for two. His oxygen was long gone. By all rights, after lying in a blizzard at 26,000 feet with no sleeping bag or tent, one glove (and one hand and arm) gone, Weathers should have succumbed long ago. He’d already been pronounced and left for dead twice.

But Weathers was alive. Watching the sun begin to set, he estimated he had an hour to find camp or die. It would have been easier to slide into the cozy hypothermic coma he’d been in yesterday.  Weathers could feel it tugging at him, but then something got him up and moving.

Oddly enough, it was pictures of his wife and children. Weathers had basically ditched his family in order to climb mountains.  His wife was about to divorce him and his relationship with his kids – who rarely saw him – “extremely strained”. Weathers’ obsession with work, fitness and mountaineering  had left little time for his family. It was as if they didn’t exist. He could disappear for weeks on an expedition – leaving them fretting – without bothering to contact them.

Yet, as he prepared himself to face a probable death, it wasn’t his work, his many awards, nor his mountain-climbing experiences that came to mind; it was the family he’d left behind.

Weathers was a pathologist with a dark secret. He’d struggled with sometimes severe depression for years. His obsessions with work, fitness and mountain climbing were in some ways simply attempts to escape his depression.

Weathers struggled up, and half-blind, picked a general direction and somehow stumbled, slid, and fell his way into camp where he was put into a tent, shoved into two sleeping bags with hot water bottles – and again pronounced dead.  That night, another storm blew up, filled the tent with snow, and blasted Weathers out of his sleeping bag. He was found lying in the snow the next morning.

Weathers Beck

Weather’s lower right arm and hand were amputated. He asserts that the life-altering realizations that occurred on the Everest climb were worth the physical cost.

The next morning, Weathers was guided by three other climbers down to 20,000 feet, where he was effectively stuck. He was too ill to get further down the mountain and he was still too high for a helicopter rescue.  But then, another miracle happened. A daring Pakistani pilot risked his life for a man from another country and religion – and succeeded.

Weathers ended up losing part of his nose, his right hand and lower arm, part of his left hand and several toes to frostbite, but he survived, and he was there to tell the crowd at the Simmaron event that the ordeal was worth it.  The loss of his hands, he said, was a small price to pay for getting back his relationship with his family.

What might a story of survival against all odds on the tallest mountain in the world have to say to people with ME/CFS/FM?

Keeping On Keeping on

Weathers never should have woken up. Then partially blind, hypothermic, etc., by all odds he shouldn’t have made it to camp.  He had only a vague idea of where it was. Daylight was quickly running out. His eye problems left him slipping, sliding and falling constantly. He’d lost 30 pounds and was at the end of his rope physiologically.  He had no roadmap – no decent expectation that he could survive.  He simply knew that in order to have a chance of survival, he had to keep walking.

Just as with Weathers, roadmaps for ME/CFS/FM do not exist. Each person’s journey is unique, full of slips and slides, wrong pathways, muddled ideas, mistakes and occasionally victories.  All you can do is to be resolved, in the face of everything, to keep “walking”, to keep being informed, to keep participating.  Some people do stumble their way into “camp” (health).

The task, though, is far harder for many ME/CFS/FM patients than for Weathers. Beck got off his mountain but many people with ME/CFS and FM, in pain and bed or homebound, live day in and day out, stuck on their own Everests. Beck’s exploits, as inspiring as they are, pale next to the sheer courage and determination it takes many people with ME/CFS/FM for years or even decades – to keep on keeping on.

Just like Beck, without having any idea how they are going to succeed, they keep putting one foot (so to speak) in front of the other.

There’s just no substitute for keeping on.  When Weathers got down to 20,000 feet and his wife was told he was still going to die, his wife kept on. Without knowing how she was going to get Weathers off the tallest mountain in the world, she shared his story with everyone she could think of. She told Beck’s story long enough and well enough until it filtered down to one very brave Pakistani pilot.

Through movies, TED talks, videos, blogs and person-to-person interactions, people with ME/CFS are telling their stories – and moving people. There are “helicopter pilots” out there – brave women and men we don’t know about yet (like Pine of the Pineapple Fund) who will be moved to act.  All we need to do is keep sharing.

Keeping on – no matter how high the mountain or how treacherous the climb – is the critical element for success.

 

 

Conclusion

Weathers’ story was incredibly inspiring. Like many people with ME/CFS/FM, the medical profession gave up on him, and in fact, signed off on his death warrant.  Against all odds, though, Weathers was able to survive.

Weathers’ story indicates miracles do happen at times, that serendipity can strike, that helicopters can appear out of the mist at 20,000 feet. Unforeseen discoveries and assistance (the Pineapple Fund’s $5 million donation to the OMF) can happen. We should never discount the possibilities of miracles happening.

Although Weathers got off his mountain, most of us remain on ours. We have our Everests to deal with. Some of Weathers’ realizations while on the mountain could help make our way easier.

There was the critical need to keep putting one foot in front of the other – to stay in the game, so to speak, and not give up even when all is black. Beck shouldn’t have survived, but miracles – unexpected events – showed up. You never know what the future will bring.

There was the need to take responsibility for the mistakes he’d made in his relationships. Finally, there was realization of how empty striving to be a success was for him.

For people with ME/CFS/FM, we can take our own brand of inspiration from Weathers’ survival and his reevaluation of what kept him going on his mountain.

Simmaron gives special thanks to the donor who made Weathers’ talk possible, and to every one of our donors who make our efforts to help get ME/CFS/FM patients off of their mountains possible.

Check out a video clip from Weather’s talk

Check out more insights gained from Weather’s talk on the hollowness of success and the importance of relationships in Climbing Our Everests II: Beck Weathers, Relationships, the Success Trap and ME/CFS

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11 Comments

  • Sarah R.

    February 12, 2018 at 9:44 pm - Reply

    An inspiring story, Cort. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  • Phillida

    February 13, 2018 at 12:07 am - Reply

    It is really valuable to acknowledge just how difficult it is for people with severe ME/CFS to hang on. But, you Cort, play avery important role both ackowledging the horror of this illness and giving hope by keeping the community up to date with realistic assessments of real and important inititves.
    It is hard as a carer to balance both the suffering and the hope; you either seem to be making light of the suffering or denying the possibilities of change.
    But I have seen 2 people I have cared for, one of who lay for months with ear plugs in a dark room and could not speak or swallow return to fuliflling lives. This is not to minimse the trauma or the residual anxiety and hypevigilence about relapse, but just to say it does happen. If only we knew why… and the community is imcreasingly working on that.

    • Cort Johnson

      February 13, 2018 at 4:11 pm - Reply

      Making light of suffering – I don’t understand….(Note – I emailed Phillida and she said her reply got mixed up and she didn’t mean to imply that. Quite the opposite.)

  • Audrey Brimson

    February 13, 2018 at 12:40 am - Reply

    Thank you for the gift of what is possible. My Everest was after a 7 year slide into severe ME I went to India to see Sathya Sai Baba, I needed a miracle and reading about Sai Baba, that seemed the only chance available in 1985. I was virtually unconscious when leaving the ashram to return to Australia but there was slight improvement that year so I went again 86 & 87. The next 5 years brought further slow improvement but still severe crashes from chemical reactions. We now include FM in our list of problems, luckily I do not have FM & Chronic Fatigue is such a misnomer. What I would really love to see Cort, is that ME/CFS should stand for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis / Chemical & Food Sensitivity. Would that be a mountain we find impossible to climb?

    • Prashanti

      February 14, 2018 at 2:43 am - Reply

      Your comment was very interesting to me, Audrey, as my fatigue began after my first trip to India to see Sai Baba in 1992. India is such a health risk for me. Additionally I had been in a very severe car accident in 1989, had a near death experience, was paralyzed… so I’m not sure what brought the CFS on. I had so many amazing heart opening, healing experiences with Sai Baba that I kept going back over the years yet the pollution of India did not promote health for me.

  • Eimear

    February 13, 2018 at 6:02 pm - Reply

    Thanks Cort. You certainly help me with my Everest, you are an absolute gem and all of us in the ME/CFS community are so lucky to have you.

  • Danesh

    February 13, 2018 at 6:17 pm - Reply

    Well done, Cort. Thank you. I remember watching that movie in an Imax theatre, before I got sick. We need reminders of hope like this. God bless you.

    • Cort Johnson

      February 14, 2018 at 3:09 pm - Reply

      Thanks Danesh. Beck Weathers was a truly inspiring figure. It was an honor to be in his presence.

  • Tweedle-D

    February 13, 2018 at 10:06 pm - Reply

    Cort, Everything you do: the research info/insights you share, the time & effort put into that: is a lifeline for me & countless others. The respect & dignity with which you do these things moves & inspires those of us in the shadows, fighting, hanging on as best we can- doing our best to put one proverbial, physical &/or mental, spiritual ‘foot’ in front of the other, whenever or however we can. So grateful for you Sir! Very inspiring story/ post.

    • Cort Johnson

      February 14, 2018 at 3:09 pm - Reply

      Wow…Thanks TWeedle-D and thanks to Simmmaron for their support. Since the day I left Phoenix Rising and started Health Rising it’s been invaluable..

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