Face down in the snow and ice near the top of the world, Beck Weathers was dying.
Nearly blinded while trying to climb Mt. Everest and then trapped in a vicious storm on his way down, Weathers lay unconscious on the side of the mountain. He had paid $65,000 for the adventure of a lifetime. That adventure was threatening to cost him his life.
A few hours earlier, some fellow climbers had found Weathers and a Japanese climber a few hundred yards from the highest camp on Everest. They chipped away a 3-inch layer of ice on the face of Yasuko Namba only to be stunned to see that she was still breathing.
A few feet away, the badly frostbitten Weathers mumbled incoherently. Somehow he too was clinging to life after spending the night outside, with no oxygen canisters, in a blizzard at 26,500 feet.
The other climbers concluded that the pair couldn’t be saved. They walked away, leaving Weathers and Namba to die.
The news was radioed to Base Camp, then relayed to Weathers’ wife in Dallas. She went upstairs to tell their two teenage children that their father would not be coming home.
It was May 11, 1996, and the mountain was in a murderous mood. Eight people died that day in two expeditions caught near the summit in a storm so thick that one climber likened it to trying to walk through milk.
Some were seasoned, well-trained guides like Rob Hall, who made an emotional radio call to his wife in New Zealand as he lay dying on the South Summit.
Others were ordinary people like Doug Hansen, 46, a postal worker who held down two jobs to live his dream of climbing the world’s tallest mountain. They were people like Weathers, a Dallas pathologist, and Namba, a Japanese business executive.
They went up the mountain knowing the dangers of thin air, sudden avalanches, howling winds and treacherous ice.
For every five climbers who reached the summit before 1996, one climber died. Since seven Sherpas were killed by an avalanche in a 1922 British attempt, at least 175 people have lost their lives while trying to reach the top.
In the aptly named “Death Zone” above 25,000 feet, the dead remain frozen by the side of the trail, mute evidence to passing climbers that the mountain they so desperately want to climb can quickly become their final resting place.
There, 5 1/2 miles above sea level, winds howl up to 200 mph, bodies break down, lungs are starved for air, and minds are addled by a lack of oxygen. Helicopters cannot reach that high, giving climbers as much chance of being rescued as they would of being plucked off the surface of the moon.
“It is a scary place. It can be horrifying,” said David Keaton, who climbed Everest in 1994. “The level of risk is extreme.”
Boots are lighter, equipment is better and the oxygen most need to get to the top is easier to bring along than it was half a century ago, when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay made it to the 29,035-foot peak. Radios keep climbers in contact with each other and their camps, and Sherpas fix ropes to help people up.
Still, the mountain can turn on them with sudden and unforgiving ferocity. Avalanches come out of nowhere, burying climbers. Others slip on icy ridges and fall into deep crevasses. With temperatures below zero and jet-stream winds that can make it feel like 100 below, just being outside is deadly.
Feared most, perhaps, are the high-altitude sicknesses of the lungs and brain, which can make breathing difficult and lead to dizziness, hallucinations, confusion, coma and death.
“There is a terrible loss of life on Mt. Everest,” said Wally Berg, who has made it to the top four times.
Still, the challengers come. This month alone, there are more than 20 teams from around the world inching their way toward the summit.
“Everest is an icon that speaks to the spirit of adventure,” Berg said. “It has not been diminished one bit by the thousand-plus people who have reached the summit.
They come for all sorts of reasons. Some don’t return.
“The whole world was saying to me, ‘You can’t do this and you’re going to die,’ ” said Eric Alexander, who led a blind friend to the summit two years ago. “It fueled my fire a little bit. Mt. Everest was always my dream, just like being a fireman or a policeman is someone else’s dream.”
Climbing Everest wasn’t always Weathers’ dream. He saw it as more of an escape.
Plagued by depression, Weathers, 49, turned to mountain climbing as a release. He had done many climbs before.
Still, he was more of a serious hobbyist than a top climber. He knew that he needed help to get up Everest. He found it in Hall, who made his living taking clients up big mountains.
Hall, a New Zealander like Hillary, first reached the summit in 1990. In the next five years, he led 39 climbers up Everest. Hall was tough, well-respected, a professional who seemed to make all the right decisions. He didn’t guarantee Weathers and Hansen that they would get to the top for their money, but promised to give them every opportunity.
Weathers never made it to the summit. As his group made its final push on May 10, he went nearly blind when the high altitude altered a radial keratotomy operation that he had had in his right eye. He stopped about 7:30 a.m. at a perch called the Balcony, about 1,500 feet from the top, and waited for his fellow climbers to come back down.
The day wore on, though, and they hadn’t returned. Weathers didn’t know it, but Hansen was struggling and Hall waited for him to make the top. The delay would prove deadly.
Unnoticed by the climbers, a fierce storm was brewing below. It moved up the mountain, soon enveloping neighboring peaks.
Late in the day, Weathers had waited long enough. He joined Namba and some climbers from another expedition and headed down. They were less than an hour from camp when the storm swept over them in a consuming whiteness.
The climbers herded together, trying to find their way along the South Col, a pass at 26,400 feet that is the final staging ground for assaults on the summit. At one point, they came within 25 feet of falling off Kangshung Face -- a plunge of 7,000 feet.
Three of the strongest climbers went to look for camp and assistance. Five others, including Weathers and Namba, huddled behind a boulder.
During the night, help came for three climbers. The unconscious Weathers and Namba were left behind. A few hours later, daylight searchers left them for dead again.
It was late in the afternoon and Weathers had been on the South Col for 22 hours, unconscious for the last 15. Namba was already dead.
Suddenly, a thought entered Weathers’ oxygen-starved brain. He dreamed of being warm and comfortable in his bed in Texas, the sun streaming through the window. It was enough to make him open his eyes.
“I had a very clear vision of my wife and kids standing in front of me,” Weathers said. “I was sure if I didn’t stand upright right then, I was going to stay in that place forever.”
In his foggy mind, Weathers somehow remembered the wind patterns on Everest. He couldn’t see but figured that the camp had to be upwind and headed that way.
Half falling and half walking, he finally saw a blur that looked like some large rocks -- but they were blue. He had found the tents.
“I think the Sherpa thought I was a ghost,” Weathers said.
The ordeal wasn’t over. He was so badly injured that fellow climbers thought he would die during the night. He didn’t, and the next day, they got him down to Camp 1 at 19,500 feet, where a daring helicopter rescue never before attempted at that altitude took him to Katmandu.
“Even though I knew I was going to be dead, that doesn’t mean you quit,” Weathers said. “Because if you do quit, you are dead.”
Near the summit, Hall grew weaker from exposure. He had refused to leave Hansen, but now Hansen was dead. For some reason, Hall couldn’t find the energy or focus his mind enough to come down.
He had a radio and at Base Camp, they kept urging him on. In his last conversation, they patched him through to his pregnant wife, Jan, in New Zealand.
At that moment, they decided to name their unborn child Sarah.
“Sleep well, my sweetheart. Please don’t worry too much,” Hall told her in his final words.
Hall didn’t know the radio was still on, but at Base Camp, they could hear him quietly weeping as he faced his death.