Layman's interest in mountain climbing in general, and Mt. Everest in particular, has maintained a steady high level since the May 1996 disaster that claimed the lives of more than a half dozen climbers. Jon Krakauer's cautionary Into Thin Air, published less than a year after the event, chronicled the tragedy in a popularly accessibly way and spent months on both the hardcover and paperbackNew York Times bestseller lists. While Krakauer joined the Everest expedition as a journalist, Beck Weathers set out to climb the mountain that May because, as they say, it was there. Weathers' Left for Dead focuses not so much on the doomed expedition itself as how he came to be there and how his life's focus has changed as a result of his near death in a raging mountain blizzard.
The middle of three sons in a military family, Seaborn Beck Weathers was a born risk-taker. In his highly focused family, palpable achievement was ever the goal. In his first year in college, he dealt with his first round fighting the "black dog" of a recurring depression, even entertaining thoughts of suicide. He passed out of that dark cloud after a few months. He finished college, then medical school, and married Margaret "Peach" Olson on his way to becoming a talented pathologist. Beck's inability to sustain emotional intimacy disappointed Peach. Refusing to give up on her marriage, Peach directed her loving energies toward her two children.
Beck, still plagued by almost crippling depression, found he could keep his by now familiar enemy at bay with athletic activity -- and lots of it. Eventually he discovered mountain climbing, a sport that fit the goal-oriented young doctor perfectly. Oblivious to his family's wishes, he pursued his new hobby with ever-increasing ambition. That led him to an attempt on the "Seven Summits" (climbing the highest peaks on each continent), which brought him to that fateful attempt on Everest.
Comatose and left for dead below the summit, Beck survived thanks largely to Peach's efforts to mount an unheard-of rescue attempt. Frostbitten beyond recognition (he'd end up losing one hand and part of his face), he had a vision of his family that at last showed him what was really important in his life. He quit climbing, went back to work, and became an inspirational public speaker. Beck, Peach and their children are trying to rebuild a full family from the three-quarters it had been.
Beck Weathers' firsthand account of the Everest tragedy is worth the book's price, especially if you're a novice to the insular world of mountain climbing. The occasional perspectives from friends and family members add balance to what would otherwise simply be a memoir. Stephen G. Michaud (The Only Living Witness) stays properly in the background, shaping Beck's story with a practiced hand. The only drawback at the book's end is that you may be unconvinced that the old self-absorbed and obsessive Beck Weathers is really gone. Change is never easy, but it feels like Beck has still got a ways to go until he can honestly call himself a devoted, dedicated family man.