Seven years to the month after he nearly died on Mount Everest, the Dallas pathologist feels like he's on top of the world.
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You lost your nose, your right hand, and all the fingers of your left hand to frostbite on Mount Everest. What are the limitations for you now as a pathologist?
You adjust to doing things differently. God bless Velcro and elastics. But anything that requires fingers, I can’t do. I have a gal Friday who is a master’s-level physician’s assistant, specifically trained in the area of pathology, and what she offers is almost exactly what I can’t do. I hate to say that we have a hand-and-glove relationship, but that’s essentially how it works.
Do you think you were fully aware of the dangers when you went to climb Everest?
I was pretty much aware of the risk. But I wasn’t as frightened of being killed as I should have been. The odds remain unchanged from year to year, but basically, if you get on top of the mountain, your chances are one in six of being killed. You have less of a chance of being executed for a capital crime, even in Texas, than you do of getting killed on the summit of Everest.
Knowing what you put yourself and your family through, do you think everyone should have the right to climb Everest?
I think there are certainly people who don’t belong up there but not necessarily for the reasons of climbing skills. I would have to say in retrospect that if you have a wife and kids, if you have any real obligations to other people—friends, family, co-workers who depend on you—that should keep you off the mountain. Having said that, if you want to go up there and get yourself killed, be my guest. The mountain will sort itself out with you fairly quickly.
Many books have chronicled the 1996 Everest disaster, including Into Thin Air, but yours, Left for Dead, focused on the aftermath rather than the tragedy. How come?
Once you get your fanny kicked up around your ears, there’s a bigger story: How in the world do you come back and put a life back together? They make all these TV things about the people that were there, and they don’t really show what happens to somebody’s kids if they don’t come back. They don’t show what happens to marriages that are very strained. What I was interested in writing about ultimately didn’t have much to do with the mountain; it had a lot more to do with people and relationships.
And how would you characterize your relationships when you returned from Everest?
They had pretty much fallen apart. I had been a very driven person. When you’re beat physically half to death and your wife tells you on the day you return from Everest that she already planned to leave you but wasn’t going to do so until she could say it to your face, that’s a difficult moment. I told her that she didn’t have to stay—whatever happened to me was a direct result of decisions that I had made. But luckily she said, “No, damn you, I will stay with you for one year, but at the end of that year, we will discuss whether you are a different person.”
And you’re still together. So how did you change?
I made a couple of very deliberate, Pollyannaish decisions. I wasn’t going to blame anybody and I wasn’t going to have a big ol’ pity party, because once you get into that business, you don’t know how deep you’re getting into it. I just made the decision that optimism is a choice. I would look at each day and find something that reminded me that life was precious. I got the monkey off my back that had driven me to climb. By doing that, we managed to get our relationship back together. I have been happier the past few years than I have been the rest of my existence. I basically gave up a couple of body parts, which is a nuisance, but that’s about it. What I gained was my wife and my kids back.