KATMANDU, Nepal — After a weekend in which eight climbers were believed to have perished on Mt. Everest, Seaborne Beck Weathers of Dallas was plucked off the peak Monday in the highest helicopter rescue mission on record.
A ferocious blizzard that caught the climbers led to one of the worst disasters on Everest since the world's highest mountain was first conquered in 1953.
Weathers was one of the lucky ones.
"I am OK. I'm better now," the 49-year-old pathologist said as he arrived at the Katmandu airport, his face raw and blistered from windburn, his hands crippled by frostbite.
Rob Hall was not so lucky.
On Saturday, in bitter cold and howling winds, with the 29,028-foot-high summit of Mt. Everest just 500 feet above him, Hall called his pregnant wife, Jan Arnold, on his fading radio to say goodbye.
Hall, a 36-year-old New Zealander, had reached the top of the mountain Friday for his fifth successful ascent. But on the way down, the expedition leader trailed others in a futile effort to help 44-year-old Douglas Hansen, a postal worker from Renton, Wash., who was ill and struggling, as the fierce blizzard lashed the mountain.
Hansen died Friday night. Hall was near death when he called his wife Saturday.
Yasuko Namba, 47, of Tokyo, was reported dead by another New Zealand expedition member after becoming only the second Japanese woman to reach the top of Everest with her climb Friday.
Scott Fischer, 40, of Seattle and Andy Harris, 31, of New Zealand were presumed dead, as were three climbers from India who began an ascent from the Chinese side of Everest.
Although their deaths have not been confirmed, alpine experts said no one has ever survived two nights in the open without oxygen on the southern summit of Everest.
Hall and Hansen were trapped on the mountain without oxygen, fluids, a tent or a sleeping bag. Hall survived the night, and was able to make a last call Saturday to his seven-months pregnant wife--with whom he scaled Everest in 1993--at their home in Christchurch, New Zealand, his friend Geoff Gabites said Monday.
"I don't know what his last words were. It was a personal conversation between him and Jan. We are sure Rob did not survive another night out in the open," said Gabites, who is also chief executive of the Adventure Tourism Council.
Other friends said Hall was experienced enough to know he was going to die.
"A bivouac without equipment 150 meters [500 feet] below the summit in bad weather means at the very least you're going to get frostbite and it could go right through to death," said Peter Hillary, who climbed Everest with Hall six years ago. "He would have been aware of that."
Since Hillary's father, Sir Edmund Hillary, conquered it 43 years ago, Everest's summit has been reached 629 times. Thousands more climbers came close. The elder Hillary himself has complained that the track is now so familiar it has become a tourist mountain.
But that hardly reduces the danger. More than 100 people have been killed on Everest's icy slopes.
Near the peak, most people need a tank of oxygen. Dehydration in the arid atmosphere can kill. High winds bring swift changes of weather, and the temperature is normally 40 below at night.
At least 11 expeditions were on the mountain over the weekend, with each climber paying $10,000 in license fees; each client on Hall's expedition paid a total of $60,000.
About two weeks remain in the annual March-May climbing "window" between winter and the Himalayan monsoon season.
The Himalayan kingdom of Nepal has no rescue procedures for climbers in danger and requires each expedition to take responsibility for its own safety.
Weathers was lucky.
The storm caught him 500 feet below the peak. It was too dark to continue, so he squatted on a rocky ledge without oxygen or anything to drink. "But I couldn't make it on that day because of exhaustion and dehydration," he said Monday.
"I had trouble in my eyes," he said as he walked from the helicopter that rescued him to an ambulance at Katmandu airport.