Prayer Flag, photo by Bob Winsett


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"In this moment, my eyes, face, all is ice already... it very quickly became the hard ice..."

Makalu Gau Audio Clip

"My brain just look like a TV screen... I think, oh, my God, I must go back! I must go home! I must go to see my children..."

Makalu Gau Audio Clip

"The sky is becoming a red color... Oh, I must be half alive..."

Makalu Gau Audio Clip

"No sleep for me, but I must do my best to try to wait until the sun raised..."

Makalu Gau Audio Clip

"Tenzing, he want to help me go down... I just follow him... then I turned back to see the two Sherpa also help Scott, and Scott is still laying down there. No sit down or stand up ..."
Makalu Gau Audio Clip

Makalu Gau Audio Clip
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Title: The Untold Story of the 1996 Everest TragedyPAGE 2
PAGE 1Makalu Gau Tragedy, Previous.

Makalu Gau's Hand
Makalu Gau's Feet
Beck Weathers in the Rescue Tent
Weathers and Gau Helicopter Rescue
On May 10th, 1996 at approximately 3:00 pm, Makalu Gau summitted Mt. Everest. "From the summit, my first photograph was an unobstructed view of the Himalayan Mountain Range," Gau said, but the next shot, taken just 10 minutes later, was a precursor to what became a nightmare. Of the second shot, he said, "so strange the sky seems."

Dark storm clouds were at this time quickly moving up the flanks of Mt. Everest. On the summit, Gau's Sherpas were near panic, shouting that they must quickly descend. By now, Gau had been climbing for 50 hours on just four hours of sleep. The descent was arduous, Gau's energy level had deteriorated from severe to critical. The weather had turned treacherous and the climbers' situation suddenly was desperate. Gau's oxygen was depleted, and he was now on the brink of exhaustion.

"From below, he heard Fischer say quietly, to no one in particular, "I'm sick, I'm sick'..."

When the last of the three headlamps burned out — and Gau and his two Sherpas were literally and completely in the dark — they came upon Lopsang Sherpa sitting in the snow. Lopsang was facing uphill and was trying to help an obviously troubled Scott Fischer, the Mountain Madness expedition leader. Fischer was just below Lopsang, sitting down, apparently pulling himself down the mountain by his heels. Gau's Sherpas spoke with Lopsang and continued to descend, Gau could not go on and sat down.

Lopsang, Gau said, was chanting, "Oh, Scott, oh, Scott," as he dug out a small area for Fischer just 15 meters from Gau. Lopsang, apparently going for help, then continued to descend, leaving Gau and Fischer alone at 27,000 feet. Gau knew he was precariously near death, his survival unlikely. Fischer, said Gau, seemed unaware of Gau's presence.

From below, he heard Fischer say quietly, to no one in particular, "I'm sick, I'm sick," as he rocked back and forth to keep warm.

Makalu Gau, shivering with cold, eventually fell into a delirious sleep. When he woke, he said, his face was covered by an icy mask and his nostrils plugged with chunks of ice. "My nose is small ice bar. I have to take out the ice bar, then I can get a good breath," Gau recalls. He had urinated, wetting the pants of his down suit. His hands and feet were completely numb.

Everest, south col route
The South Col
[click to zoom]
For Gau, the ordeal began to blend with delirium. With his extremities frozen and his thought processes clouded, he struggled to stay awake knowing that sleep would mean death. He tried to warm himself: first thinking he could cover his face with his backpack, but soon realizing it too was frozen, and then thinking he could find his lighter and burn the pack, also an impossibility.
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Gau rolled from side to side and breathed deeply. He thought of his family and friends to inspire him to survive and soon began to hallucinate. "Like watching a movie on a screen, I saw my small son at the doorstep of our house, he was talking to me, telling me, 'Come home, daddy, I want you to come home'" Gau remembered.
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"Then the movie switched, I was seeing my friends in Taiwan, being supportive and telling me to return, and then I saw the team waiting for me at Base Camp, they were all very, very worried, they wanted me to come home." For Gau, these strange hallucinations in his mind's eye helped him stay alive.

When a faint orange glow graced the horizon of Tibet it marked the end of Gau's horrifying night out and he let himself believe he might live. "The sky is becoming a red color. In Japan, the snow is not so big; storm is a little down. So I talked to myself, 'Oh, I must be half alive, '" he said.
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One by one, the mountains were lit by sunlight. He believed if he could just make it until the sun shone on him, he might survive. When the sun finally bathed him in light and warmth, Gau fell asleep. He awoke to Sherpas trying to rouse him. "I heard, I heard somebody call me, 'Makalu Sir, Makalu Sir?' Then I open my eyes. Then I find out, one, two, three...three Sherpa," Gau recalls. Oxygen, hot tea and hope revived him. Despite extreme frostbite injuries to his hands, feet, and face, Makalu, tied to a rope and being led by his Sherpa, miraculously made it down to camp IV.
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As he lay at camp four, Makalu realized he was in desperate condition. " I was not sure if I was going to be able to make it down. When I put my hands together, tink - tink- tink, like two glasses coming together." His feet were two frozen chunks of flesh and blood. He knew his fight for survival was far from over.

By that time, a rescue was being mounted at Camp IV. Todd Burleson and Pete Athans had climbed up to the South Col from lower camps, abandoning their own attempt on the summit to try to save Gau and Beck Weathers, who had spent most of the night out in the open but nearer to Camp IV. With the assistance of other climbers, Burleson and Athans managed to assist him all the way down to Camp II in the Western Cwm. There, climbers from three expeditions administered what first aid they could as they awaited word on a helicopter rescue. The climbers at camp II knew that trying to transport both injured climbers through the Khumbu Ice Fall would be difficult and time consuming.

In what became the highest helicopter rescue in the history of Mount Everest, Colonel Madan K.C., from the Nepal Army Air Force put his life on the line, landed his helicopter at 19,800 ft. and airlifted the near comatose Makalu off Mt. Everest.

Makalu spent over 10 months in the hospital. He lost his arms from above the elbow, feet and nose, which has since been reconstructed through plastic surgery. His feet have been somewhat reconstructed using tissue from his arms, his mobility is severely limited, but he is alive and his spirit returned.

"Now everything looks nice for me because now I can write, I can use a pen, I can use chopsticks, I can eat everything by myself. Before it's not possible. I only have the hook of my right hand, but I training and can do very well by my right hand," he said.

Makalu Gau with Jane Bromet
Jane Bromet, Mountain Zone Correspondent
Jane Bromet, a Seattle-based writer, first met Makalu Gau (Gao Ming Ho) at Syangbyoche airstrip (Nepal) in April 1996. While reporting on the 1996 Everest climbs, Bromet, who speaks Mandarin Chinese and has lived in Southeast Asia, struck up a friendship with Gau that endures to this day.


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