Scott Fischer Audio
How High is Everest?
Both the popular and mountaineering press has reported the horrifying details of the deadly storm that struck the summit of Mount Everest that fateful day in May. The tragic deaths of world-renowned guides Rob Hall and Scott Fischer are by now well documented in books such as Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air and Anatoli Boukreev's and Weston DeWalt's The Climb.
The debate generated by those books has spilled over into films, magazines and the Internet to stir in people around the world a craving for all things Everest. And a TV movie based on Krakauer's book, coupled with the widespread release of the IMAX film Everest have only furthered this hunger for information. The incidents of the terrible night of May 10-11 have become part of mountaineering legend, and because of their widespread dissemination perhaps the substance of what may be the most infamous climb in recent times.
But never before told in the Western press is the whole story of one climber's private ordeal: Taiwanese climber Gau Ming Ho, who survived the storm-ravaged night above 8,000 meters. (Gau is widely known by another name: after making an attempt on the fifth highest mountain in the world, Gau claimed the moniker of "Makalu Gau.") During the long, dangerous May 1996 night on Everest, Gau was bivouacked only a few yards away from Scott Fischer, who was bivouacked nearby where he had collapsed earlier. Gau survived to be rescued, albeit with terrible consequences, while Fischer did not.
Gau, along with Texas physician Beck Weathers, eventually was helped down the mountain by climbers Ed Viesturs and David Breashears of the IMAX crew, and Peter Athans and Todd Burleson of the guiding service Alpine Ascents International. In what is certainly the most dramatic helicopter rescue in Everest history an heroic effort by Nepalese Army helicopter pilot Madan K.C., who twice flew to above 21,000 feet to retrieve the two men, and was the agent of their eventual survival the pair was airlifted to safety from a flat spot near Camp II.
Gau lost his hands and feet to the frostbite he suffered on his bivouac, but he remains thankful that he survived. For the first time since those fateful events, Makalu Gau has shared his incredible story in an exclusive interview with The Mountain Zone.
Quickly extricated from the crevasse by other Sherpas on the mountain, Chen, according to Gau, did not complain of pain and seemed to have suffered no serious injury. However, by morning, Gau said, as he and his Sherpas decided to start out for Camp IV on the South Col, Chen told Gau he wasn't feeling well enough to climb higher and would rest for several more hours at Camp III before starting up. So Makalu Gau and the others set out for the higher camp with the expectation Chen would follow later in the day.
But Chen apparently decided to try to descend to Camp II and Sherpas coming down from the South Col found him incapacitated below Camp III. The Sherpas carried Chen down another 1000 feet before he suddenly died. Members of the IMAX team climbed up from Camp II hoping to revive him, but it was too late. David Breashears said he had to close Chen's eyes with his hands. Bringing Chen back to base camp, Breashears said, was a difficult and disturbing experience.
Breashears immediately radioed Makalu Gau to inform him that Chen had collapsed and died. Gau was shaken; his friend's sudden death put an icy dread on Makalu Gau's spirit.
"In that moment, I had no thinking about Mr. Chen. I think it's impossible why he's died. For a short time I had no language to explain to anybody. I just sit down in the tent inside Camp IV," Gau recalled. With the winds at the Camp still gusting and his partner now dead, Gau expected the summit was out of reach.
But near midnight, a Sherpa carrying tea and hot noodles greeted Makalu Gau in his tent. Conditions were favorable, he understood, and the climb was on; the wind had died and the sky was full of stars. It seemed a perfect morning for climbing Everest and Gau was cheered as he looked up the mountain and saw the twinkling headlamps of other climbers. It reassured him to know that he and his Sherpas would not be alone on the upper mountain.
To himself, Gau repeated, "One step...one step...very slowly, slowly going up." Although he had nearly perished on McKinley, and failed on Makalu, tonight his oxygen canister was on a generous flow, which allowed him sufficient oxygen to climb. After many hours, Makalu and his Sherpa team arrived at the base of the Hillary Step.
The Sherpas seemed agitated as they waited at the Step among a throng of climbers waiting for their turns on the fixed ropes. Gau and his Sherpas had arrived later than they had planned. Urged by his Sherpas to descend to safety, Makalu was tempted to do so, but feeling strong allegiance to his country, thinking of Chen, and facing the fact that the summit was a short distance away, Gau decided to go for it. "If one member can summit, the whole expedition is a success," he said.