Taiwan in Time: For the love of mountains - Taipei Times
Sun, May 06, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Taiwan in Time: For the love of mountains

Even though Makalu Gau lost his nose, fingers and toes in the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster, he remains determined even today to accomplish his task of photographing the top 100 peaks of China

By Han Cheung  /  Staff Reporter

Makalu Gau poses for a photo at a 2016 photography exhibit in Hsinchu.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

May 7 to May 13

Like Beck Weathers, who was featured prominently in the 2015 Hollywood blockbuster Everest, Makalu Gau (高銘和) also lost his nose and fingers (and parts of his feet) in the same disaster that claimed eight lives.

Gau, whose English name refers to the fifth highest mountain in the world, was a leader of the Taiwanese expedition to Everest on May 10, 1996, one of four teams that were involved in the catastrophe caused by a combination of a severe blizzard, various delays, questionable decisions, illnesses and running out of oxygen.

Survivor Jon Krakauer (author of the bestseller-turned-movie Into the Wild) did not have kind words for Gau in his account of the disaster Into Thin Air — claiming that he was climbing too slow, acting callous about the death of a teammate and finally setting for the summit when he had agreed to stay back to avoid overcrowding.

Even the only line about the Taiwanese team in the script for Everest was about how slow they were. While this column does not strive to dispute these accusations, we will be examining the events from Gau’s perspective through his books about the experience.

RACING THE STORM

Gau was not the first Taiwanese to make it to the summit Everest. That honor belongs to Wu Chin-hsiung (吳錦雄), who made it to the summit with a group of Chinese mountaineers in 1993. In 1995, a Taiwanese team repeated the feat by entering the mountain from Tibet. In contrast, Gau’s expedition started from the south slope in Nepal.

Gau had a bigger goal than just scaling the mountain — it was part of a project to take photos of the top 100 peaks of China. It was not love at first sight between Gau and the mountains. He writes that it was a gradual appreciation after his coworkers invited him on a hiking trip at his first job. He had already attempted Mount Everest once before this expedition, making it up to 8,000 meters before aborting the mission.

Gau’s team of nine left Taipei two months before the climb, reaching Mount Everest’s base camp by April 2.

On May 5, the team decided that Gau and Chen Yu-nan (陳玉男) would take a stab at the peak on May 10, with another pair trying on May 12. The chef baked a cake that night to wish the mountaineers good luck.

Gau was about 800 meters from the top when he heard that Chen was dead. That morning, Chen slipped and fell while relieving himself outside of their tent. Not wanting to hold Gau back, Chen told Gau to go ahead to the next camp and that he would meet Gau there.

Gau waited and waited, only to find out later that Chen had turned back with the help of the local Sherpa guides. A few hours later, the base camp radioed him with the tragic news.

“My mind was a mess,” Gau recalls in Above the Clouds: The Report of the 1996 Everest Expedition (白雲之上: 1996中華民國聖母峰遠征隊攀登報告書).

He discussed with the Sherpas whether he should carry on or not, and they decided that if the storm subsided and the New Zealand and American teams took action, he would follow them.

A little after midnight, Gau put on six layers of clothes, four pairs of pants and three gloves and set out with three Sherpas. Thirteen hours later, the weather got worse and one of the Sherpa’s oxygen tanks malfunctioned. They advised Gau to turn back, but he refused.

“If they told me to stop this morning, maybe I would have listened,” he writes. “But we’ve been climbing for 13 hours. I could see the peak. I couldn’t just give up like that!”

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