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'That last voice that looked beyond'

Lou Kasischke knows what it feels like to die slowly.

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Lou Kasischke knows what it feels like to die slowly.

It happened to him May 10, 1996, as he stared at Mount Everest's summit. There he stood in minus-30-degree weather as the wind howled around him. His fingers had turned white and stiff from frostbite. He was thirsty, but the water in his water bottles was frozen. He struggled to breathe.

"Think of the feeling of running as fast as you can and breathing through a small straw while your brain and body functions are shutting down," Kasischke said.

On Friday, Kasischke shared with Mayo Clinic staff how he survived the worst mountaineering disaster in Mount Everest history. On that day in 1996, eight of his fellow climbers died on the mountain. Kasischke recently wrote a book about his experience called "After The Wind." He also served as a consultant for the 2015 film "Everest," which tells the story of the ill-fated expedition. He spoke as part of the Hickman Lectureship sponsored by the Mayo Clinic Division of Preventive, Occupational and Aerospace Medicine.

Often when people think about mountain climbing, they focus too much of their thought on the physical challenge. Certainly, that is part of it. But Kasischke said the biggest test ends up being decision making.

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The group of mountaineers had a solid plan for the climb. After six weeks of climbing, they were prepared for the 59-hour slog to the mountain's summit. They had a set timetable of where they needed to be in order to stay safe and when they needed to turn back. But when things went haywire and the climbers got bunched up on a critical part of the ridge, the time had come to turn around. Yet, the climbers standing at 29,000 feet were resistant to do it with the summit they had strived to reach so tantalizingly close.

"I knew the right thing to do was to turn back. We all did. But I also knew I could reach the top, and that's all that mattered in the presence of that moment. All my focus and the only voice within me was all about me, me, me," Kasischke said.

So he started to keep moving toward the summit, pushing farther into the area known as the "death zone." Then all of a sudden his heart started to pound out of control. Kasischke stabbed his ice pick into the ground and fell to his knees. He could hear nothing but the sound of his heart.

The veteran mountain climber told the audience he knows science may have a different explanation for what happened at that moment. But for him, that beating heart was a voice. It was the voice of his wife, Sandy.

"I believe the beating heart, that last voice that looked beyond, was Sandy's heart crying out to be heard, to give me the inner strength to overcome myself and to do the right thing," he said.

So Kasischke turned around and began descending the mountain. It was a decision that saved his life.

Dr. Richard Hickman Jr., the former division chair of Preventive, Occupation and Aerospace Medicine at Mayo Clinic, told the crowd after listening to Kasischke's story that medicine has a long way to go before he can help mountain climbers caught in these life-threatening situations.

In the case of the fateful Mount Everest expedition, he said biological sensors and GPS devices could have been worn by the climbers to try to help rescuers. The biological sensors could let rescuers know which climbers already have perished. But even that is not a perfect solution.

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"The rescuers would have been haunted by the fact that perhaps it was the biosensor that was dead and the GPS would have led them to a live person," Hickman said.

In the end, Kasischke said his story of survival on Mount Everest is really a love story. He began writing about what happened on the mountain soon after the deadly expedition. But he ended up putting the story in a file cabinet for 16 years. It wasn't until his wife, Sandy, became seriously ill that he started to think about publishing it.

Kasischke finished writing his book in the waiting rooms at Mayo Clinic while his wife was being treated. Sandy recently passed away. Kasischke said the book is a way to honor his wife, sharing the untold story of her role on that terrible day nearly 21 years ago.

He added, "Some stories have no end. Some things are foreverlasting like the voice of the heart."

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