Book recounts tragedy on K2

Co-author, Sherpa to make Durango appearance

Although Mount Everest is the highest mountain on Earth, K2, straddling the China-Pakistan border, is considered the most fearsome.

K2 has earned its reputation as “the Savage Mountain.” Before 2008, a total of 4,115 people had stood on Everest’s summit; only 278 had done the same on K2. In 2008 alone, the fatality rate of those leaving for a summit bid on K2 was 30.5 percent, higher than the casualty rate at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

In Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day, authors Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan tell the story of the tragic 2008 climb of K2 when 11 climbers died.

Like Into Thin Air and Touching the Void, Buried in the Sky combines an adventure and colorful cast of characters with a careful dissection of mountaineering culture. Zuckerman and Padoan, though, break new ground by telling the story not from the perspective of Western climbers, but from the perspective of the often-overlooked high-altitude workers – the Sherpa and Pakistani climbers who scout the routes, tie the lines and guide climbers through the “Death Zone.”

When Edmund Hillary first conquered Everest, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay was at his side. Indeed, for as long as Westerners have been climbing the Himalayas, Sherpas have been the anonymous experts in the background.

Zuckerman and Padoan, who along with climber Chhiring Dorje will give a talk and book signing Monday night at Maria’s Bookshop in Durango, traveled around the world, trekking across glaciers and through Taliban-controlled areas of Pakistan to conduct interviews in rare and dying languages. The result is a book that reveals the perspectives of men like Dorje, a Sherpa hoping to summit K2 without bottled oxygen; Pasang Lama, a Bhote hoping to transcend discrimination and his own impoverished childhood by proving himself with a Korean team; and Shaheen Baig, born in a remote mountain village in the Hunza region of Pakistan, an experienced climber who already had summited the mountain without bottled oxygen in 2004.

Buried in the Sky travels back to Chhiring and Pasang’s home villages, exploring their customs and culture, and then follows them to the slums of Kathmandu. In a region with few options for impoverished young men, the capital is the one place where they can find work and begin lucrative – and dangerous – climbing careers.

Men like Chhiring and Pasang have safely guided generations of climbers from makeshift base camps to the Death Zone, altitudes above 27,000 feet, and back down again. Throughout the book, the authors reveal how the high-altitude workers make their money and how they’re treated by Western climbers.

The deadliest disaster in K2’s history occurred on Aug. 1 and 2, 2008. Within 27 hours, 11 climbers died. Many of them were among the best in the world. So what went wrong? Why did so many climbers continue up the mountain when they knew they would have to descend after nightfall? And how had they made so many simple mistakes, such as failing to bring enough rope?

Zuckerman and Padoan unravel the errors and bad luck – the linguistic misunderstandings, the ethnic rivalries, the howling “ghost winds,” the overconfidence and naked ambition – that led to the disaster.

jeisele@durangoherald.com