Buried in the Sky

Bookworm Issue 192 Nov, 2017

Buried in the Sky

by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan, published by W. W. Norton & Company

The blurb on the cover, ‘The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day’ says it all. Well, not quite, actually. ‘Buried in the Sky’ is more than just another mountaineering adventure story, albeit one that ends in tragedy. It is a veritable mine of little known details about Sherpas and Bhotias, HAPS and LAPS, and Everest, K2, and many similarly high mountains. HAPS stands for high altitude porter and LAP stands for low altitude porter, two terms used by the Pakistan mountaineering fraternity. Sherpas involved in climbing expeditions have objected to being described as just porters in the past, and are now designated high altitude workers by the Nepali government.

All this and more, we get to know from ‘Buried in the Sky’. We also know more about the life of Sherpas living in the Rolwaling valley, most of whom are in the mountaineering profession, and we also get a deeper insight into the story of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, who as it turns out, is not a Sherpa at all, but a Bhotia from Kharta of Tibet. The authors also leave no doubt in the mind about the deep resentments caused due to the controversy about whether it was Tenzing or Hilary who stepped first on the highest point on Earth. They also put up an interesting conjecture about how it would have been the Chinese who would have been able to claim to have conquered Everest first, if only Tenzing had declared his rightful origins, because by 1953, the year of first conquest, the Red Army had already taken over Tibet.

All this is what adds to the book’s appeal. The story of the actual climb up K2, the ‘Savage Mountain’, which at 28,251 ft. (8,611 m)  is the second highest peak in the world, is of course the icing on the cake. However, like all skilled story-tellers, the authors take the reader on a journey where there are forks on the road ahead, and intriguing side paths that lead to their own interesting destinations. One could say, the reader is being gradually prepared to have a more comprehensive understanding of events as they unfold. So, Part I is the background, and Part II is where the actual story of K2’s disastrous 2008 season begins, which continues to its harrowing end in Part III.

Before continuing to Part II, the reader is already made familiar with many of the key characters, which include Sherpas (Chirring Dorje, Pasang Lama, and Pemba Gyalje being the main ones), HAPs (such as Shaheen Baig, Karim Meherban, and Jehan Baig), The Flying Jump (Korean expedition led by Mr. Kim), and many others from among the seventy or so climbers from twelve nations who attempted to conquer K2 in August 2008, which resulted in eleven climbers losing their lives within twenty-seven hours. A major catastrophe indeed!

K2 may be the second biggest peak, but it is by far the most dangerous, the prime reason being the uncertainty about weather conditions, unlike Everest, where it is more predictable, with a usual two-week window of clear weather in May every year. As far as the August 2008 K2 attempt is concerned, the climbers, after weeks and months of waiting at the base camp, finally are informed of a four-day window to summit. However, even this turns out to be not completely true, as no one factored in the so-called ‘ghost winds’ that do not show up in the weather forecasting instruments, but blow anyway at about seventy miles per hour down and across the ‘Savage Mountain.’ Add to all this the large number of climbers, some of whom are really not skilled or experienced enough to attempt such a formidable challenge, and it seems like a recipe for disaster is waiting to happen.

The climbers take two routes that converge somewhere in the ‘Death Zone’ (above 26,000 ft.) at Camp 4, from where they carry on to the ‘Bottleneck,’ where obviously, things become more than a bit cramped for all. The passage of the climbers is described in great detail, and with meticulously researched findings. In fact, the book as a whole is extremely well-researched. It is also written in a very interesting and lucid manner, and this is a remarkable feat, considering the numerous characters involved.

Aside from everything else, ‘resentment, language barriers, and oxygen deprivation all contributed to the flawed decision-making that followed’ conclude the authors, while relating the events that followed as the guides and climbers make their way above the ‘Death Zone’ to the ‘Bottleneck’ at 26,999 feet. The language barrier between the Sherpas and the HAPs becomes a critical issue, with the most experienced HAP, and their team leader, Shaheen Baig, unable to join the climb due to gastroenteritis followed by pulmonary edema in Camp 2 itself. He is the crucial link in communicating between the two groups of high altitude workers.

All this results in a delayed departure for the summit, and before anyone had summited, two climbers, Dren of Norway, and Jehan, a HAP, had already fallen to their deaths. The first person to reach the summit is Alberto of Italy, and even he does so only at 3:00 p.m., an hour later than the 2:00 p.m. cut-off time for returning from the top. Eighteen people, including Chiring and Pasang, finally make it to the summit on August 1, 2008, where they spend ninety minutes celebrating. It is already 7:45 p.m. by the time they start their descent.

Part III is titled, ‘Descent’. Now, it is darkness, extreme cold, falling ice, oxygen deprivation, and exposure and exhaustion that come into play in the ensuing deadly drama. The summiteers are trapped above the bottleneck, with some losing their way and some being hit by falling ice. Despite the heroic efforts of the experienced guides, particularly the Sherpas, it becomes a night of tragedy. At the end of it all, the August 2008 K2 climbing season has claimed a total of eleven lives. The book goes on to relate events as they occur after the remaining survivors are evacuated by The Fearless Five, a high-altitude helicopter rescue service of the Pakistan government.

To conclude, ‘Buried in the Sky’ is a book that is both very informative and mesmerizing, and the reader will most certainly gain a wealth of new knowledge, while being enthralled with a story of high adventure and daring.