The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day.
Mount Everest is highest at 8848 meters, but second highest K2 (237 meters lower), is a far more treacherous and difficult mountain to climb. “K2 lacks the mass of Everest,” the authors of ‘Buried in the Sky’ tell us, “but it’s sleeker and meaner.” Meaner!
This book is a detailed account of the August 2008 catastrophe on K2, when eleven climbers perished on the meaner mountain.
Located in Pakistan’s Korakoram range 882 miles NW of Everest, K2 is also known as “The Savage Mountain.” The probability of dying on K2 is one of every four who reach the summit.
On August 1, 2008, eighteen climbers summited K2 (8611m, 28251ft). By the next afternoon eleven of them were dead, far exceeding the odds. ‘Buried’ tells the how and why of it, largely from the perspective of the Sherpas and Pakistani (Balti) high altitude porters who lived.
K2 is not the only mountain with a high death rate. Among all fourteen 8000 meter peaks, its reputation is eclipsed by Nanga Parbat (8126m), also in Pakistan. There, back in June 1937, sixteen climbers (nine Sherpas and seven Germans) died in an avalanche after heavy snowfall. And Everest is fast catching up. In May 1996, nine foreigners died climbing it, in May 2012 another six died, and in April 2014 another sixteen...
One of the problems on K2 is the fact that most of the eighteen climbers that day back in 2008 arrived late on top and started down well after the mandatory 2 o’clock pm ‘turnaround time’. That’s the time considered to be the tardiest one can leave the summit and reach the safety of a lower camp, below the so-called ‘Death Zone’, and before nightfall. Survival assumes that climbers stay on track, there are no accidents, the weather is reasonable, the snow and ice are safe, climbing gear is in place and functioning, and there are no avalanches. That’s a lot to expect.
On K2, August 1, 2008, it all went tragically wrong.
As the K2 summiteers started down that day they were late, tired and slow. They suffered from hypoxia and hallucinations. The weather and route conditions were bad and the cold was intense. Essential gear got lost. Fixed lines were missing or buried in the snow. Several climbers got tangled in each other’s ropes. Others wandered off and simply disappeared. A few bivouacked in the dark to wait for morning. One fell on the dangerously steep, narrow pitch called the ‘Bottleneck’ at 8200 m (26,900 ft). And seracs (ice pinnacles and blocks) collapsed and fell all around them, knocking climbers off balance or off the mountain.
Zuckerman and Padoan relate what went wrong in riveting detail. The intensity of the disaster is pointed out at eleven trouble spots on the ‘Summit to Camp 4’ map in the book’s Part III, which chronicles the descent: Below Summit: Pasang and Jumik create rope system (early night, Aug. 1).
Above Bottleneck: Avalanche kills Rolf, cut off ropes (night, Aug. 1).
At Seracs: Karim wanders off route, bivouacs (night, Aug. 1), gets up (morning, Aug. 2) and falls.
Above Traverse that leads down to Bottleneck: Jumik and two Korean clients hang upside down, tangled in rope (night, Aug. 1).
At Bottleneck: Hughes [sic: Hugues] falls (night, Aug. 1).
Above Traverse: Ger, Marco and Wilco lose the route, bivouac (late night, Aug. 1).
At Bottleneck: Chhiring rescues Pasang (late night,
Above Camp 4 at 26,000 ft (7925 m): Wilco wanders off route (morning, Aug. 1 to afternoon, Aug. 2).
Above Traverse: Ger and Marco attempt to rescue tangled climbers (morning/afternoon, Aug. 2).
Below Bottleneck: Avalanche, falling ice kill Jumik, Big Pasang, Ger and two others (afternoon, Aug. 20).
Above Camp 4: Marco collapses and is later found by Pemba (afternoon, Aug. 2).
Of those named above, only three Sherpas (Pasang, Chhiring and Pemba) and two foreigners survived. Two more got down safely before the tragedies outlined above. Only seven of eighteen climbers got back alive.
Unlike many other mountaineering books, ‘Buried in the Sky’ is told mostly from the point of view and personal recollections of surviving Sherpas and Pakistani high altitude porters (‘HAPs’), some of whom had summitted. They know best what went wrong. And not only are the various calamities told from their perspectives in first-person detail, but the book also reveals significant events in their personal lives before and after the climb. The authors interviewed key witnesses and trekked to remote mountain villages to visit some of their homes. Their stories and the book come together in three parts, chronologically: ‘Ambition’, ‘Conquest’ and ‘Descent’, all within the overarching theme of Tragedy.
A common undercurrent in the personal lives of Sherpa climbers is friction between the men and their family members, especially wives who fear for their husbands’ safety on every expedition. When Chhiring, one of the main Sherpas in the book, was preparing to return to K2 in 2008 (he’d been there before), he met strong domestic resistance.
“‘If you go to that mountain,’ Dawa told him, ‘I will leave.’ “She’d never said that to him before, and even this was a bluff. A woman with two young children seldom divorces her husband in Nepal. Social mores are against it. So is the legal system. ‘But what else could I do?’ Dawa recalled. ‘I could beg. I could cry. I could tell him why he shouldn’t go, but he’s a man. And in Nepal, men decide everything.’
“Dawa cried anyway. After a moment, Chhiring told her what she wanted to hear. Nobody should climb K2. Not a Buddhist. Not a parent. Not when it costs as much as a house. Chhiring couldn’t justify gambling his life to stand on top of a mountain. K2 had worse odds of survival than Russian roulette. It didn’t make sense.
“But people don’t climb because it makes sense... ultimately, the quest for a summit defies logic. So does passion. So does a trip to the moon. There are better things to do. Safer, cheaper, more practical. That’s not the point...”
When asked later if he had really wanted to go to K2 in 2008, Chhiring’s response was immediate: Yes. Even knowing the odds.
For its sheer impact, ‘Buried in the Sky’ ranks next to the classic ‘K2, The Savage Mountain’ (1954) by Charles Houston and Bob Bates. The earlier book is about the ill-fated Third American Karakoram Expedition of 1953, and has been described as “one of the most amazing and spellbinding in the annals of mountaineering history.” ‘Buried in the Sky’ is surely its match, and is equally intense and gripping.
‘Buried’ also reviews the history of K2, from first entry in surveyors’ books in 1856 during the Great Trigonometric Survey of India, to the earliest attempted climbs, and all that followed.
It’s an absorbing book about a monumentally frightful episode. ‘Buried in the Sky’ is highly recommended for readers interested in the history of mountaineering, in the details of this climb, and in the lives of the intrepid guides and climbers of Nepal and Pakistan and their perspectives on what happened.