“Among mountaineers Sherpas hold nearly mythical status. They have this seemingly superhuman ability to perform incredible climbing feats,” relates Peter Zuckerman, coauthor of Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day (W.W. Norton). As any high-altitude climbing enthusiast knows, Sherpas — part of a Nepalese ethnic group who live in the shadow of the world’s tallest mountains — are hired by Western climbers to escort their more celebrated clients up and down Himalayan peaks like Mount Everest and K2 — the latter, at 28,251 feet, the second highest mountain in the world.
Being a sherpa is a stressful and physically demanding job, one that includes scouting routes, fixing ropes, establishing camps, pitching tents, rescuing fallen climbers and, of course, ferrying equipment and supplies. Yet despite their importance to virtually every climbing expedition in the region, the stories of these high-altitude workers are rarely told, in part because the accounts of Western climbers tend to be self-serving, but also because their employers cannot speak Ajak Bhote, Burushaski, Shar-Khumbu tamgney, Rolwaling Sherpi tamgney, or any number of other endangered local languages.
To craft Buried in the Sky, Zuckerman and his cousin Amanda Padoan went out of their way — really out of their way — to tell the stories of Chhiring (CHEER-ing) Dorje Sherpa and Pasang (Pah-SONG) Lama, who together narrowly survived the 2008 disaster on K2. Not only did Zuckerman and Padoan make seven trips to Nepal and three to Pakistan, Zuckerman trekked to the home villages of both men — Beding and Hungung — which are so far off the beaten path that many of the inhabitants had never seen a white man before Zuckerman hiked into town. But being that the villages are a six- and 10-day trip from the nearest road, respectively, he had plenty of time to get to know his subjects, and on one notable occasion, to get high on yarsagumba.
This isn’t to say that the authors’ focus on Chhiring and Pasang takes away from their re-creation of the catastrophe that unfolded when 29 climbers tried to reach the top that fateful August. Everest may be a universally recognized name, but K2 (sometimes referred to as “The Savage Mountain”) is far more deadly. For every four climbers who have reached its summit, one has died trying. In 2008, the odds turned out to be even less favorable; 18 climbers summited and 11 died, including Pasang’s cousin, Jumik Bhote, and two Koreans, who spent a night in the Death Zone — that is, above 26,000 feet — hanging upside down, hopelessly entangled in climbing ropes.
Photo: Larse Nesse
In the following interview, Zuckerman reveals the challenges he faced in terms of researching the book, and also addresses the mistakes that led to one of the most dramatic disasters in mountaineering history.
Can you paint a picture of what it took to interview Chhiring Dorje Sherpa and Pasang Lama?
The first challenge was finding Chhiring, Pasang, and the other people I wanted to interview. According to custom, Sherpas have one of seven names — the day of the week they were born. Surnames aren’t used, and when filling out legal forms, most Sherpas put their week day as their first name and Sherpa as their last. It’s a dysfunctional system. If you say, “I’d like to talk to Chhiring Sherpa,” well, there are like 20,000 of them in Nepal! Making matters more confusing, primary names can be altered or scrapped based on events in an individual’s life. And sometimes the same Sherpa goes by different names depending on context. For example, when addressed by his lama, Chhiring goes by Dorje.
Eventually I figured out where Chhiring and Pasang were, but then I had to get to their villages. The first step was to take a plane to the nearest airstrip. Then I would take a jeep as far as the road would go and just started walking. While a lot of people are used to places that don’t have running water or electricity, this was a whole new level. There was no metal or petroleum or machinery out there. And there are separate languages or dialects spoken at each village, so people from adjacent villages can’t understand each other. It was that isolated. I talked to anthropologists who study the region and they didn’t know of any Westerner who had been to these villages. Some of the adults had seen white people before [in other places], but most of the children had never seen anyone white.
In terms of the interviews, I had to go through two layers of translators. There would be somebody who translated from the local language to Nepali and then from Nepali to English. I would ask questions like, “How old are you?” And then the Nepali translator would say, “How old are you?” And then the Sherpa language translator would say, “How old are you?” Then the person I was interviewing would give me a look like, “What kind of question is that?” There would be discussion between all the interpreters and the message would come back to me: “I was born during Buddha’s Harvest Festival.” I realized that the concept of a calendar didn’t work there.
Thank goodness for anthropologists who were able to help. I could go to them and say, “They kept giving me this answer and I don’t know what it means.” They would say, “Ah, here’s what you need to know.”
In Pakistan it was a little easier to get around. Amanda and I could get to most places by jeep. But it was dangerous having to drive through Taliban territory. At one point we were riding along and our driver said, “When Daniel Pearl was murdered that was his fault. Nobody who is Jewish should be going through this part of the world. That’s like someone who is gay coming to this area. How dumb can you get?” And I was like, “Yeah, that’s a really dumb thing to do.” I was worried that people in Pakistan would investigate who I was, but fortunately Google isn’t all that prominent there.
Can you paint a picture of what a traditional Sherpa village is like?
The villages have different languages and religious customs, but there are patterns. Most things are made out of rock and dung mortar. All the villages are near a mountain that is seen as very sacred. The mountain goddess is worshipped and is very important to their religious tradition.
Beding was really sad because you could tell that it used to be a thriving village and that the people there were all old and bitter. They didn’t like the fact that their kids were leaving to become mountaineers. Within a generation or two, no one is going to be there anymore.
The “bottleneck” on K2. Photo: Iso Planic/Pedrag Zagorac
How do villagers view the mountaineers who climb the likes of Everest and K2?
In their eyes, the mountaineers are taking their children away and their children are sinning. [They consider climbing a mountain sacrilegious because you are invading the territory of the gods.] They worry that not only will their children be punished but that their whole family will be punished. But the young people — especially in Pasang’s village, Hungung — think that mountaineering is the cool thing to do, that it’s your ticket to getting rich.
But in Pakistan, Amanda and I met orphans who didn’t understand that their fathers were dead. Others asked, “Why did these foreigners take my father away and let him die?” From their standpoint, the kids felt like: These people come, they take my dad, and he doesn’t come home. And we never see the people who took him ever again. It was hard for them to understand why.
Are young people less afraid of the gods than their elders?
In general, yes. Old people still say it’s terrible to climb, and if you read old mountaineering journals you find stories about Sherpas who are afraid of the mountain gods. But now so many people have climbed Everest, the thought is that maybe the mountain goddess doesn’t really mind. Everest’s goddess [Miyo Lungsungama] is the goddess of prosperity, so maybe if you are getting paid well to climb Everest, she’s OK with it.
It’s hard to keep saying that the goddess hates you for climbing when people come back perfectly fine and have made lots of money.
How do Sherpas feel about the way they are stereotyped [as highaltitude load carriers]?
They have mixed feelings about it. Some think it is fine because being a sherpa is very prestigious in Nepal. On the other hand, saying an ethnic group is [equivalent to] a job is offensive. It would be weird to say being Jewish means you’re a banker, as in: He works with a Jew — that Wells Fargo.
But my overall impression is that they tolerate the stereotype and that it helps them in terms of making money. I don’t think they are aware of how they are stereotyped in the U.S., where you can buy the Sherpa Dog Carrier, Baby Sherpa Maternity Belt, and the Short Haul Sherpa diaper bag. Some of that is culturally insensitive. But there are worse stereotypes; they are viewed as being really strong, hard workers.
What were some of the mistakes that the 2008 expedition made?
One was putting together a [summit] team who didn’t all speak the same language and hadn’t worked together before and didn’t like each other. They also didn’t respect the turnaround time, continuing to go up when they knew they were going to have to descend at night. They tried to set fixed ropes from start to finish — same as on Everest — without realizing that they didn’t bring enough rope. They failed to bring some basic equipment, including a stove [to melt water]. And they had bad luck, as a big chunk of ice broke off [above a part of the route called the Bottleneck], which took out a lot of the fixed ropes, trapping climbers up high.
To be fair, it’s easier to identify these mistakes in retrospect. A lot of the same mistakes are made on expeditions that go well. It’s just that nobody reads about it unless there’s an accident.
Are Western climbers learning anything from disasters like the one in 2008?
Yes, I believe they are. K2 hadn’t been summited after the 2008 tragedy until this year, which suggests that climbers are being a lot more careful than before. The problem is that as the equipment gets better and climbers learn more and get better at mountaineering they feel they have to do more to distinguish themselves. As things get safer, people take more risks.
Why do you think it’s important to tell this story?
It’s a good adventure story that hopefully inspires people, although it is horrifying that so many people died. But it’s also the story of these amazing athletes that rarely get written about. My hope with the book is that it makes a small contribution to the way we tell stories, not just in mountaineering but in general. And that people will more deeply appreciate and respect the sherpas in their own lives. We are all surrounded by people we don’t notice very often, like the person who prepares your food at a restaurant or the mechanic who checks the plane before takeoff. I like the idea that there are sherpas all around us and that this disaster shows we can’t afford to ignore them. They need to be seen for who they really are, because our lives so often depend on them.
Jason Zasky is the founder and editorial director of failuremag.com.