Poor decision-making and calamitous misfortune led to the deaths of 11 mountaineers over two days on K2 in 2008, a story recounted through the eyes of two surviving Sherpas.
Climbing towards disaster on K2, the deadly jewel of the Karakorum Range
Like the icy mists that swirl around its summit, Mount Everest is enshrouded in glory and tragedy. Hundreds have died trying for the top but many more have made it and lived to tell the tale.
Technology and, above all, money, have paved the way. Today, climbing Everest is less a romantic endeavour than a commercial proposition, and there are plenty of paying clients who, regardless of skill level, want to scamper up the heights.
Yet other climbers frown on this well-trodden ground with its endless procession of rich clientele. For a more hardened mountaineer, another peak beckons: K2, the deadly jewel of the Karakorum Range. Though several hundred metres shorter than Everest, K2 is a more formidable technical challenge than its Himalayan cousin. Unpredictable weather, harsh storms, frightful avalanches and treacherous crevasses, crashing blocks of ice: these are but a few of the obstacles that confront any climber.
K2 has put even the most experienced alpinists to the test. The "Savage Mountain" has seen its share of calamities over the years but none arguably grimmer than the disaster that unfolded over two days in August 2008, when 11 climbers died as a result of falls and exposure.
The catastrophe is the subject of a new book, Buried in the Sky, by American writers Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan (who herself is an experienced climber). Based on interviews with the surviving members of the climbing parties, Padoan and Zuckerman tell the story with skill, even if their prose can be hackneyed. And they've given this tale of high adventure a different spin by placing two Sherpas at the centre of the tale.
Himalayan mountaineering would not be possible without Sherpa muscle and grit to power climbers up the tallest mountains in the world. Since George Mallory and the heroic age of climbing, Sherpas have played an indispensable role in the conquest of these peaks. Tenzing Norgay was something of an exception: he played a starring role in the first ascent of Everest in 1953. But, more often than not, Sherpas have tended to remain in the background.
Padoan and Zuckerman are sensitive to such historic slights. They carefully relate the lives of Chhiring Dorje Sherpa and Pasang Lama, two climbers who survived the 2008 disaster. Though the authors inevitably invoke the tropes of Third World poverty and the way their two protagonists navigated the political turmoil of Nepal, they carefully go beyond the ethnic stereotypes and explain the complex physiological reasons Sherpa people have advantages in high altitudes (they have wider blood vessels, for one). Chhiring is animated and incredibly strong: "His five-foot-nine frame supported outrageous, unbelievable loads." He had 10 summits of Everest under his belt. Pasang was known for his high jinks, like putting rocks in sleeping bags and rigging tents with rubbish that would crash down when those inside stepped out.
The fates of Pasang and Chhiring intersected in the summer of 2008, as climbers from France, Serbia, Ireland, Pakistan, Spain, Sweden, the United States, South Korea and Holland converged on K2 to attempt the summit. The various expeditions agreed to cooperate but there would be much friction on the slopes.
Herein lie the roots of the disaster. Padoan and Zuckerman are reluctant moralisers but behind the heroism of Chhiring and Pasang, who performed nobly, a troubling story emerges. K2 may be considered a more pure peak than Everest but the same commercial pressures and rash decision-making - and not a little vainglory - that have tarnished climbs on the latter would plague the 2008 K2 attempt. The ascent would be troubled from the start.
Linguistic obstacles were ever-present - a swirl of Urdu, English, Nepali. Pakistani porters communicated in Urdu, which was then translated into English for the Nepalis. Sherpas themselves spoke in various Nepali dialects. Compounding the problem, the Pakistani climber in charge of translation fell ill and would not be on the final ascent. Miscommunication reigned. Still, the climbers pressed on.
On the eve of August 1, 29 climbers stood poised for the top. All was not well. Equipment was mislaid. "Rope was missing, ice screws were missing and I was thinking: 'We're at 8,000 metres but we don't have the essentials'," a Swedish climber recalled. Little problems would metastasise into deadly mishaps. Cash incentives for the high-altitude porters and Sherpas encouraged them to push weaker climbers to the top.
Padoan and Zuckerman write: "Resentment, language barriers and oxygen deprivation all contributed to the flawed decision-making that followed." Rope was squandered on easier sections of the ascent, which contributed to a disastrous shortage near the top, on a deadly section called the Bottleneck, where climbers had to proceed single file up a nearly vertical face.
A 2pm turnaround time was set for August 1; it was disregarded by nearly all the climbers. They had come this far and would get to the top, deadlines be damned. Two climbers died on the way up. Nine more would perish on the way down. They would have to descend in darkness, which is about as foolish a decision as would be made on the summit attempt. The authors outline the different rationalisations deployed by the climbers, yet this reader's mind boggles at the conclusion to get to the top no matter what the consequences. Even Chhiring submitted to the dubious logic that seems to get the better of climbers at great heights.
Pasang reached the summit at 5.30pm. "It was the most perfect place," he thought. Chhiring summited at 6.37pm. As darkness fell, many climbers were vomiting from the effects of altitude sickness. Oxygen bottles ran low, and then were empty. The descent would be chaotic. An avalanche wrecked ropes in the Bottleneck, forcing some climbers to spend the night in the Death Zone - that is, at altitudes where there isn't enough atmospheric oxygen to maintain human life.
Korean climbers met a horrible fate when they became entangled and hung upside down. Pasang surrendered his ice axe to others, presuming he would have rope for the descent. He did not. Stuck, unable to go up or down, he thought he would perish on K2. Chhiring, who had absolutely no obligation to rescue his fellow climber, gingerly proceeded to harness Pasang and guide him to safety.
Though they would slide and fall, they survived and lived to tell the tale. He "had pulled off one of the most heroic rescues in K2 history". Pasang's sacrifice of his axe helped others safely descend.
For all the drama and tragedy, Buried in the Sky ends with something of a whimper. The dedication and heroism of Chhiring is invoked but there are no reflections on the larger issues of mountaineering in the 21st century. They recount the predictable finger-pointing that ensued in the post-mortems of the attempt.
Climbing carries inherent risk - the contingent, the unpredictable are great enemies of even the most seasoned alpinist. Climbing has never been as pure as the romantics would have it. But the gamesmanship and pressures of commerce have sullied the pursuit of greatness at high altitudes.
Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.