Saturday, July 7, 2012

Buried in the Sky, by Zuckerman & Padoan

Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan shed some light on the "other" climbers on K2 during the 2008 tragedy in Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2's Deadliest Day. While the heavily sponsored European and Korean surviving climbers received quite a bit of publicity after an 11-person cull during a late-season summit cattle call, the Shimsali and Sherpa climbers also on the mountain went largely unnoticed. The authors bring attention to their efforts, their heroism, and their humanity, profiling their lives and portraying the tragedy through their eyes. During the tragedy, the perspective creeps somewhat to include the viewpoints of European climbers, but the authors ultimately provide a vivid account of a perfect summit day gone wrong. Though I'd read a bit about the descent towards amateurism on K2 in my Everest reading, I never quite believed that climbers on K2 would depend on high-altitude porters to string the route through the Bottleneck (high above the Abruzzi Spur, on the traditional route). The authors remind us that high-altitude workers on K2 are considerably diverse, speaking a variety of languages that do not always overlap, such as Shimsali, Urdu, Hunza, Tibetan, or one of several Sherpa dialects. They press the point on the diversity of Sherpa dialects, as the two Sherpa protagonists, Pasang and Chhiring, come from opposite ends of the traditional Sherpa lands, Rowaling and the Arun Valley. (I had no idea that Sikkimese is also a Tibetan dialect.)

Zuckerman and Padoan include an short history of the Sherpa people as well as their relation to climbing. It's a bit more racially-charged that others, perhaps rightly so. Their information on Tenzing Norgay was more so than I'm used to, stating that he was discriminated against as a Bhotia, both in Khumbu and in Darjeeling. They suggest that his flight to Darjeeling with his future wife was an elopement made necessary by his racial status and that he was turned down for the first round of 1935 porter selection due to his race. Also, they state that Tenzing belies his Kharta background by saying that he grew up "under the wing" of Everest, as people around Kharta associate Everest with a hen. Their history of the Rowaling Valley was fascinating to me, especially the religious identification of K2 as the fifth sister in their mountain god pantheon. They create some parallels between K2 and Everest in the book, mentioning 1996 disaster and a number of other close calls, such as Falvey's rescue. The Korean team had just finished a climb of Everest before arriving at K2, bringing along several of their Sherpa climbers. The book's comparisons between Everest and K2 are also used to express K2's difficulty and danger.

Overall, it's a great book with a unique perspective on high-altitude climbing. Hope you like it!

On a side note: anyone else noticed a recent confusion about the "death zone?" Until recently, in the literature, authors have stated that it begins at 26,000 feet. Books published in the last couple years, however, have placed it anywhere from 27,000 feet (current volume) down to 19,000 feet (Mark Bowen's Thin Ice). Is there scientific confusion about it now, or are authors fudging it for effect?


  1. Mark Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan? I'm quite sure you must be confusing Peter with Zuckersmurf.....

    1. Yikes! Thanks for the correction!

    2. I apologize to Peter. That's a terrible mistake to make! Here's hoping Mark's banker will confuse them as well...