The Sherpa’s Story

Mj 618_348_the sherpas story
Pemba Gyalje Sherpa

In August 2008, news of a mountaineering disaster on K2 trickled out of Pakistan’s Himalayas and echoed around the world. In a cascading series of events – avalanches, serac falls, safety ropes torn away – 11 elite climbers from seven countries perished, while others endured epic struggles for survival. At 28,251 feet, K2 is second in height to Mount Everest, but it is far more dangerous: For every four climbers who have reached its summit, one has died trying. The 2008 tragedy was the deadliest event in the mountain’s history, and it unleashed an onslaught of media assessments, from obscure climbing blogs to the front page of the ‘New York Times,’ but only now has an accurate, and riveting, account been published.

‘Buried in the Sky,’ by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan, is a work of obsessive reporting. The authors (who are cousins) traveled across the world, conducting extensive interviews with nearly every person who was on the mountain in 2008 and using digital forensics to analyze the photographs taken that day. They weave a narrative that is hair-raising and moving, but also precise – crucial given the technical complexities of expeditions and the often-hazy recollections of traumatized survivors.

But what makes their book an indispensable addition to the genre is the way the authors explore the “cultural crevasse” underlying the ill-fated expeditions on K2. They provide a long-overdue historical correction to the familiar mountaineering story, with its focus on summit-conquering Westerners. In ‘Buried in the Sky,’ the events on K2 are revealed through the eyes of the Sherpa and Pakistani guides, who are often portrayed as anonymous extras in the popular narrative, ferrying gear and setting ropes so the paying customers can plant their flags on the summit.

This shortsightedness has many causes: language barriers, socioeconomic status, the demands of sponsors, the biases of media. Far from being mere porters, the Sherpas are among the most skillful high-altitude mountaineers on Earth. ‘Buried in the Sky’ delves deep into the history, culture, and grim economic reality of the native climbers upon whom many Himalayan expeditions are entirely dependent.

Padoan was moved to write the book by her friendship with Karim Meherban, a Pakistani climber who was killed on the mountain and whose death, at 30, was largely overlooked by the media. Meherban had once carried her gear on an expedition. With his death, says Padoan, “I realized that I had something to carry for him. I was feeling the weight of his story.” []

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