The two men were not related and only knew each other through their common occupation as high-altitude porters and climbing guides on the highest peaks in the Himalayan and Karakorum mountain ranges.
In August 2008, Chhiring Dorje Sherpa, a Sherpa from the Rolwaling Valley in Nepal, and Pasang Lama, a native Bhote from the village of Hungung on the Tibetan border, met as part of a seven-team international effort to summit K2.
Straddling the borders of China and Pakistan, K2, at 28,251 feet, is the world’s second highest but by far most dangerous peak.
The climbers were not even on the same team, as Chhiring was working for Americans and Pasang for South Koreans.
The ill-fated expedition that summer would see 11 climbers die within 27 hours in the deadliest single disaster in the history of K2.
Called “The Savage Mountain” by climbers, before 2008K2had killed about one in four climbers who had attempted to summit her, versus the fatality rate on Everest (29,029 feet) of about 0.7 percent.
At midnight on Aug. 1, Chhiring was in the thick of the tragic story, attempting descent after summiting K2 too late in the afternoon to afford a safe climb down.
He was alone and hanging off the face of a cliff in the so-called Death Zone, areas at altitudes above 27,000 feet. The climber was trapped in the Bottleneck of K2, the deadliest stretch of the mountain where the route is only wide enough for a single-file line of climbers. Adding to the threat was the 30-story glacier hanging overhead that routinely releases seracs, or massive hunks of ice onto exposed climbers below.
With limited visibility on a black, moonless night and with a mind clouded by oxygen deprivation, Chhiring had only his ice ax to arrest his fall and prevent death.
Fixed rope lines had vanished, destroyed by falling ice.
Turning back was not an option.
He became aware of the presence of another soul: Pasang was below him, suspended from his harness.
Three hours earlier, Pasang had surrendered his ice ax to secure a rope line for more vulnerable climbers. After ascent, he had counted on rappelling down the mountain using fixed lines, which were now torn and buried.
Stranded, Pasang could not climb down without help. Mountaineers are supposed to be self-sufficient, so he expected no such help.
A Buddhist, Chhiring practiced compassion, attaching Pasang to the Sherpa’s harness by a safety tether.
Sometimes holding hands, the two men descended in the same rhythm, maneuvering around cracks, dips and bulges.
When a rock or chunk of ice knocked Pasang on the head, they tore downward together, sliding faster and faster.
Repeated tries to catch his blade in the snow and rock failed, but Chhiring finally slammed his ax blade in an area that would hold them both.
They were saved, becoming two of the high-altitude porter survivors in the disaster.
Thus begins the prologue to a truly thrilling book that chronicles this dramatic period in mountaineering history: “Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day,” by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan.
The authors, who are cousins, break ground by telling the story not from the perspective of the Western climbers, but from the perspective of the Sherpa and Pakistani climbers who scout the routes, tie the lines, and guide climbers through the oxygen-deprived heights of the Death Zone.
Jamling Tenzing Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who made the first summit of Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary on May 29, 1953, commented on the book in a press release: “An informative and inspirational book—I couldn’t put it down. I am proud to know of the determination and loyalty of the Sherpa climbers and their tireless efforts to risk their lives for the other climbers.”
Published in June of this year, Padoan is promoting the book with a visit to Flagstaff.
She will be traveling with the main hero of the book, Chhiring Dorje Sherpa, and the two will appear Saturday evening at the Flagstaff Climbing Center on South San Francisco Street.
Padoan lives in Los Angeles and writes for the mountaineering news site Explorersweb.com. Her cousin, Zuckerman, is an award-winning journalist who lives in Portland, Ore.
“I’m a member of the Explorers Club and the Southwest chapter of the Explorers Club kindly invited us to Flagstaff,” Padoan explains in an e-mail. “We’re psyched to be coming to town!”
Padoan says she was inspired to write the book in memory of a friend, Karim Meherban, who died in the 2008 K2 tragedy while serving on the French team.
From the Shimshal Valley in Pakistan, he had once carried her gear on an expedition. Like many porters who work for desperately needed income for their families, Meherban’s story and death at 30 was largely overlooked by the media. The porters are also mistreated sometimes by their employers, the Western climbers who can afford the very expensive expeditions.
The authors spent two years researching the story, conducting interviews around the world with survivors of the climb, including in Nepal and Pakistan where they trekked to remote villages to meet the families of high-altitude climbers.
In the author’s note in their book, Zuckerman notes the importance of learning the mountaineering story from the porter point of view: “Many climbing accounts describe a death-defying struggle up fixed lines. But how did those ropes get there? Who performed the rescues? When your life hangs from a knot, it helps to know who tied it.”
The two authors take the reader inside the teams that united to struggle up the mountain on that ill-fated day, following them to base camp, up the mountain and to their dramatic encounters in the Death Zone.
In the process, the authors unravel the poor decisions and bad luck—linguistic misunderstandings, inadequate supply of rope, ethnic rivalries, howling “ghost winds,” over-confidence and naked ambition—that led to disaster.
All of the deaths on K2 are chronicled in the book, but two of the saddest are those of “Big” Pasang Bhote and Jumik Bhote, cousins who worked with another cousin, Pasang Lama, on the South Korean K2 Abruzzi Spur Flying Jump team.
In a gut-wrenching narrative, Big Pasang succeeds in rescuing Jumik, who he short-ropes to him, just before they are both smashed by a violent avalanche.
Jumik never meets his baby, a son Jen Jen who is born July 29, the day before the summit bid that ultimately killed his father.
Padoan tells of visiting in Kathmandu the widows of Jumik and Big Pasang, Dawasangmu Bhote and Lahmu Bhote. “Dawasangmu was about 19 at the time,” recalls Padoan. “Three days before her husband was killed, she had given birth to a baby. The family couldn’t reach her husband on his sat phone so Jumik Bhote died without ever knowing his son’s name. The mountaineers’ struggle for survival was extraordinary, but the more quiet heroism of Dawasangmu and Lahmu is no less compelling to me.”
Padoan had given birth to her son Matteo about two weeks before Dawasangmu had given birth to her son, Jen Jen.
“During our first interview, I gave up trying to be a detached journalist,” she writes. “We were three nursing mothers, sitting on the dirt floor of a shanty, talking, crying, holding children. I couldn’t help but reflect. My son, Matteo, was born two weeks before Dawasangmu’s son, Jen Jen, yet under such different circumstances. I couldn’t help but feel how my comfortable life was all luck of the draw.”
The book “Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day,” is published by W.W. Norton & Company (June 11, 2012) and is available in hardcover for $26.95.
Sponsored by the Southwest chapter of the Explorers Club, author Amanda Padoan, with Chhiring Dorje Sherpa (a 12-time Everest summiter), will be giving a book lecture on Sat, Aug. 11 at 7 p.m., at Flagstaff Climbing Center (formerly Vertical Relief Climbing Gym), 205 S. San Francisco.
Padoan will also be speaking Wed, Aug. 15 at 7 p.m., at the Prescott Public Library, 215 E. Goodwin St.
Proceeds from the book and book lectures will go to the Gerard McDonnell Memorial Fund, a fund established to help support the families of the Sherpa climbers killed during the 2008 K2 disaster. Called “Ger,” McDonnell was the first Irishman to summit K2; he died attempting to rescue others during the descent on the August 2008 climb. For more info, see www.buriedinthesky.com or call 556-9909.
To read recent Flag Live cover story features, see www.flaglive.com/index.cfm?section=cover.
Additional photos for this story:
The Savage Mountain: The 28,251-foot K2 is the second highest mountain in the world, and one of the most deadly. The mountain has a one-in-four mortality rate. Photo by Lars Flato Nessa
A pre-summit bid group photo. Photo by Hoselito Bite
A shot from the K2 summit overlooking the vast Karakorum Range. Photo by Lars Flato Nessa
The infamous 30-story-high Bottleneck section of K2, which is only wide enough for a single-file line of climbers. Massive, unstable ice walls called seracs loom above. Photo by Iso Planic/Predrag Zagorac
Chhiring Dorje Sherpa helps treat survivor Marco Confortola for frostbite. Photo by Roberto Manni
A metal dinner plate used to memorialize the dead: Jehan Baig and Karim Meherban, both high-altitude porters, or HAPs, from Pakistan. Photo by Hoselito Bite
Another shot of the Bottleneck section, with the giant seracs dwarfing the climbers who move as quickly as possible. Photo by Chris Klinke