By Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan
After weeks of bad weather, 22 climbers from various multinational expeditions were poised at K2’s Camp 4 to make a summit attempt on Aug. 1, 2008. A lethal combination of overcrowding, inexperience, avalanches and exhausted night descents turned what should have been a day of triumphs into tragedy.
Ultimately, 11 people lost their lives, making it the single deadliest day of climbing on K2.
Much like Jon Krakauer’s book, Into Thin Air, about the events that killed eight people on Mount Everest on May 10 and 11, 1996, Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan tell a harrowing tale of the ills of modern mountaineering.
What sets BURIED IN THE SKY apart from most books on mountaineering is their focus on the high-altitude porters (HAPs), commonly and not always accurately called Sherpas, who make Himalayan climbing expeditions possible.
K2 is nearly 800 feet shorter than Mount Everest, but is considered the world’s second most deadly mountain after Annapurna. Of the roughly 300 climbers who have reached the top of K2, one out of four died on the way down. The route to the summit involves crossing a complicated glacier, ascending steep sections of rock, getting through the Bottleneck, a narrow rock chimney dominated by a glacier prone to dropping fractured blocks of ice on climbers.
The HAPs helping climbers reach a summit have often summited two, three or more times and are experienced mountaineers. While some climb as equal partners with expedition climbers — much like Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary, who first summited Mount Everest — others have more limited support roles such as carrying supplies and setting up tents.
In 2008, when an opportunity to summit opened up, the leaders of the various Serbian, South Korean, Italian, Norwegian, Dutch and American expeditions met to develop a plan to allow all the teams to efficiently work as a single team. The plan called for the HAPs to begin fixing ropes on the summit route before midnight on July 31 so the climbers could begin climbing at 3 a.m. The South Korean team agreed that they also would help fix the ropes.
The plan turned out to be as fragile as tissue paper in a blizzard. The various teams spoke different languages and communication was fragile at times. The HAPs, coming from Tibet, Nepal and Pakistan, spoke a variety of dialects. Only the veteran Shaheen Baig knew enough of each to be able to translate. The teams had varying degrees of experience levels as well. The South Korean team was less experienced than the others.
One of the worst mistakes of the day was when the ropes were fixed too close to Camp 4 and ran out just above the Bottleneck. The need to move the lower ropes to where they were needed most caused climbers to be delayed in the Bottleneck.
The first fatality of the day came when Serbian climber Dren Mandic unclipped his rope from the fixed lines to let other climbers pass and lost his balance and fell. The second occurred when porter Jehan Baig, helping to rescue Mandic’s body, but apparently suffering from altitude sickness, lost his footing, let go of a rope and fell to his death.
The delay at the Bottleneck meant that climbers were reaching the summit at 3 p.m., 5 p.m. and even 8 p.m., nearly 16 hours after leaving Camp 4. As the sun set and the climbers tried to make their way back through the Bottleneck, a massive slab of ice cracked off the glacier. It swept away Norwegian Rolf Bae and wiped out the fixed ropes guiding climbers downward. Cecile Skog, Bae’s wife, and fellow Norwegian Lars Flato Nessa made it to Camp 4, but others were trapped overnight in the “death zone” above 26,000 feet. Three Korean climbers were stranded in a tangle of ropes and died.
The HAPs were particularly vulnerable in this situation. In a poor country where survival is a struggle, the wages a HAP can earn can keep entire families afloat financially. The pressure and competition to make summits and assure that clients make the summit is intense. An inexperienced client can order a HAP with more experience and mountain knowledge to take actions that compromise safety. The HAP has little choice except be fired or obey orders.
When Shaheen Baig came down with altitude sickness and returned to Base Camp, the HAPs no longer had a way to communicate with each other. Four of those who died on K2 that day were HAPs.
This book is a vivid and sensitive portrait of the mountain, modern mountain climbing and the varied local people who make the climbs possible.
The Authors: Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan
Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan are cousins. He is one of the youngest journalists to receive the Livingston Award. She has climbed throughout the Karakorum and Himalaya and is a contributor to ExplorersWeb, a mountaineering news source.
The Livingston Awards are funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the University of Michigan “to support the vital role of a free and independent press, the awards bolster the work of young reporters, create the next generation of journalism leaders and advance civic engagement around powerful storytelling.”