There are a lot of books about mountaineering disasters, but few center on people with stories like Chhiring Sherpa’s. Buried in the Sky (W.W. Norton & Company, 304 pages, $26.95) is Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan’s attempt to bring perspectives like Sherpa’s to prominence.
Sherpa is a professional Nepali climber who was on K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, on its deadliest day. Several books, some of them firsthand accounts, tell the stories of the 11 people who died out of 38 who struggled to summit K2 on Aug. 1, 2008. But those books mostly concentrated on people from the developed world who paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to test their mettle, not the Pakistani and Nepali men who help others achieve their triumphs, risking their own lives for four-figure sums. One Italian survivor’s book even misspells the name of the Nepali guide who saved his life.
Zuckerman and Padoan tell the story from the perspective of Sherpa, who inched himself down the most dangerous part of the route with a man strapped to his back as the mountain crumbled under him.
Zuckerman, a former reporter for The Oregonian, and Padoan do an admirable job, starting in a tiny Sherpa village where people believe K2 is inhabited by an angry god who regards climbing the peak as sacrilege. The authors try to explain why these people send their sons to tangle with the peak anyway, because there’s no other way to make money. For even more context, the authors delve into the history and culture of the Sherpa and Bhote people, who provide most of Nepal’s guides. They do the same for the valley of Shimshal, the cradle of the top Pakistani climbers.
In the process, Buried in the Sky revisits not just the K2 tragedy but the entire history of Himalayan exploration through the lens of the oft-forgotten guides. All of this feels integral by the time Sherpa starts climbing.
With all that has been written about the disaster on K2, when Buried in the Sky sticks to retelling the events, it reads as merely boilerplate. Only when Sherpa recalls his experiences from a spiritual perspective does the climb feel fresh. Buried in the Sky’s biggest surprise and ultimate triumph: By the end, the reader cares more about the inner life of Chhiring Sherpa than his adventures on top of one of the world’s most dangerous mountains.
GO: Peter Zuckerman speaks at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., on Wednesday, June 13. 7:30 pm. Free.