The idea of spending months, even years, preparing oneself and acclimatizing to extreme altitudes just to endure the agony of climbing the world’s tallest mountains for a chance to summit and stand at the top of the world. Once you accomplish that, you still have to make it back down the same treacherous path before you run out of oxygen, or your body produces a blood clot, or before Mother Nature works against you. All of this so that you can tell the tale of the limits that you pushed your body to and conquered a mountain. I can think of several different places to spend my time and money on, but for some this is the ultimate challenge and there is no other place to be.
Buried in the Sky is interesting, but hard to read for a couple of reasons. I am not a mountaineer on any level, but the authors of this book clearly have climbing experience. Right out of the first chapter, I felt a little disconnected from the characters in the story because of this. The book also jumps around a little throughout the first half, each chapter giving a background on each of the main Sherpas – Pemba, Chhiring, Pasang, Karim, Jehan. The authors meticulous research is evident in the first half of the book, shedding light on how remote and isolated each village that the Sherpas come from, as well as how limited the touch of Westerners and our cultures are in the mountains of Nepal are. Rough dirt roads that are seasonally operational; villages that move according to the seasons; phone lines are as rare as money; the food, clothes, and shelter that families have are hand made, not shipped in. Cultures and customs are deeply rooted, as are beliefs in the gods and goddesses that live in the surrounding mountains.
The backgrounds and individual stories all lead up to August 2, 2008, the deadliest day on K2. In total, eleven men lose their lives on the ‘Savage Mountain’. Readers experience the brutal and unrelenting conditions of not only the mountain, but also the greed of the mountaineering companies hired to get any climber to the summit no matter their climbing experience. Once I got to the second part of the book, the story moved along much quicker. Climbers camped at a base camp, at about 18,00 ft., for several weeks waiting for the weather to clear in order to make an attempt for the summit, which is at 28, 251 ft. While there, low-altitude porters (LAP) make a week-long trek from the nearest town to base camp running supplies to the climbers. High-altitude porters (HAP), usually with the title of Sherpa or Bhote, make the climb to the summit with the clients, and many times are not allowed to actually reach the summit with their client. Things like generators, food, water, stoves, coolers, mountain gear, tents are all carried by the porters. The porters and clients do not usually eat, sleep, or spend time together. One climber says, “It felt a lot like separate but equal”.
So why would someone go through all of this to get someone else to the summit of a peak with the nickname ‘Savage Mountain’? Some of it is pride, but most of it is money. Expeditions pay good money, with bonuses to get clients to the summit and back. In Pakistan, one of the bordering countries where porters commonly come from, an average daily salary is $2.81. Low-altitude porters make about $9 a day, even more if they cash in their allowance for supplies like coats, sunglasses, and boots. They can also earn more money if the move fast, the more camps and bases they cover in a day or throughout the season, the more cash and possibility of securing a position in the next climbing season.
The events of early August on K2 are complicated, heartbreaking, and graphic. Ice chucks the size of cars tangle climbers, bash helmets, and tear away climbing ropes that are used to guide climbers up the treacherous terrain. An avalanche, possibly set off by the warm days and increased weight of numerous climbers, buries a few climbers and pummels others. Prolonged exposure to the altitude in the ‘death zone’ (above 26,247 ft.) and on the summit drained oxygen supplies and energy needed to descend. Climbers without the needed experience to take on K2 put other climbers and porters at risk with their slow climbing speed and poor decision-making in reaction to the situations on the mountain. Medical accounts describing what it would actually be like to be buried alive, to freeze to death, and to suffer from pulmonary edema will make any reader cringe at the thought of it. Some climbers even break a cardinal rule, which is to not go back up the mountain to rescue someone, and it adds to the already high number of fatalities on the mountain. And I still have to ask this question: Is climbing one of these high mountains worth the cost of a life? Not for me, but clearly for others.
Buried in the Sky is a hard book to read. The first half spends a lot of time covering backgrounds of the Sherpas and Bhotes involved, slowing down the pace for me. The second half moves very quickly and showcases the ferocity needed by climbers and the isolation of the mountain. The images and drawings throughout the novel make it much easier for a non-climber like me to visualize the terrain and routes taken, as well as put faces to the names of the climbers. Any mountaineer and person interested in nonfiction accounts of tragedy should pick this book up. As for me, I plan to stay closer to seas level.