Angering the mountain goddess
Special to the Daily
Everyone, whether a climbing buff or not, has heard of Mount Everest, the tallest point on Earth, and nearly everyone these days seems to have climbed it. Sitting remotely in the next mountain range over, seemingly jealous of the attention, is the second highest mountain, K2, also referred to as The Savage Mountain, which simultaneously lures and repels climbers, equally vindictive and ambivalent in its wrath.
Revered by both the locals who live in its shadow and climbers who fantasize about its flanks from afar, K2 has garnered a reputation as both a challenge and a killer. To get to its summit, it is not enough to pay the exorbitant fees, as on Everest, where one can then rely on highly trained guides to escort one to the top. Summiting K2 places one in a smaller honor society, one composed of skilled mountaineers with a determination to challenge themselves to the utmost, all while toying with death.
No matter how skilled K2 climbers are, though, the mountain consistently claims sacrifices, and she doesn’t discriminate. The famed Gilkey Memorial, a cairn of rocks that has been growing since it was lovingly dedicated in 1953, is the final resting place of many a climber, both Westerners and their porters, often the forgotten heroes in high-altitude climbing sagas.
To honor the souls of the unsung Sherpa climbers, author Peter Zuckerman, along with his cousin and climber Amanda Padoan, delves into the August day in 2008 when the mountain goddess Takar Dolsangma, mounted on her green dragon, flew forth from her cave on the flanks of K2, claiming the lives of 11 mountaineers, the most in K2 climbing history. In “Buried in the Sky,” Zuckerman writes clearly about the mountain’s history, as well as that day in 2008 that captured the world’s attention.
His account is exceptional not just for its clarity, but for its perspective, as well. The famed Sherpa, a term commandeered to define someone from the high reaches of the Himalayas, really describes an ethnicity of people with unique physical characteristics that make them well-suited for the grueling efforts required in the “Death Zone” (roughly 26,000 feet and above). The Sherpa are often overlooked in the annals of climbing history, and Zuckerman makes the two surviving Sherpa climbers of 2008 the focal point of his book. He brings in a geographical and historical framework that broadens the armchair enthusiast’s understanding of them and other dedicated Sherpa climbers, who have often carried Westerners and less experienced mountaineers into the history books.
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With building tension, “Buried in the Sky” inches toward the day of the disaster, when human errors were made and the mountain’s wrath was unleashed on the queue of climbers, who, against their better judgment, allowed their summit fever to overcome their reason, keeping them high on the mountain beyond their self-imposed turn-around times. The modern mountaineering problem of traffic jams on high, narrow ledges has increased the death toll on Everest, culminating in the 1996 disaster documented famously in Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air.” A similar situation led to the series of events that killed so many on that fateful August day on K2.
At a time when the sport of mountaineering is reaching further into the novice and inexperienced populace for victims, “Buried in the Sky” deftly reminds the reader that there truly are humans born to excel at such extreme altitudes, and many of those people have been ignored and robbed of their true places in the record books. Zuckerman accomplishes the extraordinary feat of redirecting the spotlight onto those without whom none of these lofty peaks could have been conquered, the Sherpas. Well-deserving of its many awards, “Buried In The Sky” is a must-read.
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