LOS ANGELES — A lot of stories have been told about mountaineering and the Sherpa guides who literally carry people and supplies up and down the mountains.
Many of these stories just haven't accurately told the Sherpa's perspective — until now.
"Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2's Deadliest Day " (W.W. Norton & Company, $26.95) is a new book dedicated to getting out the supporting characters' stories, which are often overshadowed by accounts of the climbers, many of whom are Westerners and their views.
"This is one of the most extraordinary stories," said co-author Amanda Padoan. "There's been press about the Sherpas. They've been honored for this but largely because they saved Westerners."
Padoan believes they deserve better. Their accounts go beyond the cliche.
Padoan was at home on bedrest in August 2008 when word came that 11 experienced climbers had died within a 27-hour period on the world's most dangerous peak, K2 in Pakistan. She decided to tell the story not only of how the two Sherpas made it back down alive, but how they survive poverty and political turmoil to become skilful mountaineers. These guides retain their compassion for others in desperate, dangerous circumstances that turned others into cold-hearted survivalists.
Padoan and her cousin, Peter Zuckerman, started on a series of trips and intensive interviews to get the details. They hired translators and spent long hours breaking through the cultural barriers to get truth.
"We felt so strongly about this story. We were begging for frequent flyer miles and whatever help we could get to pay for trips to Pakistan. We knew if we missed this opportunity, we would always regret it," Padoan said. "I wonder if I'll ever find a story like this again."
In the end, family and friends of the mountaineers were supportive and helpful, telling their stories through tears with "literally no resistance," she said. No one else had really tried to get the real story out.
Thus, two guides, Chhiring Dorje and Pasang Lama come to life in their story of incredible risk and amazing heroism as Chhiring rescues a stranded Pasang who has given up his ice ax to support a lifeline for strangers.
They descend a treacherous mountain in darkness, surviving a climb down that includes a nine-story free-fall drop down the ice.
The story is gripping, made the more so by the truth in the details that the authors supply — details about what happens when a climber takes off his mountain goggles in sub-zero temperatures, and what occurs in the body when there's simply not enough oxygen and the blood pools in the vital organs.
The authors build the background story piece by piece, so the two heroes become our well-known friends by the time they take part in this tragic climb.
She includes the details about their lives, about the various missions attempting to climb K2 and about what's happened to mountaineering in Pakistan and China as "crowds" come to summit the impossible peaks.
It makes for an absorbing book that goes beyond the typical mountaineering tale.
There are passages that haunt: "For two stories, Dren slid. His crampons (the spiked plates on boot bottoms) snagged a rock and spun him around like the second hand of a clock. When he had turned a full 180 degrees on his stomach, his leg released and he took a nosedive down the Bottleneck. His helmeted head crunched into a rock ramp, launching him into the air. Somersaulting, he plunged another 10 stories and smacked into a spongy mound of snow, off-route.
"Above him, the mountaineers froze. It happened so fast that some barely saw it. Stunned, Chhiring watched Dren's legs squirm, sticking out of the snow."
The authors expose some of what happens when climbers become exhausted, delirious and sick to the point where they lose their sense of basic humanity. In one instance, a freezing, desperately ill climber is turned out by one group after his poorly pitched tent is ripped to shreds by the wind.
In another, mountaineers asked for help along a portion of a climb but others pass by without getting involved.
By contrast, there are heroes like Chhiring and Pasang who risk their lives for others, even when it seriously hurts their own chances for survival.
The book is mesmerizing and teaches the reader about the Sherpa culture and social structure, and the land itself.
If you go ...
What: Presentation with author Amanda Padoan, climber Eric Meyer and Sherpa Chhiring Dorje
When: Monday, June 25, 7 p.m.
Where: Salt Lake City Public Library, 210 E. 400 South, Salt Lake City
Sharon Haddock is a professional writer with 35 years experience, 17 at the Deseret News. Her personal blog is at sharonhaddock.blogspot.com.
Email: [email protected]