One mark of a terrific read is when I go down a rabbit hole online to read more about the subject and search to see if a documentary was made. This book met those criteria.
The subject is one of the worst climbing disasters in history on K2, the deadliest mountain range for high altitude climbers. The death toll is roughly 30%, so what drives climbers? I’m not sure, but one thing is certain, the Sherpa who accompany the foreign climbers do so because with a lack of opportunity in an area rife with political unrest and war, it’s the only way to lift them out of poverty, put food on the table and put their children through school.
This is not just another climbing disaster book. The authors do a fantastic job introducing readers to the culture, beliefs and customs of the ethnic Sherpas. We follow two, Chhiring and Pasang from their childhood to the fateful climb in the summer of 2008, and we meet their families. I particularly appreciated that we were given the story through a Sherpa’s perspective, giving them recognition and a voice in a sport that typically highlights the Western climbers who gain fame and fortune through corporate sponsors. Sherpas make the climbs possible, doing much of the laying of the lines and the heavy work.
In 2008 eighteen climbers started out, but only 7 survived. The factors that led to such a devastating loss of life are varied and still the subject of some controversy. One thing for certain is that it was not just one thing that went wrong, it was a perfect storm of circumstances, timing, and poor decisions. Failing to adhere to the turn-around time, necessitating a climb down from the summit at night, and a falling serac (a block of glacier ice) which destroyed the lines needed played a major role.
The facts of what happened in this disaster are thoroughly and painstakingly recounted and it was riveting reading. The details of the grueling climb, the effects on the human body, the reach to the summit and the disasters and dangers during the descent kept me glued to the page, as if I was right there beside them. As in all disasters, there are true heroes depicted.
The question that Marialyce and I had as we read was mostly “WHY?” But then we are both missing the ‘danger gene’ and are more couch potato than adrenaline junkie.
I finished this book with sadness for the lives that were lost, but also with a newfound understanding and admiration for the Sherpas.
Surely to climb mountains is a great aspiration for some. It takes preparation, stamina, strength, and a will to conquer what others have tried but few have succeeded in doing. It also involves the overhanging threat of death.
K2 is the second highest mountain on Earth, with an elevation of 28, 251 feet. It is also the second most dangerous mountain, a claim made by many climbers. On August 1, 2008, climbers from various teams around the globe were about to climb this treacherous mountain. They had prepared for the conditions they would face or so they thought. There are many obstacles facing the men and one woman, altitude sickness, oxygen deprivation, weather, the falling of seracs (,a pinnacle or ridge of ice on the surface of a glacier.) and of course avalanches. Assisted by Sherpas and high-altitude porters, the group prepares to head out. Along the way there are four camps for them to acclimatize themselves to and so the ten groups after waiting two months for good weather travel out to achieve their goal.
Time is of the essence and to start their issues, the groups head out later than anticipated. As the wonderful Sherpas head out at midnight to fix lines for the climbers, the most experienced Sherpa, Shaheen Baig has to go back down because he is suffering high altitude sickness (vomiting, tiredness, confusion, headaches and dizziness). His absence will be sorely missed as he was the only one to have previously climbed K2 and was able to communicate in the various languages that the climbers and their team spoke. It seemed like a foretelling of disaster. However, continue they did and after some issues involving which side to climb, they continued along unknowing that the rope lines had been laid out too soon, and they eventually ran out of rope. They were at the dead zone an area that contained the infamous Bottleneck where there was room for just one person at a time. So, at 3pm, a time that was surely too late, they set out. Delayed by having to climb back down to retrieve the rope previously used, more time was lost.
Soon, the deaths would begin. At this point two climbers fell Mandic and Baig when Mandic unlocked himself to let another climber go before him, he lost his balance and fell more than 300 feet. In a rescue attempt that ultimately failed, Jehan Baig, suspected of having high altitude sickness fell to his death. The mountain had claimed two people so far.
For the rest, the summit is reached much later than safety would require, and them they were required to climb in the dark. Disaster struck again as a serac fell cutting all the fixed lines leaving the area more treacherous than it originally was. The choice was to descend in the dark with no lines or spend the night in the dead zone.
The next morning, another serac falls, leaving the Korean team entrapped by their ropes hanging. Although some tried to rescue them, it was a futile effort, and the mountain claimed more lives. Another serac and an avalanche was to fall missing a climber by inches. He later found the remains of another climber.
Meanwhile some Sherpas went back up the mountain to try and assist those who remained. It was a futile effort as another serac and avalanche descended sweeping four men to their deaths.
In all, eleven climbers lost their lives attempting to conquer the mountain, while the others were injured losing toes to frostbite, hurt seriously trying to follow their passion of climbing the world’s most dangerous mountain.
In this book, we are given details, some of which are murky from survivors’ remembrances of this fatal adventure. Jan and I read this book, and questioned as to why anyone would want to do such a thing. This driving compulsion to climb, to place their life on the line, to challenge nature, to be one of the over three hundred who have summited this mighty mountain. Was it worth the risk, exposing one’s body and mind to subzero temperatures with death sitting on your shoulders. I guess only a mountain climber could answer that question.
What should never be neglected is gratitude and recognition for the Sherpas and high-altitude porters for without their unfailing courage, the climbs would not be possible. They are a special people raised in higher altitude conditions with an exceptional respect for their gods and goddesses who they feel dwell in these mountains. They risk life and limb for what to us seems little pay so that their families can live a better life than the poor lives many have in front of them.
This is an amazing story, scary grisly at times which points to the fact that people will always do the things that call to them, no matter the risks involved, or the death that may await them at the next step they take.