Writer Amanda Padoan and mountaineer Chhiring Dorje Sherpa share tale of K2 disaster
By Melanie Wong
Photo special to SneakPEAK
Caption: Chhiring Dorje Sherpa, the hero of the book "Buried in the Sky," stands on the summit of K2 in 2008. Hours later he would find himself fighting for his life to get off the mountain alongside another sherpa, Pasang Lama. Chhiring Dorje Sherpa will speak at the Bookworm on June 19.
Meet the author
Who: Author Amanda Padoam talks about her book “Buried in the Sky,” with guests Chhiring Dorje Sherpa and Eric Meyer.
When: Tuesday, June 12 at 6 p.m.
Where: The Bookworm of Edwards
Cost: $10 per person
On August 1, 2008, Amanda Padoan was at home in bed, intently watching media coverage of one of the deadliest alpine disasters in recent history.
Across the world on the Himalayan peak K2, the second highest mountain in the world, 11 men from seven countries were dead in 27 hours.
The disaster immediately gained worldwide attention as the carnage unfolded. Massive chunks of ice near the summit had cracked and cascaded downward, ripping out the fixed lines the climbers counted on to descend and stranding a number of people in the “death zone,” the inhospitable area above 26,000 feet.
For Padoan, the tragedy hit close home. Her friend, a Pakistani porter named Karim Meherban, was one of the 11 who died on the mountain. Her ensuring search for what happened on the mountain unearthed stories of heroism and bravery that are now mountaineering legend.
Three years after the K2 disaster, Padoan and her cousin, journalist Peter Zuckerman, published “Buried in the Sky,” a book that follows the lives of two sherpas, Chhiring Dorje Sherpa and Pasang Lama. While from vastly different backgrounds, the two men's paths intersected that day on K2, when Chhiring found Pasang stranded on an ice wall, without an axe, waiting to die. Knowing it would probably mean death for both of them, Chhiring tethered himself to Pasang, and performed an unbelievable and harrowing rescue.
Chhiring will tell his story firsthand when he visits The Bookworm of Edwards on Tuesday, June 12 at 6 p.m., accompanied by Padoan and Eric Meyers, a Steamboat physician who treated the K2 survivors.
SneakPEAK caught up with Padoan at the beginning of her current book tour to chat about climbing, what makes a real hero and the wrath of mountain goddesses.
SneakPEAK: This book retells the story of a well-known event, but focuses on a story that wasn't previously publicized. Why did you choose to tell the story of these two sherpas?
Amanda Padoan: There have been many books written about Westerners in the Himalayas. No one else has written about the high-altitude porters from Pakistan (like Pasang). As far sherpas (like Chhiring) go, there are three or four other books about them, but they’ve been mountaineering for hundreds of years. It's amazing how little there is written about them.
(After the K2 disaster,) I didn’t know the details of what happened immediately. When they listed the victims, they didn’t even name the porters and sherpas by name. I got really frustrated over the next months reading the media coverage. You start writing letters to the editor, and you get to the point where you don’t get responses and think, “I want to write a book.”
SP: So how did you end up partnering up with your cousin to write this and what did that process look like?
AP: I had just had a baby and couldn't leave, so I did a cold call to Peter and told him, “I really want to write this book, but can’t because I have this baby. Will you go to the Himalayas for me?” So Peter went and did the first interviews.
Later, I left my baby and went to Kathmandu. My first interviews were with the wives of the men who didn’t survive. One of the wives lived in a plywood shack with rice sacks for furniture. She had a baby two days before her husband (a sherpa) died. Despite how our lives were so different, I really connected with her, and we sat there crying together.
SP: There's some in-depth reporting in this book, tracking down family members and survivors in Nepal and Pakistan. What were some of the biggest challenges?
AP: Overall, we made seven trips to Nepal and two trips to Pakistan. The toughest thing is that you need an interpreter for the rare languages. There were 14 languages we had to work with for this book. Also, some people lived in very remote places – some villages took two-week treks to get there.
SP: How did you get into mountaineering yourself?
AP: I was always a rock climber. I used to spend every weekend since I was 12 climbing in Joshua Tree. Then I climbed Denali and realized I loved the high mountains.
My brother, who was a mountaineer, passed away at 23 and that just unhinged me to the extreme. He always wanted to climb Broad Peak, so I shaved my head and bought a ticket to Kathmandu and left a note for my mother telling her not to worry. I spent half a year in the Himalaya and Karakoram (mountain ranges) trying to make sense of my brother's death. Karim Meherban was a porter when I climbed Broad Peak (a 26,240-foot ascent near K2) and he reminded me of my brother. He was always taking care of me; his smile was like my brother's and he really wanted to climb K2, like my brother.
When I heard he died on K2 four years later, it really upset me.
SP: Tell us about the hero of your book, Chhiring, whom readers will get to meet at the Bookworm event.
AP: Chhiring and his wife are both heroes of the book (both will be at the Tuesday event). He is a 12-time Everest summiter and one of the strongest mountaineers in the world, who pulled off this mind-blowing rescue.
He said what was going through his mind and kept him going down the mountain was visualizing his wife's face. When he found Pasang, Chhiring said, “Of course I have to do this.” It's the Buddhist concept that you have to acquire merit from the deity of K2. To be where they were was trespass – a violation of sacred space – and he knew she was watching his every move and you have to act well, because she has influence on your future reincarnation. So Chhiring knows he has to do the right thing.
That said, other people had already passed Pasang by – Chhiring just had to help someone who was in need.
Pasang told him, “We’ll both die,” and Chhiring says to this man who is a virtual stranger, “Well, brother, we die, we die together.”
He really is just exceptional. I've never encountered a hero like him.