Since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s groundbreaking ascent of Mount Everest 60 years ago, sherpas have been a part of western lore. But rarely are their stories, history and lives given full attention. That’s what authors Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan aim to do in their book Buried in the Sky.
The book illuminates the stories of “high-altitude porters” who serve as crucial support personnel for alpine expeditions carried out by some of the world’s most famous and daring explorers. The book explains that these specialized individuals are known as both Sherpas and sherpas, the first of whom are a people from a cultural region, while the latter term is associated with an individual’s role or job on an expedition. In either case, both guide teams of explorers, recreational climbers and scientists through some of the harshest and most unforgiving environments on the planet. The Sherpas are native to the Himalayan region and often live in neighboring countries like Pakistan and Nepal. Sherpas not only provide local knowledge of climbing routes and environmental conditions, but also provide the physical labor required to haul vital equipment and supplies up the frozen slopes.
“The sherpas do most of the heavy lifting in big mountaineering expeditions,” said Zuckerman during an interview with Dave Miller on Think Out Loud.
“They schlep up the gear, set the tents, they establish the route, they fix the lines, they catch their clients when they fall, they rescue them, they take the photos that run in all the newspapers of the person on the summit — they do all of the most difficult and dangerous mountaineering.”
Buried in the Sky focuses on a 2008 disaster, when 11 climbers from around the world died near the summit of K2. It’s the second-highest mountain in the world, after Everest, and known as one of the deadliest. Seven of the climbers who died that day came from wealthy countries like France, Italy and South Korea. Four of the other victims were on the job: two sherpas from Nepal and two high-altitude porters from Pakistan.
Zuckerman cites the multinational language barrier as a major component of the expedition’s downfall. Among the entire group, there were few people who could communicate with everyone. Even amongst the sherpas themselves, those of Pakistani origin could not communicate with those from Nepal and even amongst the Nepali themselves, there were colloquial language barriers.
“Literally [the climbers] didn’t know the people who were tying the knots that they were hanging from,” noted Zuckerman.
“History is usually told through the eyes of the kings and Columbuses, not from the perspective of the help,” he continued. “Mountaineering shows that when your life hangs from a knot, you need to know who tied it. When you’re telling a story, what you fail to learn because you don’t talk to people with crucial perspectives can actually lead to a disaster.”