Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The secret life of James

For those who haven't realized by now, mountain climbing tends to send me into Walter Mitty style fantasies. I know full and well that I will never summit an 8000+ meter mountain, but books about doing so, even the ones about the disasters that happen on them, makes me imagine what it would be like to do so.

With that in mind, I picked up Buried in the Sky by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan, which discusses the 2008 disaster above Camp 4 on K2. However, unlike some of the other books on the subject, written by survivors, this one is much more focused on the High Altitude Porters ("sherpas") that took people up and tried to get them down. Which is unusual, since one gets the impression from this book and others that the porters are generally considered pack mules and barely worthy of getting a picture taken of them at the summit.

So, for some background, K2 (aka Chhogori), lies on the Pakistan/China border and is the second highest mountain on Earth. Unlike Everest, the weather patterns aren't that predictable, making summit attempts more of a crapshoot than some of the other mountains. The two porters we get the most involved with (Chhiring and Pasang) share similar backgrounds, coming from really remote villages in Nepal and coming to Kathmandu to make money to support their families.

What came as a great surprise to me was how much detail the first half or so of the book spends on going into sherpa culture and the legends around the mountains themselves, in terms of Buddhist gods inhabiting them. (Everest's Goddess is one of fortune. K2's is one of blood sacrifice.) Sherpa is actually a clan/caste name that gets applied to any porter, although the clan Sherpas tend to look down at any other class that's trying to be a porter. (Like the Bhotse. But they all look down on the Muslim porters from Pakistan.)

Anyway, we eventually get to the climb. We hear about base camp, and how most of the porters look with disdain on the cairn to the fallen at the bottom, since it imprisons the souls of the dead instead of letting them fly free. We get the impression that most of them tend to look at the foreigners as decadent, although the money lets them overlook the worst of their sins.

They get about a 3 day window to climb and summit the mountain between storms. As such, the teams trying to ascend at the same time join forces and porters to lay ropes Problem being the one porter who can actually speak enough languages to communicate effectively with everyone gets sick at Camp 2 with a bad bacterial infection. Since he's also the only one on the mountain who's ever summited the mountain, this is also a very bad thing.

Most of the problems become well defined on summit day, as all groups try to get up past Camp 4 and through the Bottleneck traverse, which is prone to avalanches and is narrow enough that passage is single file, making the pace that of the slowest climber. The biggest issues to crop up are that the porters still functioning are used to Everest, where rope is used all the way up. K2 usually only gets ropes through the bad parts. As such, they run out of rope, and have to keep going back for more to get people up. Which further slows down the progress. With a turnaround time of 2PM, the first person to summit (who was free climbing ahead of almost everyone else) tops out at 3:30 PM. Which gets the rest of the summiters up there near dusk. Making for dangerous conditions climbing down in darkness. Particularly when the seracs above the Bottleneck start to calve, burying the ropes. Given they're in the "Death Zone", this gives people the choice of trying to bivouac in fatal conditions or trying to climb down in dangerous conditions.

11 people die from falling, avalanches, and exposure. One Porter, Karim, we get supposition on his fate, since no one';s particularly sure where he was, since he wondered off. There are a few photos taken from lower down the mountain that seem to suggest him in one place, but given high altitude tends to inspire hallucinations and most of the radio communication was static by this point....

We also learn of what it's like to suffocate under the snow and how best to survive if buried in one. Not that it helps, the climbers who get buried don't make it down.

It seems in the aftermath that everyone blamed everyone else for the disasters, but eventually things resolved themselves as best as could be expected. And Chhiring and Pasang lived with the consequences as best as they could and still climb the mountains.

It's ugly in several parts, but honestly, the background information presented on the folks who live in the area and the mythology that surrounds the mountains more than makes up for the nightmares of being buried in a glacier.