IN AUGUST 2008, while Zuckerman reported on the suburbs, some 6,500 miles away disaster struck on K2. Having waited all summer for a clearing in the weather, a number of international expeditions decided to pool their resources and attempt to summit together. Mishaps and miscommunications slowed their ascent. (The Western climbers failed to realize that their Nepali and Pakistani porters spoke different languages.) Ignoring standard safety practices, they pushed to the summit perilously late in the day. As night fell, many of the climbers got lost in the dark. Exhausted and oxygen-deprived, several spent one and even two nights in the high-altitude Death Zone trying to find their way down. After cases of abandonment and of extreme heroism and sacrifice, particularly by the sherpas, the final death toll hit 11.
Zuckerman’s cousin, Amanda Padoan, watched the catastrophe unfold from San Diego. An avid climber, she had previously scaled nearby Broad Peak with one of the sherpas who died on K2. “He had carried a lot of my gear up the mountain,” she says. “And I was starting to feel the weight of his story, so I wanted to write about the expedition from his perspective.” Still nursing her infant son, she approached Zuckerman in late December. Having been childhood writing partners, they decided to rekindle the relationship: she’d provide the mountaineering knowledge, and he’d do the in-the-mountains reporting. Four weeks later, he took leave from the Oregonian and boarded a plane. (The timing worked well in another way: the revelation of Adams’s relationship three years before with a young man named Beau Breedlove made working in the newsroom awkward for all.)
“PETER FLIRTS WITH THE WHOLE WORLD. NO MATTER WHERE HE IS, HE TALKS TO YOU LIKE YOU’RE THE MOST INTERESTING PERSON AND AS IF YOU HAVE A STORY TO TELL NO ONE ELSE COULD.” —POYNTER INSTITUTE MEDIA ETHICIST KELLY MCBRIDE
As Zuckerman expanded the scope of the book to include all of the Nepali sherpas involved, as well as the Pakistani porters, he quickly discovered there’s reason beyond lingering imperialistic disregard that few writers include their perspectives: sherpas are incredibly difficult to track down. Many live in remote villages, speak different languages, come from rival ethnicities trying to pass themselves off as the Sherpa ethnicity (which lends its name to the sherpa job description), and are named after the day of the week they were born, meaning thousands share the same name. After several weeks, Zuckerman found Chhiring and Pasang, who in turn led him on multiweek treks to meet other K2 sherpas, including several of Pasang’s cousins.
On the trek back from Pasang’s isolated village, in a region forbidden to foreign journalists because of Maoist violence, they came across a small stump of a man selling the legendary caterpillar fungus yarsagumba (or “Himalayan Viagra”). Claiming it had miraculous properties, his guides insisted they try it. No one expected the ensuing psychedelic journey, which they blamed on a bad batch. Just as they started to sober up three days later, the vintage Soviet helicopter of questionable air-worthiness that Padoan sent found them, and the corkscrewing return to Kathmandu became its own bad trip.
Later, tracking down the Pakistani high-altitude porters was a different challenge. Although he could reach their villages by jeep, Zuckerman, on this trip joined by Padoan (who went back several times for further reporting), was often within earshot of Taliban rockets and warnings of locals who freely said Daniel Pearl caused his own death by traveling to the area as a Jew—almost as dangerous as being gay. (In conversation, the Jewish Zuckerman called himself Catholic and “Sam” quickly became “Samantha.”)
While Padoan calls her collaborator’s reporting courageous, Zuckerman himself prefers to focus on the book’s central question: What if you were the climber with the ax in the cliffhanger? Would you have done what most everybody else did on the ice wall and passed by the axless stranger? Or would you have hooked him onto you—knowing that if he fell, you would, too?
“Some of the Western climbers were hostile to the idea of giving sherpas credit on the same level as Western climbers,” says Zuckerman, who gets incensed at the overt yet often unconscious racism of the industry. “But when you fail to see the complete story, you fail to learn from it. When your life hangs by a knot, you need to know who tied it. When you’re putting together a team, you need to know whether these people speak the same language. The sherpas of every story matter because our lives depend on them, whether we know it or not.”
Zuckerman will speak at Powell’s on June 13 at 7:30.
Buried in the Sky
Peter Zuckerman & Amanda Padoan
Watch Zuckerman’s May appearance on the Rachel Maddow Show below: