Climbing sports are having an extended moment.
Free Solo, the documentary about Alex Honnold’s scaling of Yosemite’s El Capitan, is the latest flowering of fascination with the dangerous and beautiful display of athleticism and courage. Into Thin Air, A personal account of the Mount Everest disaster is still selling strong 20 years after publication. It goes without saying that the thrill of climbing stories is that death is never far away.
This is a do or die story about a climber whose feats are among the greatest in the history of the sport. A mountain man whose resume includes 16 summits of Mount Everest, and whose bravery would be legendary if it were more widely known. But the star of this story is a modest and friendly and deeply spiritual man, whose proudest accomplishment by far, is that he has led nearly 50 excursions to the world’s most forbidding peaks, without losing a single client.
Chhiring Dorje Sherpa came to visit Canada for the first time a few weeks ago. We had the luck to hang out with him for a couple of days, and to pry a good yarn out of a living legend. Chhiring tells the story we seldom hear in Himalayan adventures, which is high-altitude climbing as seen by Nepalis.
He would not tell his own story like this, but there is no better way to learn about Chhiring than from his gut-wrenching experience in the midst of the deadliest day ever known on the notorious mountain K2. Eleven experienced mountaineers died in a series of disasters on Aug. 1 2008, many of them killed in sheer plunges into the abyss. Only 18 people climbed that day, making the death toll of 11, if possible, even more shocking.
K2, in the Pakistani Karakoram range, is the second highest peak on Earth, but it is infinitely more technically tricky and terrifying than Everest. Ascending K2 is a serious calling card for anyone seeking climbing fame, a sponsorship, or a top career in high-altitude work. More than 4,000 people have gone up and down Everest. Only 300 have survived K2. It is the deadliest peak on earth.
For Chhiring Dorje, who runs a Himalayan guiding business, adding K2 to his own resume could help him attract discerning clients. He knew it was risky, but he trusted his own climbing abilities. Chhiring’s beloved wife Dawa Phuti Sherpa was not in favour of the K2 ascent. There were tears before his departure. Chhiring was invited to join the American climbing team. For once, he was not to be a paid guide, helping and protecting others in their dream to reach peaks. This time, Chhiring was able to climb freely, according to his own ability.
Taking a toll
Even before anyone summited on the 2008 excursion, K2 was taking a toll. The advance climbers, those who were tasked with stamping a path through the climbing route, and fixing high ropes, were late to their work, and there was some disorganization among the teams. It all added up to a dangerously delayed bid for the summit. Getting to the Peak of K2 near or after 6 p.m., as the climbers were now committing to do, meant descending in total darkness.
A Serbian climber was first to die. He was killed in a fall on the way up, heading towards the nightmarish traverse known as the Bottleneck. A small international group decided to attempt to lower his body to camp four. A Pakistani climber fell to his death during that process.
Most of Chhiring’s team, assessing the situation, chose not to attempt the peak. Chhiring asked permission to summit. He needed the addition to his climbing CV. He had a business to run, a wife and two daughters waiting at home. He set out to finish climbing K2, looking after himself for the first time. He would also be climbing without using supplemental oxygen.
The bottleneck is by far the deadliest stretch of climbing on K2. The clearest way to picture it is as a steeply tilted field of glare ice. Sitting well into the death zone, at about 8,200 metres, and pitched at 60 degrees, the terrifying traverse is complicated by lying directly below a field of collapsing seracs. Crossing the bottleneck from side to side means 100 metres of creeping beneath frequent ice avalanches. There is no survival strategy for climbers caught in the path of these hurtling, city block-sized bombs of ice. When expeditions are going smoothly, fixed ropes guide and protect climbers as they cross this nail-biting feature. In the event of a slip, being clipped on a rope is all that spares a climber from a high-speed glissade to the edge of a sheer plunge into the void.
Chhiring safely gets to the peak of K2 at around 6:15 p.m., on Aug. 1 2008. Beneath him, a Norwegian climber who has already summitted, is killed on the descent. He dies in an icefall. Although Chhiring doesn’t know it, this Icefall also wipes out all the fixed ropes across the bottleneck. In the now complete darkness and freezing cold, the death toll begins to mount quickly. A French climber dies in a fall above the bottleneck. A Pakistani climber is hit and killed by another ice fall. An Irish climber and three Koreans are also all killed, swept away in the night by icefalls. Two Nepalese climbers, cousins, one of whom was ascending to help rescue the Irish and Korean climbers, also die in this last icefall.
Through this darkness, and chaos, and with the death toll now at 11 bodies, but understandable confusion reigning about who and where survivors might be, Chhiring Dorje Sherpa wakes from a nap. Exhausted from the altitude, exertion and cold, he has nodded off for a dangerous hour while perched on a ledge above the bottleneck. It is 10 p.m., pitch black, and he can see no one above or below him. He shouts the names of the two who were closest to him before he fell asleep. Passang Lama and Pemba Dorje. All around him is soft snow, and silence, and he thinks an avalanche has taken the two.
Chhiring looks around some more, and there is no more fixed rope. The avalanche must have taken away that lifeline. He is stuck. He says at that moment he sat down to do some more thinking. He remembers his wife was crying while he was packing his bag to come on this trip. He pictures his two daughters. He sees the rest of his family. He sees his mum, who he lost when he was just 12 years old. That was the beginning of the young man’s need to start climbing to make a living to help feed his family. He remembers thinking that his wife is right. K2 is too dangerous. Maybe I am not going to get back to see my family, he thinks. A penny drops. He says to himself: this is a good time to get moving. If I stay another hour here, I won’t be able to move anymore. Too dangerous.
Chhiring stands up again and starts walking, and now he has clarity. It dawns on him that if he has good luck, he sees his family again. If he has bad luck, it will be easy to die here.
At that moment, he slips, and with a whoosh he accelerates so fast that he is instantly 50-metres below the point where he lost his footing. Chhiring rolls onto his front and hacks his ice axe point down and hangs on. He comes to a gradual halt. So he looks around in the dark again from his new position. Still, nobody is moving. He starts trudging along again, and he comes across a rope, which he clips onto and keeps going. The rope brings him to the edge of the bottleneck, and then it stops dead.
No more rope. No safety rope, on the edge of the most dangerous traverse on the planet. He stops again and simply says “wow,” to himself. “What do I do now? I have no chance here. No rope. This is a very, very dangerous. What can I do?” He looks straight down. Below him he can see a thin white rope, descending. Stretched very taut.
He clips his jumar — a handheld ascending device — onto the rope. He looks down along the rope and now he can see two lights. Pemba and Passang are there! He shouts to them, asks them to loosen the rope and he descends to where they are.
The three of them compare notes. They are alive, but they have no rope. With a 500-metre rescue rope they could belay across the bottleneck, they would have a chance. Pemba has an ice axe. He proposes to keep descending and looking for rope. He leaves. There is no rope to be had, so he keeps descending.
Chirring and Passang are now left together on the edge of the bottleneck. Chirring says to Passang, it’s dangerous, but let’s go down. Passang tells him he doesn’t have an ice axe. He gave his to another climber in need because Passang thought he would be able to descend using the fixed ropes, but the ice fall has torn the ropes away. Passang is stuck. Without a miracle, he will die exactly where he is, on the edge of the bottleneck. Nobody is close enough on the mountain to help.
Chhiring does not hesitate. He short-ropes Passang to his own safety harness, and says let’s go down together. He proposes to chip his way along and belay them both with one ice axe. Passang says it is too dangerous, if he slips, it will be the end of them both. Chhiring convinces Passang with a few brutally brave words. “If we are lucky, we will both see our families again. If we have bad luck, we die together. Okay?”
So Chhiring hangs Passang below him on the short rope, and belays with one single ice axe. They set off across the ice wall. Through the dark and the cold, they start inching and chipping their way across and down this near vertical rink. They make it about 250 meters and Passang suddenly yells YOW! And the two of them are rocketing down the ice wall together. Again Chhiring pushes his ice axe towards the surface and lies on it as they accelerate. There is nothing else he can do.
Chirring thinks they are finished. That morning, exactly where they are now, he had seen a climber, with all the correct equipment, slip. In an instant the climber he had seen was gone — whoosh — falling to an immediate death.
Chhiring hears what he calls a very bad cracking sound. And they are stopped. His ice axe point has stuck in a tiny crack in the ice. So they are hanging together on the ice wall. They are both conscious. Chhiring begs Passang to chip his feet at the ice and make himself a secure step to stand on. Once Passang has done that, Chhiring kicks with his boots and makes two good points for his own feet. Once he has done that, and they are 100 per cent sure they are in a “secure” place, he digs out his ice axe. He swings and chips into another spot a bit further over, and they repeat the process.
Knack for understatement
Chhiring has a knack for understatement. As they pick their way across this treacherous surface, he recalls watching a movie which the famous climber Ed Viesturs has made, about his experience on K2. Chhiring and American team leader Eric Myers had watched it together and both thought, K2 is very scary! But here and now, Chhiring rescues Passang and himself by quietly thinking, “That movie was right! K2 is very scary!”
Chhiring’s actions that night are beyond rare. The Explorer’s Club, whose members were the very first to the North Pole, first to the South Pole, first to summit Mount Everest, first to the deepest point in the ocean, first to the moon, singled Chhiring Dorje Sherpa out for honorary membership. They also decorated him with the Tenzing Norqay award. Their official description of his actions were, “One of the most daring rescues in climbing history.” His story is at the core of Buried in the Sky: The Extraordinary Story Of The Sherpa Climbers On K2's Deadliest Day, by Peter Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan.
Chhiring is too respectful to shrug off the accolades, but he’s happy to move onto other topics. He has brought his family to live in Colorado, but he returns three times a year to his old home in the Rolwaling Valley in Nepal. Chhiring had barely any opportunity to attend school in his own childhood, so he has launched and sustains schools and cultural centres in the valley that was his childhood home. His climbing CV is certainly among the world’s greatest, but he is quiet about his accomplishments, including constructing a Buddhist shrine atop Mt Everest, which he did years after the K2 disaster.
Toward the end of Chhiring’s stay in Toronto, I asked him what he thought was different about Westerners’ relationship to mountains, compared to how Himalayan people see the peaks. I was fishing for him to say something about how climbing is sport for rich people, but it is dangerous work for Nepalis... or something spiritual, since Chhiring lives by a deeply Buddhist code. What I got was much more practical:
“All mountains are the same. Don’t think any mountain is small. If you think “small mountain” then they kill. “All over Colorado we have a lot of 14,000-foot mountains that are very dangerous. You need ropes, climbing gear, extra food. Never think you are safe because you are only climbing to 1,000 metres...”
For adventurous readers, Chhiring leads his next Everest climb in April 2019. Don't forget your ice axe.