Former Just Out intern turned award-winning journalist, Peter Zuckerman, is now the co-author of the best-selling BURIED IN THE SKY: The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Climbers on K2’s Deadliest Day. The book was recently nominated for the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award. Men’s Journal called it a “work of obsessive reporting.” More honors are no doubt on the horizon.
Zuckerman and Amanda Padoan tell the gripping story of the tragic 2008 climb of K2 in which 11 climbers died. The Portlander spent two years researching and writing the book, traveling the world to unravel the complicated story.
The author is brainy, candid, thoughtful, and clearly a master of the written word. But one-on-one what stands out is Zuckerman’s “aw shucks” demeanor. Likeable he is. And somehow that makes BURIED IN THE SKY all the better.
JK: The last time I saw you, in person, you were a kid.
PZ: This is true.
JK: you were interning at Just Out, going to Reed College. And you were eating a sandwich.
PZ: I remember those days.
JK: What do you remember about that time in your life?
PZ: I remember… I had just come out, I had my first boyfriend, and I decided that I didn’t want to be a scientist. I wanted to be a journalist. I went into the office of Just Out and said, “I want to be your intern.” It was my first job. It was really exciting.
JK: At that time, what did you imagine your future to be, say, in 10 years?
PZ: I didn’t really know what my future would be. I thought I was going to still be in school. I liked academia, so I was thinking, “I’m going to stay in school as long as possible.”
JK: I’ve always wanted to ask an author who writes a book like Buried in the Sky, what’s it feel like when you type the last word — in your case, it was “then it would begin again,” the last words of the book on page 230 — and then you hit enter?
PZ: My feeling was “I’ve got a lot of revisions left to do.” (He laughs) I might have finished the book but I haven’t finished the editing and rewriting. I think to a large extent, how successful you are as a writer is how willing you are to continue to edit and rewriting until the pros are what you think are great.
JK: Buried in the Sky is very emotional. When I read it, I literally felt pain in my stomach. Did you feel that writing it?
PZ: There are moments when this story is absolutely terrifying and horrifying. And all the more so because it’s true. This really happened to people. And I definitely felt that way writing it. But where I really felt it was when I was interviewing people and they were telling me these stories. It was really a challenge to ask people questions about how they’d seen their loved ones die because in a lot of cases the characters are related to each other. So, ya, I really felt it. In the interviews there were a lot of tears…they were intense interviews.
JK: It surprised me that the men in the story, particularly the Asian men, were so emotional. It goes against the stereotype of these men. Did that surprise you?
PZ: It somewhat surprised me that they’d be so emotional, but the circumstances were so dramatic. And when they were on the mountain, they were oxygen-deprived, they hadn’t eaten or slept for days. They were at their most elemental level. And I think that caused them to be much more emotional on the mountain. Off the mountain, these were really difficult circumstances they were under. For them to recount it, in a lot of cases, they hadn’t told somebody what happened in the amount of detail they were telling me. I think anyone would be really emotional in those circumstances.
JK: Tell me about the moment you said to yourself: yep, I’m quitting my job at The Oregonian. I’m going to go chase this story.
PZ: My cousin called me. She was really upset because her friends had died in the disaster — someone she was really close to, who had been there for her under really difficult circumstances. She called me and said, “Peter, I want you to quit your job at the Oregonian, and come with me to Nepal and Pakistan and we’re going to find out what happened.” And I said, “No, that sounds like a terrible idea.” It seemed dumb for me to quit a job I really enjoyed and for me to spend several years trekking through remote regions of northern Pakistan that were technically off-limits to journalists; that the U.S. Embassy told me to stay away from. Especially when I’m a gay Jewish American.
And then I started looking into the story. This was a very compelling adventure story. you have people at their most elemental, clashing with each other when they need to get along. you have people making huge decisions that are going to affect themselves, and other people, under the worst of circumstances. They are stuck in the same tent. They are clashing with each other when their lives depend on each other.
It’s rare that I’ve seen an adventure story that’s this compelling. I like that these characters were not the kind of people that you bump into every day. It takes a unique personality to climb the most dangerous mountain. A lot of them have very big, larger-than-life, personalities and they pull of amazing feats that you can only imagine. When you read about them it puts you in their shoes. It compels you to think “What would I do under similar circumstances?”
What really drew me to the story was that mountaineering illustrates a much more universal problem that we are surrounded with every day, everywhere. History is always told from the perspective of the Kings and the Columbus’, not through the eyes of the help. But mountaineering demonstrates that this kind of omission can lead to a disaster. When your life hangs from a knot you need to know who tied it. you need to know if it was tied well… For the rest of us who are not K2 mountaineers, we are kind of in the same situation. We are also hanging from knots other people have tied. We have mountains to summit and we are all surrounded by people that we often don’t notice… we need to tell those stories. The Sherpas of every story, the unseen people of every story, need to be seen for who they really are because our lives depend on them.
JK: After I finished reading your book I reread the prologue and I have to say I still couldn’t answer any of the questions that you pose. Why do you think that people are driven to take such risks as they do in this book?
PZ: I think there are a variety of reasons. It depends on the person. Some people are just adrenaline junkies. The same reason you go sky diving; the same reason you just love adventure. Some people are trying to push themselves to the limit. They are trying to find out how far they can push themselves and who they really are. Kind of like war can reveal who you really are; climbing can do the same thing.
A lot of climbers are very wealthy and they are lost. And they love the sense of community. It can be a great group of people. They love the sense of purpose and they love something neat to do that they can come home and impress people with.
The Sherpas can also have those reasons, but it can be “I need the money. My family is desperate. We need to eat. I want my children to be able to go to school and not have to become mountaineers.”
It can be just “I love climbing.”
JK: Are you a risk taker? Clearly you are to a degree.
PZ: Ya, I would say I’m a risk taker to some extent. Certainly this project was a hugely risky project for my career. And I went places that…if I’d gotten hurt people would say “Well, that was not wise of him to go there.” One thing I’ve seen is that the line between courageous and crazy can be very…it can be hard to tell the difference between the two. One can be, you are successful, and the other can be, you failed. Sometimes doing something that is scary is what you need to do and I feel like a lot of being a good journalist is having guts.
PZ: I thought that a lot.
JK: I got a kick out of the scene where the Western Asian climbers were watching Brokeback Mountain. It was one of the few relatively light hearted moments in the book. How was that the movie?
PZ: I have no idea honestly. You think you are in Pakistan where being gay is criminal. And you are on a mountain camp so there aren’t really any rules. There was a gay climber but he did not want me to tell people that he’s gay. He might have brought the movie? All of these conservative Muslims who come from a background where they think that homosexuality is terrible… a lot of them were like “Ya, I really liked that actually.”
JK: Do you think as an author you’ll top this? Will you ever have a bigger story than this?
PZ: Oh, I hope to. I feel like you always want the next project to be bigger and more difficult than your previous project. And I’m thinking of a second book, maybe involving the Mars Rover Curiosity. That’s one of many. I’ve thought about doing something about Scientology. I like to think this is just the beginning.
JK: As a gay man, I couldn’t help but feel proud of you for doing this kind of book. It felt very brave to me. Even though you weren’t in the story, as I read the book I kept imaging you chasing the story. Do you feel proud of yourself?
PZ: I’m really happy with how it turned out. I feel really fortunate to have worked with incredible people who put their lives on hold to talk to me, who are some of the best athletes in the word that nobody’s ever talked to in as much detail and who allowed me to see the world through their eyes. Without their help this would have been impossible. In some ways this is really a horrifying story… but in other ways it is really an inspiring story. People just pull off rescues and do a courageous thing. It’s really hard to believe it really even happened except that it did! I felt proud of the people that did this work. People are saving lives on mountains. That’s a lot braver than what I was doing.
JK: What’s the biggest lesson you learned by telling this story?
PZ: You know, when I was in these villages where people live off…it’s not a money economy, it’s less than couple of dollars a year in some cases. In a way they have a lot of things we don’t have. They really know their neighbors. They have a lot more time to sit and chat and drink tea. Play games. And in some ways it is a really wonderful way to live and I think “Gosh, I’d love to live in place like that. Boy, shouldn’t I know my neighbors and care more about my community and just do good things for the sake of doing good things?”
And then on the other hand I think, “My gosh, I am so lucky. I can walk down the street and buy a cup of coffee that costs more than the people I was interviewing will make in years. I am not going to die of a contagious disease. I have tremendous opportunities.” We are given an opportunity here. We need to do something with that. It made me really want to do more, and do more good things for the world and be more cognizant of how nice we have it.
JK: People are going to want to know what your significant other (Portland Mayor Sam Adams) thought about you traipsing around the globe working on this project for so long.
PZ: He was supportive. I honestly try not to tell my loved ones too much about what I’m doing, who aren’t directly involved, because it would just stress them out. It’s better to say “Hey, I made it home safely. Let me tell you where I went” afterwards rather than saying this is where I’m going. I really didn’t give Sam the details. But he was supportive.
JK: A writer’s life.
PZ: A writer’s life.
About Jonathan Kipp
Jonathan Kipp, Just Out’s owner and publisher is a native Oregonian and has a background in niche magazine publishing, advertising, marketing, and journalism. His career includes a 2-year stint as a reporter for Just Out where he covered controversial stories about the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance, The Portland Police Bureau, The Boy Scouts of America and the about-to-change Burnside Triangle. He has a BA in Journalism, a BS in Biology, and is currently pursuing an MBA. Jonathan and co-owner Eddie Glenn have been life and business partners for 18 years. Today Jonathan and Eddie are dads of two young children.