Mountain climbing is arguably an inherently selfish act, especially when one attempts to summit a peak like K2. One in four do not survive an excursion on this mountain in northern Pakistan, leaving grief-stricken family members and loved ones to sort out the details of what transpired. K2 might be overshadowed—in terms of height and the publicity it receives—by Everest, but many consider it an even bigger challenge. Traffic jams on the way to the summit can and do occur, and the results can range from frustratingly tedious to deadly. In 2008, a series of events unfolded on the mountain resulting in 11 deaths, one of the worst mountaineering disasters in recent history. Nick Ryan’s new documentary, The Summit, attempts to dissect and explain what happened in painstaking detail through interviews with survivors, vividly shot recreations, and chilling footage from climbers who were on the mountain at the time.
The descent is often the most dangerous part of any climb, and this proved especially true over a few days in August 2008. Twenty-two climbers set out for K2’s peak from Camp IV (at about 8,000 meters) in perfect conditions, but almost immediately a problem arose when a passage became clogged with people moving too slowly. This occurred in the “death zone,” the area on a mountain above 26,000 feet where the lack of oxygen can easily lead to disorientation, and where fatalities are most common. The first occurred as one man unhooked his harness and tried to pass a group of stalled climbers. The account and recreation of this fall are shocking; when something like this happens on a mountain, it’s sudden, quiet and immediate, and The Summit captures that. Most of the time, retrieving a fallen comrade is too dangerous to consider, and the remaining climbers had to choose whether or not to continue. A few turned back, but most continued on, exhibiting the mental fortitude required to embark upon such an expedition. From here, things seemed to proceed as well as possible, until the climbers began to descend. Because of the earlier congestion, darkness fell as they made their way down, and ultimately ten others would die, many in an avalanche that swept them down the mountainside in a torrent of ice and snow.
Director Nick Ryan seamlessly blends together recreations shot in Switzerland with actual footage from the mountain, and intersperses fascinating and, at times, heart-wrenching interviews. Particularly hard to watch are the interviews with Annie Starkey and Cecilie Skog, the romantic partners of climbers Ger McDonnell and Rolf Bae respectively, both of whom perished on the mountain. They both stand firmly behind their partners’ desire to climb—Skog was on the mountain herself at the time—but clearly they have not fully recovered from their loss. Ryan inserts some interesting interview footage with Walter Bonatti, an Italian climber who was part of a 1954 expedition that resulted in some controversy regarding his role in the attempt. He is a colorful character who casually unleashes grandiose remarks like, “We laid siege to the mountain for two grueling months.” The 2008 expedition also resulted in some controversy among the survivors. Italian climber Marco Confortola, who made it down the mountain with severe frostbite several days after the avalanche, is challenged on his version of the events. His account of what happened on the mountain varied in the days and weeks after his rescue, especially frustrating the family of Ger McDonnell, who felt that Confortola was not telling the whole truth.
In today’s age of immediate information via Twitter, live blogging, satellite phones and social media, even from the peak of K2 the tragedy was evident to the world almost as fast as it happened, perhaps leading to even more confusion, uncertainty and misinformation than would have existed otherwise. The Summit tries to make sense of what happened through this haze of fact and memory, but certain vital questions are left unanswered (through no fault of the filmmakers’). Despite all of the tragedy and death that occurred on that dark August night in the death zone, there are moments when the viewer can get caught up in what drives someone to conquer a mountain like K2. When the image of the perfectly pointed peak shadowing the horizon across the Pakistani border into China appears on screen, shot on a climber’s video camera from the summit, one can understand, to at least some extent, what sends someone up the mountain.
Director: Nick Ryan
Writer: Mark Monroe
Release Date: Oct. 4, 2013