With its steep, icy ridges, subzero temperatures and punishing lack of breathable oxygen, K2 has earned its reputation as one of the world’s deadliest mountains. As the statistics currently stand, one out of every four people who reach its snow-capped summit will die for their efforts. Regardless of the danger, or perhaps because of it, dozens of men and women travel to northern Pakistan every year to make the climb, risking life and limb for a taste of ephemeral glory.
Nick Ryan’s debut documentary The Summit presents an attempt to understand the combination of courage and compulsive restlessness that drives these professional thrill-seekers to court death at every turn. The result is a captivating portrait of heroism, pragmatism and survival, set against the backdrop of one of the worst disasters in mountaineering history.
In the summer of 2008, an international expedition of 25 expert climbers set out to conquer K2. Within 48 hours, 11 people were dead, frozen stiff in makeshift body bags or dashed on the jagged cliffs below the mountain’s precipitous “death zone.” More would have perished had it not been for the actions of Gerard “Ger” McDonnell, a starry-eyed, scraggly bearded adventurer who lived just long enough to realize his dream of becoming the first Irishman to ascend “The Savage Mountain.”
The controversial trek, undertaken in the final days before the beginning of K2’s stormy season and marred by the death of two climbers early on, didn’t turn into a full-blown catastrophe until the final descent, when several massive ice seracs detached from a nearby glacier, cutting off key safety lines and leaving three members of the Korean team stranded roughly 27,000 feet above sea level.
Refusing to abandon them, McDonnell and another climber, Marco Confortola, volunteered to stay behind while the rest of their party continued down the mountain, ostensibly to summon help. Though Confortola ultimately survived the ordeal, McDonnell was never seen again.
Much of The Summit revolves around Ryan’s interviews with the 14 survivors, including McDonnell’s longtime friend and sherpa Pemba Gyalje. When presented together, the varying accounts of what happened on the mountain form a fascinating study of post-traumatic finger-pointing, a Rashomon-like panoply of half-truths and suppositions surrounding what went wrong and why.
The film undermines these moments of insight, however, by constantly assaulting its viewers with an uneasy mixture of archival footage and slickly produced reenactments, blurring the already woozy line between fact and memory. These “recreated” scenes, scripted by Mark Monroe — it’s always disconcerting to see a screenwriting credit on a documentary — features a jumble of actors and real-life participants such as Gyalje, who are unnecessary distractions that only serve to hinder and distort an already riveting survival story.
Ryan’s decision to focus almost solely on McDonnell is also problematic, discrediting Confortola’s testimony and diminishing the loss of the other climbers, who appear as little more than faces on a grim, Battle Royale-style countdown. Judging from the recordings and memories shared by Pemba and various McDonnell family members, the late mountaineer was a fascinating figure: a safety-minded adrenaline junkie who knew the risks, took the necessary precautions and made no excuses for doing what he loved. Yet the choice to devote most of the film’s third act to the pain of his loved ones comes off as a bit too calculated, especially when they fly back to Pakistan to search for his remains.
Objectivity issues aside, some of cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s aerial shots of K2 and the surrounding Karakoram mountain range are absolutely stunning, a worthy tribute to one of the most awe-inspiring geological marvels on earth. Ryan, best known for his work with British director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, Red Road), has the uncanny ability to imbue natural spaces with emotional qualities. His K2 has all the brutal beauty of a slumbering giant, coupled with the implacable bloodlust of a horror movie slasher, picking off the ill-fated climbers one by one.
The film also benefits from the presence of Italian mountaineer, explorer and journalist Walter Bonatti, the youngest participant in the 1954 expedition that became the first to successfully climb K2. Bonatti was ultimately cheated out of his chance to try for the summit after the other mountaineers realized the athletic young man was unlikely to need supplemental oxygen, a feat that would eclipse their own oxygen-assisted climb. His story runs as a parallel narrative to McDonnell and the others, contrasting their fate with his struggle to earn his rightful place in history. The interview, completed just before his death, stands now as evidence of his vindication within the climbing community.
The Summit’s reach might exceed its grasp at times, but it still serves as a potent reminder of nature’s ability to inspire wonder and terror in equal measure. To reinforce the point, Fosco Maraini, a famous Italian climber, described how the mountain’s name spoke to its perilous conditions.
“[K2 is] just the bare bones of a name, all rock and ice and storm and abyss. It makes no attempt to sound human. It is atoms and stars. It has the nakedness of the world before the first man — or of the cindered planet after the last.”