On August 1, 2008, after months of intense planning, ten different expeditions from all over the world began the massive, treacherous trek up to the base camp at the foot of K2, on the northern border of Pakistan, the deadliest mountain on earth. From the base camp, the culmination of all this planning is the journey up through camps two, three or four; leaving 18 people with the opportunity of reaching the summit, surely one of the most breathtaking achievements imaginable.
And indeed, during a near perfect window of calm weather, summit those 18 climbers did, taking their time at the top of the world to savour what they had achieved. That only seven of them would make it back down again is one of the worst tragedies in mountaineering history.
Directed by Nick Ryan, written by Mark Monroe and shot by Robbie Ryan (Ginger and Rosa), The Summit is, above all, a cracking adventure film. Beautifully shot, and through the use of dramatic reconstructions , archive footage and interviews with the survivors, an utterly riveting story.
Despite providing an in depth explanation and analysis of the planning of the expedition and their progress into the “death zone” (around the 8000m mark), the film (as the climbers themselves did) lingers for a while at the bottleneck beneath the serac, before developing a compelling narrative, based on a few archetypal characters.
The tragic hero of the piece, and the character whose biography receives the most attention, is Ger McDonnell, a highly regarded Irish climber whose moral decision is the backbone of the film (more of this later), going against the unwritten code of self-preservation supposedly held by all climbers.
The tragic lovers of the story are the Norwegian husband and wife Rolf Bae and Cecille Skog. Cecille had reached the summit, and survived to tell the tale, but her husband Rolf was taken by a falling serac (block of ice), after giving up 100m beneath the surface, which also cut all the fixed lines upon which the rest of the climbers who summited were to rely in order to descend safely.
The villain of the story, if indeed there can be one in a story like this, is set up to be the experienced Italian climber and mountain rescue worker, Marco Confortola, whose eyewitness accounts of the débâcle are questioned at every turn. Despite the fact that he did all that he could to help the stranded Korean climbers, he was also the last man to see Ger alive (he claimed that after they had tried to help the Koreans, Ger must have become delusional and climbed back above the bottleneck (the area beneath and to the side of the giant serac) where the climbers became stranded after the first accident.
Confortola’s story is then dissected and discussed and eventually refuted by the dark horse of the story, highly respected climber and Sherpa Pemba Gyalje, who was personally chosen by Ger to accompany him on the ascent.
It is easy to get carried away with the story of Ger and see the film as directed entirely towards figuring out what happened to him. Luckily, the film has more altruistic concerns (despite returning to Ger’s friends and family one too many times) and each fatality is listed, remembered and his/her death explained. The survivors make for fascinating viewing, some are funny (Dutch climber Wilco van Rooijen, who has recently written a book about his account of the tragedy), some are heartbreaking (hearing Cecille talking about her husband’s death is wrenching) and some are just odd (the Serbians and the Korean planners).
As with all investigative documentaries of this kind, we hear the conjecture and the opinions, we see the photographs, the archive footage and the reconstructions, yet we will never really know what happened on the mountain, and our frustration is shared with the survivors, for whom there is very little closure. And it doesn’t matter to us, because the film carries along at a fair pace (interrupted intermittently by a bizarre sub-plot about involving Italian climber Walter Bonatti, one of the first to summit K2 in the 1950s, whose presence offers a questionable counterpoint to the reliability of Confortola’s story), offering us information little by little, revelation by revelation, and it becomes fascinating. And of course, the footage is just magnificent, almost hypnotic. So whether you’re a fan of mountaineering or not, who wouldn’t want to look at majestic snowy, mountainous landscapes for an hour and a half?
The Summit takes its rightful place, along with 2010’s Wildest Dream and 2003’s Touching the Void, as one of the very best documentaries of its kind, the tragedy and the strength of human spirit elevating the film above its relatively niche subject. Or there’s always The Eiger Sanction.
Director: Nick Ryan
Writer: Mark Monroe
Running Time: 95min
Country: Ireland/ Switzerland