Film Review – The Summit
Imagine being on the top of a high mountain. For the most part, the journey there has gone smoothly. Suddenly, an unfortunate set of circumstances puts you in a very perilous situation. Even worse, you get separated from your crew—you can see the danger they are in, but even attempting to rescue them could end your life in an instant. That is the dilemma at the heart of director Nick Ryan’s documentary The Summit (2012). In it, he charts the horrific events that killed eleven experienced mountain climbers trying to return from the top of K2 in the summer of2008 K2, while being the second highest mountain in the world, is arguably the most dangerous to traverse. Various testimonies contradict what actually happened on that fateful day, but Ryan attempts to piece them all together to paint a very tragic picture.
We’re told that it is not the journey up that is the most difficult, but the journey down. The euphoria of accomplishing a major goal can cloud one’s concentration, giving them a false sense of security. That is when the worst can happen. In August 2008, 25 climbers from all over the world left the final base camp toward the peak of K2, an area known as The Death Zone. Fourteen would return alive. The Death Zone is a difficult trek, the thin air making every step an arduous task. Also, the shape of the summit limits the type of approach. There is a bottleneck path, where climbers can only go up a certain way. This area is extremely hazardous, as there is no way for climbers to avoid a potential avalanche if one were to take place.
K2 is not only described to us, we see it up close and personal. Mixing interviews with real footage taken by the climbers and reenactments by Ryan and his film crew, we get to see how big and life threatening it really is. Seeing these small figures on top of such a massive natural entity goes to show how exposed they were to the elements. Also, because the weather was clear and the wind was low, the climbers and the base camp could see each other fairly well. The base camp could see how the expedition was going, but they couldn’t do anything if something were to go wrong. And that is the central crisis here.
There are many theories as to what caused these climbers to perish. Poor planning, poor execution on job duties, etc. But the scariest part is the moral dilemma they faced when an accident happened. If someone were to trip and fall, the climbers were taught not to try to catch them or risk losing someone else. A number of times, we see someone slip and slide down the mountainside, and all the others could do was look on as their comrade disappeared over a cliff. During another scene, the group tries to carry one of their dead down a slope, and hearing someone say, “If you fall, let go of the rope” was truly unnerving. After an avalanche splits them apart without a safety line, some make a decision not to continue down, but to turn back and try to help those that were stranded, even if it means certain death. There is a helpless feeling that creeps in, seeing these people face to face, knowing what is about to happen to them, but not being able to do anything about it. I could only imagine what it was like for those at the base camp, who simply watched everything unfold but could do very little.
What happened on K2 is a sad and heartbreaking story, but as I was watching it, I never found myself fully invested emotionally in the material. This detachment comes mostly from the technical side. Ryan (along with writer Mark Monroe) takes a matter of fact method, presenting details like an official account rather than a dramatic narrative. When Ryan cuts from actual footage to a reenactment, the transition is jarring and noticeable. Each person who lost their life is respectfully (and deservedly) focused upon, but we don’t get the full breadth of who they were. When we see a picture of each of the eleven accompanied with titles, the repetitive nature prevents us from knowing them outside of the basic facts. The film feels a bit like a news report, wanting to make sure the testimonies matched up to the evidence gathered. I see why Ryan wanted it this way, but because of it I remained at arm’s length.
The Summit tells the story of one of the deadliest days in the history of mountain climbing. While I had my reservations about it in terms of craft, this needs to be shared with others in the hope that something like this won’t happen again. It’s a cautionary tale, where the slightest mistake could have tremendous consequences.