‘The Summit’ a cinematic trek to find truth behind tragedy

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If people were asked to name the most difficult mountain to climb on Earth, Everest would probably come up nine times out of 10. But if mountain climbers were asked the same question, they’d all respond with one answer: K2.

Nicknamed the “Savage Mountain,” K2 sits on the border of Pakistan and China. It is also the setting for “The Summit,” a new documentary from director Nick Ryan. But this film is no 3-D IMAX travelogue geared toward capturing the majesty of the world’s second-highest peak. “The Summit” chronicles the true-life events of a 2008 climbing expedition-turned-tragedy that resulted in the death of 11 people.

The main focus is placed on Irish climbing-fanatic Ger McDonnell, who would perish on the mountain, and the heroic efforts of his climbing partner Pemba Gyalje, who also served as a Sherpa guide. The trouble for Ger, Pemba and the climbing parties occurs at Camp 4, on the edge of an altitude known as the “death zone.” A series of mistakes and bad luck immediately kills off a couple  of climbers, leaving the rest stranded deep in the death zone with night quickly approaching.

Instead of relying solely on photos and interviews with loved ones and surviving climbers, the film incorporates footage of actors reenacting pivotal moments that occurred during the crisis. This mostly concerns the actions and interactions of the ill-fated climbers stuck passing the night near the mountain’s peak after an avalanche.

“I’ve long gone past the ‘reconstruction is a dirty word’ aspect of documentary filmmaking,” Ryan said. “As a filmmaker, you have to use whatever tools that you can to present
what I figured was a very complex story … As long as every tool you use maintains veracity and a truth.”

While the depiction of the harsh conditions facing the climbers is harrowing, the real tension comes from the conflicting stories of the survivors as to what caused it all. Each person has a different perspective from his or her location on the slope during the disaster, resulting in a malleable “Rashomon” style of the truth.

Further complicating matters were the Western media, which ran with the stories of the first couple of climbers who made it back safely. Completely written out of the story was the essential insight of Pemba, who had remained behind to help those still trapped and didn’t make it down until several days later.

“By the time he got there, the media had gone,” Ryan explained. “And we’re living in the world of 24/7 rolling news … Even if somebody was just sitting around there waiting for the truth to come out, who’s going to run it?”

That was largely the reason that drove Ryan to make the film. In many ways it comes from the earnest wish to finally tell the whole story, and more specifically, the story of Ger and Pemba, who were discovered to have risked their own lives to help those in desperate need of medical attention.

“There is a huge moral responsibility when you’re doing this,” Ryan said. “I can hold my head high and say that what we’re saying is exactly as we believe it to be, as the stories that we’ve been told.”

Crafted from daring cinematography, high production value and compelling interviews from climbers, the film pieces together the fateful climb in strong narrative form. But in trying to make up for a lack of facts as told by the media in 2008, the film overcompensates and presents too much information. Repeated temporal jumps to depict events in the past and their relation to the present can be hard to follow. Uneven pacing and tangential asides involving the history of climbing give the feeling that the filmmakers weren’t exactly sure how to tackle their own mountain of facts for the audience to digest.

In the end, the film succeeds in transporting the viewer to the tip of K2 and exploring the inherent danger of such an inhospitable climate but fumbles slightly in its delivery of the events. So if you’re up for the challenge of sifting through the volumes of testimony and taking the film’s final conclusion as conjecture rather than concrete truth, “The Summit” is a climb worth making.

Contact Ryan Koehn at [email protected].