Director: Dave Ohlson
Story: Darren Lund, Andy McDonough, Dave Ohlson, and Jason Reid
Cinematography: Dave Ohlson
by Jon Cvack
A buddy of mine has started going to some climbing gyms and mentioned how he’s been watching some climbing films and was interested in one day trying a mountain. I had watched Touching the Void, which I consider one of the greatest survival films ever made, but hadn’t really checked out much else, until I watched Everest (2015), which I didn’t love but combined with my buddy’s new hobby definitely piqued my interest in the subgenre. I remembered the K2 cover, which only had a three star rating. Having some interest, I typed in K2 and came along this film, thinking it was a sequel to the original K2 (it’s not; as K2 is a ridiculous 80s narrative and this is a documentary).
K2: Sirens of the Himalayas follows an international group of climbers who range from returning for another attempt at summiting K2 to a first attempt at the summit; ranging from Fabrizio Zangrilli who has officially spent a year trying to climb the mountain to Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, a world-famous female mountain climber who would eventually be the first woman in history to summit all fourteen 8,000+ kilometer summits without oxygen. There’s an Englishman Jake Meyer (I might be getting this name wrong), who’s wild optimism and determination are inspiring, along with a handful of other professional climbers.
Back in 2008, nearly a dozen climbers were killed in an accident, which I’ll hold off discussing, and urge you to check out another documentary on The Summit which examines the tragedy. While Everest manages to receive almost 900 summits a year, K2 might go an entire year without receiving a single summit. It’s considered the hardest mountain to climb, particularly because no matter which way you try to go there are countless obstacles in your way - as though the mountain itself has its own set of armor to prevent intrusion. In fact, you can only get to the mountain through a rigorous 36 hour journey, involving flying into Pakistan and driving for another twelve hours along three-quarter wide, single lane roads, along steep cliff faces.
The first question you find yourself asking is why anyone would want to do this - climb up to the peak of mountain, in which the hardest part of the journey is called “The Dead Zone”, so depleted of oxygen that even with supplemental oxygen your body begins breaking down. Because the air’s so thin no helicopter can come to your rescue, and the local law is that it’s better to save yourself if there are few other options than to risk doubling the possibility of death. It’s difficult to grasp this concept amidst a world of hyper connectivity - that there remains an endeavor that is so cut off from humanity that beyond some radios and oxygen masks there is nothing to be done when danger strikes - whether out of exhaustion, snow blindness, or overwhelming fear.
When the team arrives they immediately receive a taste of danger when a pair of climbers ski down the mountain, with one taking an accidental turn, falling hard across the rock face, getting killed. This was an experienced climber and he died right before their eyes.
Given how much you have to carry and wear, this is not like Cliffhanger or K2 (the little I saw) where you hang from cliffs with your fingertips. Instead, it involves climbing steep ice faces, using nothing but your pickaxe and spiked boots, attached to a skinny piece of rope to guide your movements, all while breathing becomes increasingly difficult. The climbers mention the state of mind the pursuit requires, as even a few hundred meters with no air can take an incredible toll on the body, and yet when you realize how close you are, there’s additional motivation. And yet you have to be smart and humble enough to accept defeat, as the Englishman does when he’s just a few hundred meters from the summit. He knows he would only endanger himself if he went any higher. And considering that most accidents happen on the descension, it’s best that he return to base camp.
In the end, none of the climbers make it to the summit. They approach the “bottleneck” - an area where the dozen climbers were killed in a single day; where precarious ice cliffs hang hundreds of meters high, able to break at any moment - and they turn back, either because their bodies can’t handle it, or because they don’t trust the mountain to hold. As a few of them mention, though, it’s not about the summit so as much as the attempt. Of course, you want the summit, but it’s really just an added bonus to the journey. I can’t help wondering if this is true, as what else would drive these individuals to risk their lives again and again and again other that that the top is very much important, to the point of obsession. We later learn of Kaltenbrunner’s success a few years later, when she tried taking a different route. We witness the bond these teams develop as they work toward summiting. The film makes me hungry for more mountain adventure films. I checked out The Summit immediately after and loved every minute.
BELOW: The film's intro. Should be enough to pique
Thoughts on films, old and new
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