Director: Nick Ryan
Cinematographer: Robbie Ryan
by Jon Cvack
I watched The Summit immediately after K2: Siren of the Himalayas, and after thinking K2 was a documentary only to discover it’s an ultra 80s narrative about two climbers who get paired up with four cocky climbers who decide to try and summit K2. Except I didn’t make it beyond the ten minute point, with the one dimensional personalities and neon colored wardrobe being way too much after following such a fruitful story.
The Summit is about the 2008 K2 disaster, which claimed the lives of eleven people. I mildly recall the event, not really knowing anything about K2; that it’s the most dangerous mountain in the world, monumentally more difficult than Everest, with a higher death average, going the occasional year without even a single summit.
I’m not sure how this documentary received so little attention as it is a truly fascinating story about teamwork breaking down as egos get in the way. What begins as a small group of climbers waiting for the perfect window of good weather to make the final summit eventually blossoms into an international camp, as over a dozen climbers from Korea, France, Serbia, and the Netherlands all collect at one of the lower camps (there are four total going up the mountain). A leadership issue arises as the climbers attempt to work together and try and find a way to safely and securely take their expeditions up. However, because no one is elected or respected enough to take on the executive role, safety begins falling through the cracks. Disagreements, egos, and tempers flare, as they try to decide who will go up and lay the rope lines before the rest of party makes the journey. It’s an issue you never think is all that important, but the film does an excellent job of breaking down the process of climbing the mountain. Given K2’s size, the rope ensures that everyone follows the same path, taking the safest course possible.
When the weather finally arrives, giving the climbers a week to scale the summit, the dozen or so in the international expedition creates a traffic jam, and right where there’s the famous “bottle neck” - where precarious snow, hundreds of meters high, collects above them, exacerbated by the beating sun. When one climber attempts to pass another, detaching his carabiner from the rope line, he slips and falls to his death. Thus begins the first mistake - while some climbers wish to keep going on, given how close they are, others wish to head down. After far too much deliberation, most of the climbers decide to scale the summit.
They’re successful, but the delay has thrown a heavy wrench into the schedule and it’s clear that they are going to lose sunlight before reaching base camp. It was strange to think of how brief their enjoyment of the summit could last, especially as most climbing accidents, particularly on K2, occur on the descension. Those who survived break it down best - you expend so much energy going up, that you exhaust your body and get lazy on the way down. Thus it’s not so much a question of skill or more difficult terrain so much as a mental problem.
However, with one crew having left early, three of the climbers freeze, unable to go on any further. Two decide to stay with the third going forward and immediately getting caught in an avalanche so violent that it breaks the line and sends the man to his death. It was at this particular moment that I was floored by the documentary’s ability to intercut recreations. Aside from Into the Void, The Summit does an absolutely phenomenal job of matching the footage, with this scene in particular capturing the terror - one minute the guy’s there, the next minute he’s gone. The abruptness is so intense that you question the person’s death. There’s no way they actually had been killed within that split second. But they were.
The issue is that with a handful of survivors and so many dead - the facts have remained in contention, with some people taking more credit than they necessarily should, and others offering conflicting details about the story, creating a type of Rashomon form of tale, as we don’t really know which story is most accurate. With even the survivors all telling different versions, you wonder how much it would differ if more survived.
One of the film’s strongest characters is Veteran climber Frederik Strang, with all the humility in the world, getting down to safety, describing the mistakes he was witnessing, before finally choosing to go back up alone in order to try and rescue the climbers. We hear as he breaks down each problem, with the primary being chronic disagreement and uncertainty about each individual’s role that jeopardized the climb from the onset.
Having watched Everest a few weeks prior, and being fairly disappointed, I was amazed that this hasn’t yet been made into a film. The colorful clash of characters, unable to humble themselves against an obstacle greater than any one man is a fascinating look into human error. Though if this ever does take place, I’d hope to see them use The Summit’s amazing VFX, in which someway, somehow they are able to take an ultra wide and long shot of the mountain, zoom in, and seamlessly - in ways I’ve never seen - integrate their own recreation of the story.
This is one of the most underrated films I’ve seen in the last year. Check it out.
BELOW: The final push
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