Interview: Nick Ryan and Pemba Gyalje Sherpa of The Summit
Director Nick Ryan’s new documentary, The Summit, recounts the horrific events that took place in August, 2008, on the deadliest mountain in the world, K2, which looms over the world in Northern Pakistan. 18 experienced mountaineers–including Ger McDonnell, Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, Wilco Van Rooijen, and others–reached the summit of the mountain, but only 7 survived the descent. The survivors’ accounts of the events vary in many cases, and Ryan focuses his film on their experiences, however contradictory they may be.
Ryan and Gyalje sat with us to talk about what makes K2 so dangerous, the emotional experience of recreating the tragedy for the film, the fine line between narrative and sensationalization, and showing the film to the families of the victims.
The Summit opens this Friday, October 11th
The statistic that one in four climbers die when attempting to scale K2 is horrifying to me. What is it about that mountain that claims the lives of experienced mountaineers?
Pemba: Topographically, the regular climbing route on K2 is a little bit steeper than other mountains, like Everest. There’s a lot of rock fall on the route. It’s very unstable. Also, K2 is not a commercial mountain, which means there’s not sufficient manpower. People say K2 is quite extreme and quite dangerous, but every mountain is vertical. Every mountain is difficult and dangerous.
What’s the climbers’ mindsets when attempting the climb? It’s a huge endeavor. Are you scared? Nervous?
Pemba: Of course, everybody is well prepared to climb any mountain. They’re careful with every step, trying to do their best, thinking about safety. Everybody says, “Safety first.” But, sometimes…it happens, you know? Even if we’re well prepared–mentally, physically–sometimes we have to face that kind of bad situation. It depends on the conditions.
Nick: You have to consider bad luck as well.
Nick, when you took the project on, what was your vision for the project? Did the film turn out the way you thought it would?
Nick: My initial approach is pretty much similar to what it ended up being. But, I wasn’t entirely sure what the story was in the beginning. Initially, we were addressing the inequalities in the stories of the Sherpa and what they’d done in the mountains versus the media. Not to attack the media–as they say, 24/7 rolling news dictates…if you’re not there in time, two days later there’s a new story to be talked about. It was in the process of interviewing Wilco and Pemba, within 6 to 8 weeks of the tragedy. I wasn’t a mountaineer. All I was interested in was the human angle. I do remember sitting in Pemba’s house, arguing the fact that I’m not interested in making a film for mountaineers. I’m really not. I want to make a film that a general audience will pick up on. It’s human stories that are interesting. Tech films without any human element are boring. We’re always drawn to stories and heroic arcs. Not to diminish this into sheer narrative–the reality of this story is more horrific than most horror stories.
The film feels like a horror movie at times.
Nick: That’s what it seemed to me. I was kind of going, “No shit! That really happened!” The story just seemed crazy. You become somewhat immune to it over the years, but if I reach inside, I can remember Pemba telling me about being lost and looking for snow. I couldn’t understand. “Why can’t you just follow the big tracks in the snow that you made on the way up? It doesn’t make any sense to me.” [Now I know], you’re so hypoxic and you can’t see where you’re going. You can’t follow the big trail.
Even the movie poster looks like it’s for a horror movie. “The deadliest day on the world’s most dangerous mountain.”
Nick: I never wanted to sensationalize the story. I envisioned the film as something I thought was going to grip and grab the audience. It sounds very crass and like I’m trying to sensationalize it, but I just think it was an incredible story that needed to be told.
That’s a fine line, to no sensationalize a story like this.
Nick: And I don’t think the film does. It does, but it doesn’t. The reconstructions–which will cause a bit of controversy for some people in documentary–there’s nothing gratuitous in them. I removed [a lot of the gore] in post production. I didn’t even want to focus on that. I think the simplicity of how people fall shows you how easy it is to die in these mountains. It just comes out of nowhere, like a car accident–if you can see the car accident happening, it’s not really going to be an accident. It’s the one where you’re just there and then…gone. That’s what’s scary, I think.
Pemba, you supervised the recreations in the documentary. Was that a difficult emotional experience, to revisit and recreate those moments?
Pemba: Yes. During the recreations, it was quite difficult. Almost everything reminded me of what I saw on the mountain.
I imagine you’d have to describe in detail how these events played out. How the climbers were arranged, etc.
Nick: Yeah, there was a lot of that. “When this thing happened, Wilco was here, Marco was over there.” It’s a surreal experience to be able to stand there with the people who were there and go through it.
Describe the importance of shooting the recreations on location in Switzerland as opposed to on a sound stage.
Nick: To me, it was super important. We could have built a wall of ice and supervised it, especially for the night time stuff. I remember thinking when we did the reconstructions that the days were hard. We filmed at 3700 meters, and you get really slow and lazy. It was really hard. I remember thinking, “This is going to be twice as hard as nighttime,” but the nighttime stuff was easier.
How is that?
Nick: I don’t know! We did it slightly lower. We couldn’t go to the top of the mountain at nighttime, because you had to be out of there by a certain time or else you’d be making camp 4 at the top of the mountain. It was outside the hotel. Not that it has any bearing, but if you turned the camera around where we were filming, there were tourists taking pictures. When you’re making films, you need access. I wanted real light, real snow, real ice. Also, you can’t beat being in a real environment. We were never going to go to K2.
Pemba, what was it like seeing the final cut of the film?
Nick: You probably saw the film in a tent on a laptop, didn’t you?
Pemba: Yeah. When I saw the final edit on the laptop, I was very happy because we were able to show the accident, especially for the families who lost their loved ones on the mountain. The families wanted to know almost everything about what happened on the mountain. The documentary is only one truthful source to show everything. That’s why I’m very happy.
Nick, what was it like showing the film to the families of the victims?
Nick: The first people I showed it to was the McDonnell family. I took it to their house–I couldn’t expect them to want to see this on a big screen. Having said that, Ger’s brother JJ saw it on the screen in London in Leiscester Square, which is one of the biggest screens in Europe. He didn’t want to watch it with family at that time. He just didn’t want to engage. It was an emotional experience [for the families]. I saw Ger’s mom a couple of weeks ago. She came up to me and went, “I’m kind of getting used to seeing him on screen. It’s so great to see him alive again.” You have no sense of a mother who’ll never see her son again. It’s terrible.
I’ll leave you on this: The one thing that became apparent to me was, people who were confident they had a full picture of what happened on the mountain that day are fully aware of their own stories on the mountain, but when they see their story in the context of the whole tragedy, it’s a mind-blowing experience for them. I guess, that’s the power of filmmaking. If the film makes you want to go climb a mountain, maybe I haven’t done my job.