The constant bombardment of facts, opinions, and time jumps is a lot to digest, causing a lot of the emotional bits to slip through the cracks.
If you were to walk into a theater while The Summit was playing and look at the audience, you’d think they were watching the latest scary movie release. You’ll see looks of shock, hear frightful gasps, and feel the audience vibrate with tension and terror. Director Nick Ryan’s harrowing mountaineering documentary elicits such intense reactions because the real-life events it revisits are as scary as any horror flick you’ll see this Halloween season.
The film explores the fatal events that occurred on August 1st, 2008, which was, as the movie poster aptly puts it, “The deadliest day on the world’s most dangerous mountain.” On that day, a collection of 18 experienced mountaineers from around the world attempted to scale K2–the second highest mountain in the world next to Everest–located on the border of Pakistan and China. Save for one tragic fatality, the climbers did, in fact, reach the 8,116-meter-high summit, but it was the disastrous descent that claimed the lives of 10 of the remaining climbers, leaving only 7 left to tell the tale.
Due to a late morning start, the crew were forced to spend extensive time in an area above 8,000 meters, called the “Death Zone”, where crushing elemental conditions wreak havoc on both the body and mind. While descending the treacherous, ice-slicked mountainside, the climbers were exhausted and disoriented, leading to mistakes of miscommunication and gross misjudgments that, when mixed with the punishing high-altitude conditions, proved to be fatal. Several climbers were separated by freak accidents, some falling to their death, others left stranded on the mountainside with no route to safety.
Among the intrepid climbers were Irish mountaineer Ger McDonnell and his Sherpa Pemba Gyalje, Dutchman Wilco Van Rooijen, and Norwegian husband and wife duo Rolf Bae and Cecile Skog. Ryan focuses primarily on McDonnell, who was originally accused of abandoning one of his partners until it was later revealed that he died trying to save a group of stranded Korean climbers.
What exactly went wrong during the descent remains hazy, as many of the survivors have conflicting accounts. Despite the clashing stories of the survivors, the film doesn’t focus on this aspect of the storytelling as much as, say, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell or Kurosawa’s Roshomon. There are so many talking heads to keep track of that it becomes a little confusing to organize the different subjects and events (which are told chronologically out of order) in your head. At certain points, there’s so much information to keep track of (not to mention the several conflicting reports) that you feel just as discombobulated as the helpless climbers on screen.
The great strength of the film comes from the seamless melding of archival and reconstructed footage. Ryan, with supervisory help from Gyalje, recreated many of the deadly situations for the documentary, not on K2, of course, but in Switzerland. The mixture of these recreations with footage shot by McDonnell on the actual expedition is smooth as butter, making the freezing on-screen images so gripping you’ll shiver. More importantly, the seamless intercutting of the footage allows the sheer terror of the story shine through. Ryan portrays K2 as a monster that’s devoured the souls of its victims, getting across the overwhelming danger inherent in facing such a beast. He dramatizes the days’ events, but remains respectful in his recreations, always making sure we’re concerned with the human element of the story as opposed to the details of the victims’ demises.
A more frightening, less coherent film than Touching the Void, The Summit will have you shaking in your boots as the courageous climbers share their unnerving stories, and you’ll likely never look at mountain climbing in the same way ever again. Unfortunately, the constant bombardment of facts, opinions, and time jumps is a lot to digest, causing a lot of the emotional bits to slip through the cracks.