“One in four climbers doesn’t make it down Savage Mountain.” This terrifying statistic is in regard to K2, the second-highest peak on Earth and why it is described by mountaineers as the world’s most dangerous mountain. Director Nick Ryan’s documentary ‘The Summit’ is breathtaking to watch. It attempts to get at the truth behind what happened during the disastrous August 2008 climb. Out of 25 mountain climbers composed of expedition teams from around the world (including Americans), 11 died there. The conditions were perfect. It was a warm sky blue day so why did it turn into such a nightmare?
The truth revealed in the film is that many of the deaths occurred not during the challenging ascent but during the even more grueling descent. Ryan shows us through actual footage, survivor interviews and reenactments that it wasn’t one accident but a series of unrelated mishaps that led to so many casualties. Documentary purists might scoff at the reenactments but it does enhance the drama and mystery of the film. Nobody will ever know the entire truth of what happened on that fateful day except the mountain itself. The mountain is the star of the documentary and the cinematography of Robbie Ryan accentuates the majestic beauty and danger of K2.
The deaths begin with the fall of a Serbian climber who lost his footing and slides down the mountain like a human toboggan. This is one of the intriguing dilemmas of the story. As the other climbers watch in horror as he plummets by them, they have to make the decision to stop or continue the climb. Some may feel shocked at their responses to the death. One survivor explains an unwritten “code” among climbers that it isn’t worth putting your own life at risk to aide a fellow mountaineer who is most certainly dead. A female Norwegian climber Cecilie Skog (who successfully reaches the summit) compares it to what happens during automobile accidents. Do you stop driving after seeing a fatal highway car crash? “No,” she says, “you drive on.”
At first, these explanations seem reasonable until the tragedy escalates. This is where the documentary gets harrowing. On August 1, at approximately 8pm, a massive serac (a huge ridge of ice on a glacier) separates from a section of the mountain known as the Bottleneck. It is what makes K2 so treacherous. The ice barreled down the climbing route sweeping away key safety ropes and essentially trapping 17 climbers above 27,000 feet. To make matters worse, night fell making escape even more dangerous. Three members of the Norit team, leader Wilco van Rooijen, Marco Confortola, and Gerard McDonnell reached the bottleneck minutes after the serac fell. Rather than face the dangerous descent at night, the three of them decided to camp there until daybreak. Temperatures at night would reach minus 40 degrees.
A fourth team member, Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, a seven-time Everest veteran, knew the dangers of the death zone and decided to descend the Bottleneck alone. Without oxygen, using an ice pick and a single tattered safety line that survived the avalanche, he reached Camp IV by 1am. At daybreak on August 2, chaos ensued. After only a few hours sleep in his tent, Pemba got word that some of his Norit team members were still alive. He bravely went back up the mountain to rescue the remaining survivors. Unfortunately, an avalanche kills McDonnell but the others were miraculously still alive. As Confortola recollects, “I was falling. The avalanche would have taken me away. But Premba grabbed me from behind. He was holding my neck. He saved my life.” Pemba was the real hero of the tragedy. He was honored for his heroism by National Geographic as 2008’s Adventurer of the Year.
There are some misfires to the documentary. Ryan ambitiously includes flashbacks to the 1954 expedition where Italians became the first climbers to reach the top of K2. Unfortunately, it jumbles the main 2008 story and leaves the narrative a bit disjointed. Regardless, ‘The Summit’ is a gripping film that is a marvel to watch. Ryan truly captures the spirit of these brave thrill-seeking adventurers. Check out the trailer http://youtu.be/z0pPhTLvzu4.