Opening October 4th in Los Angeles at ArcLight Hollywood and Laemmle’s Monica Fourplex in Santa Monica is Nick Ryan’s edge-of-your-seat documentary, “The Summit.” Having stunned crowds at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “The Summit” explores a deadly incident over two gorgeous August days of 2008, where 18 mountain climbers scaled the treacherous K2 mountain. 48 hours later, 11 of those climbers were dead. What happened? How is it that so many climbers have different remembrances?
Located in the Himalayans between Pakistan and China, K2 has been called the “Savage Mountain.” Although it’s the second highest mountain range on the planet (Mount Everest is the highest), it is the most treacherous to ascend. 300 people have made it to the top of this 28,251 foot peak, but more than a quarter of those climbers died descending; never able to share their moment of victory.
Through news reports, filmmaker Ryan knew of the deaths on K2. But it was when seasoned climber Pat Falvey visited and talked about questions surrounding the tragic events on K2, that Ryan was hooked. Specifically it was the mystery surrounding the death of Falvey’s Irish friend Ger McDonnell.
McDonnell, a well-liked climber, had saved Falvey on Everest, some years prior, along with Pemba Gyalje Sherpa. Falvey therefore was astounded when he started hearing details from the K2 disaster. The climbers who lived that day, all had a sort of “Rashomon” recounting of events (where everyone had a different memory, potentially from high altitude sickness). Falvey and McDonnell’s family tried to piece together the facts after the disaster.
“The Summit” utilizes the engrossing interviews of the K2 climbers, McDonnell’s family, and Falvey, as well as footage from Camp IV (at the foot of the final ascent), before the fateful climb. Ryan and editor Ben Stark artfully mix new aerial and archival footage of the mountain as well as insert recreations of the climbers themselves – some of the climbers documented portions of their own climbs, while other moments are reconstructed on a mountain in the Jungfrau region in Switzerland.
If there’s a weakness in this otherwise compelling documentary is that Ryan chose to intercut another parallel story of a 1954 Italian Expedition climb told by Italian climber Walter Bonnati. Both stories depict the obsession of conquering K2, and in Bonnati’s case how he finally received credit for his climb. But the intercutting of this earlier story slows and at a times even confuses the event sequences of the August 2008 tragedy.
Yet even with this one shortcoming, “The Summit” is a mesmerizing chronicle of K2’s pull. Credit goes to director Ryan and his creative team in piecing together a spellbinding mystery that leaves one breathless trying to solve.