K2 in the Himalayas is known to climbers as the most difficult of mountains, a savage peak, the second highest in the world, with the power to cloud men’s minds. On the morning of Aug. 1, 2008, however, everything looked easy.
“Conditions were perfect,” recalls someone who was there. “It was a day in a million.”
Or so it began.
Then, within 48 hours, things went drastically, horribly wrong. Eleven climbers perished, including seven who had reached the top and died on the way down. As presented in the compulsively watchable documentary “The Summit,” the story of what took place up there is a complex and gut-clenching human drama that has the great advantage of all being true.
As directed by Nick Ryan and written by Mark Monroe, “The Summit” tells a multifaceted story that deals with more than the expected peril and exhilaration of adventure tales. Here you’ll find love, fear and forgiveness, personality conflicts and cultural differences, even mysteries that have stubbornly resisted solving.
DIRECTED BY: Nick Ryan
DOCUMENTARY WITH: Ger McDonnell, Wilco van Rooijen, Cecilie Skog, Marco Confortola, Pemba Gyalje Sherpa and Walter Bonatti
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes
Because this is such a multisided story, Ryan has chosen to tell it in a variety of ways. There is stunning aerial color footage of K2 in all its majesty, actuality scenes shot in 2008 by the climbers, delicate and unobtrusive re-creations that are hard to tell from the real thing and extensive interviews with those who returned alive.
“The Summit” has been especially fortunate in these interviews. These “the bigger the dream, the bigger the risk” mountaineers are all articulate, vibrant people, great storytellers and remarkable in their ability to speak clearly about painful life-and-death events. Among the top talkers are:
-- Wilco van Rooijen, a Dutch climber who survived 60 hours at higher than 26,000 feet altitude, an area ominously known as “the death zone.”
-- Cecilie Skog, a Norwegian woman who relates her heart-stopping experiences with her husband and fellow climber, Rolf Bae.
-- Marco Confortola, a self-confident Italian who became the center of a controversy.
-- Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, a Nepalese climber who succinctly encapsulates cultural differences between mountaineers when he says, “Westerners like adventure, our people love climbing.”
“The Summit” also searched out and interviewed the legendary Walter Bonatti before his death in 2011. Bonatti was a member of the Italian team that was first to climb K2 in 1954 and who became embroiled in a dispute that eerily echoed what happened in 2008.
Though its viewpoints and participants are many, if “The Summit” has a protagonist it would have to be the Irish mountaineer Ger McDonnell, an enormously charismatic man, much more social than the average climber, who lighted up every room — or high altitude tent — he walked into.
The imponderables surrounding McDonnell’s actions on K2 are one of the focuses of “The Summit” and they’re heightened because the key events took place in that 26,000-foot-plus area that, one climber emphasizes, “is not called ‘the death zone’ for nothing.”
With every breath and every thought a struggle as oxygen depletion hits every cell in your body, the death zone is an area where actions are not always sensible and memories of those actions not always reliable.