One in every four people who attempt the summit of Savage Mountain will be killed. That chilling fact informs the prologue to The Summit, a gripping examination of the deadliest day ever to occur on the Himalayan peak better known as K2. Slightly smaller than Everest and even more treacherous, K2 was the destination for 25 climbers in August 2008. Out of these teams from many nations, 11 were killed. “They don’t call it ‘the death zone’ for nothing,” says a survivor of the especially dangerous territory between the last base camp and the top. On K2, this area is overhung with an ice shelf that unleashes avalanches without warning. As captured by video footage from the climbers (augmented with sweeping aerial shots) an avalanche makes a sound more terrible than an exploding bomb and travels with terrifying velocity.
But this spectacular footage also shows a mountain range of breathtaking beauty and mythic power, and those climbers who reach the summit stand in awe of their surroundings as if having a mystical experience. It is the good fortune of this penetrating film (scripted by Mark Monroe, who penned the Oscar-winning dolphin documentary The Cove) that the climbers involved are compellingly articulate about their experiences, and also about their motives for embarking on such a death-defying adventure. As one amateur climber says, “You go higher, and higher, and then you’re in the Himalayas.” There is also the phenomenon that drives climbers to reach the top even when common sense tells them to turn back. And yet this irresistible rush was not a major factor in the day’s fatalities, which were more the result of bad luck, unpredictable weather, and human error—an escalating train wreck that includes, for the uninitiated, a seemingly sinister force from the mountain itself that sent at least two climbers inexplicably tumbling to their deaths. And always there is the insidious risk of oxygen deprivation and the confused mental state it produces.
Fascinating in its insider’s view of the rarefied world of high-peak climbing and heart-stopping for its life-and-death intensity, the film seeks to resolve just why this mild summer day turned catastrophic, as well as to explore the bewildering fate of one especially experienced climber who had reached the summit without incident.
As the film illustrates—by using seamless re-creations with actors—descending is more dangerous than ascending. Among the captivating personalities involved are a quietly heroic Sherpa who is an expert climber in his own right; a stoic Norwegian who almost dies of exposure after his tent is shredded into confetti by an ice storm; female adventurer Cecilie Skog and her husband; and charismatic Irishman Ger McDonnell, an expert climber who had previously attempted K2 without success.
Tyro feature director Nick Ryan utilizes, but doesn’t exploit, the naturally occurring Ten Little Indians murder-mystery style of storytelling, while his interviews with the survivors present multiple viewpoints. Interspersed is an interview with legendary Italian climber Walter Bonatti (filmed shortly before his death) whose historic, and controversial, experience on K2 in 1954 eerily foreshadows 2008’s death toll. At the heart of The Summit, however, is the mountaineering ethos regarding altruism; what is perhaps most mystifying, at least at the highest points on Earth, is how doing what is right can go so horribly wrong.