In August 2008, 18 climbers reached the top of K2, the second highest mountain on Earth yet perhaps the most technically brutal of the ‘eight-thousanders’ coveted by serious mountaineers each year. But only seven would make it safely back down the ‘Savage Mountain’. The truth about what happened on the mountain has long been shrouded in mystery, but Nick Ryan’s new documentary, The Summit, aims to shed new light on the tragic incident.
Receiving its world premiere at London Film Festival as part of the festival’s coveted ‘Documentary’ strand, The Summit is at once a beautiful and affecting account of the quiet but deadly battle between man and Mother Nature. A relative newcomer to feature films, Ryan’s directorial debut is one of great promise. Told through archive footage, talking heads and photographs found on the victim’s cameras alongside reconstructions, The Summit balances the intricacies of mountain climbing with the intricacies of the human condition in the face of pure nature, and essentially, death.
The enthusiasm and excitement of the climbers is invigorating, illustrating just why people endure what many of us would consider insane, namely embark on a journey to ‘the Death Zone’, the area above 8,000 metres when the body begins to shut down due to lack of oxygen. But their passion drove the climbers to overcome the risks and live their dream; and judging by the jubilant summit photos, adorned with their national flags and good luck mascots, the journey was worth every step.
However, in addition to be an homage to human perseverance and skill, The Summit is still a tale of human tragedy, given added pathos by the words of family members as they continue to search for the truth as to why their loved ones never made it home. Particular focus is given to Ger McDonnell, an amicable Irish climber – and first Irishman to summit K2 – and his close friend and climbing companion, Pemba Gyalje Sherpa. While Ger lost his life on K2, refusing to descend while he stayed to help others, Pemba survived and thankfully offers his voice as a beacon of truth amidst the rumours of what happened that day as climbers were left without their lifeline down the mountain after an avalanche cut their essential ropes.
Widely considered the worst mountaineering disaster in modern climbing history, such an honest documentary is well overdue. With stunning photography by Robbie Ryan and Ryan’s sympathetic yet balanced approach, The Summit places you on top of the world, trying to catch your breath as you witness the mountain’s great shadow over China and the awesome views only a few get to see for themselves. Only the breath you need can never be caught as you are plummeted to the base of K2, watching in horror as events unfold on the mountain above and then to the living rooms of the families awaiting the feared news.
Deeply moving and inspiring in equal measure, The Summit is a must-see for any documentary fan or anyone prepared to be humbled by human perseverance in the face of Mother Nature.
The Summit screened as part of the 56th BFI London Film Festival (in partnership with American Express).