In August 2008, 22 climbers from various international expeditions reached the High Camp of K2, the final pit-stop before the peak of the mountain, on an expedition renowned among adventurers as extremely dangerous to attempt – far worse than Everest, with a 1 in 4 chance of dying. Only 11 would make it down from there. The Summit is an attempt to understand what happened on a day that became known as the most tragic in modern mountaineering history. Through recreations, archive and home movie footage, and interviews with survivors and families of the people who died on the outing, Nick Ryan’s documentary presents a thorough, investigative and vivid version of events, showing the heartbreaking moral choices the climbers faced in attempting to survive.
As someone who has an interest in outdoor sports and various silly pursuits (nothing anywhere near as extreme as this) The Summit was something I wanted to catch. Those who’ve watched and “enjoyed” Touching the Void will no doubt be aware of the unwritten code of the mountain (if someone falls or wanders off, then leave them) and this is brutally revealed in a brilliant documentary. At the heart of the documentary, but not dominating the story, is an Irish climber, Ger McDonnell. He was seemingly faced with a horrible choice when he discovered 3 battered, bruised, bloodied and dying climbers: follow the code or help them. As The Summit unfolded, it was obvious I was in for an emotional 90 or so minutes and the archive footage, interviews and recreations are exceptionally well wielded. Having a cousin who has climbed the highest peaks in Europe and South America and who has rescued fellow climbers certainly gave an added edge to this.
The main body of the documentary doesn’t necessarily seek out the truth (not that it tries to). It simply builds a picture of the tragic events before presenting as much as real information as is known. That Ger’s parents even needed to travel to Pakistan to try and understand what had happened to their son, is telling. As we do get closer to the truth (as much as is possible) however, the horrors of those expeditions are shown and as hard as it to swallow, the reality is that a combination of factors got the better of most of the climbers: there is no one single cause.
I’m not always one for using recreations in documentaries – it can lead to things being a bit twee and childlike – but in this instance, I was stunned by how vivid and realistic they were, lending a genuinely convincing air to the film. It was as if they had scaled K2 again with a film crew; truly remarkable. This is a truly engaging documentary, whether you know a lot or little to nothing about mountaineering and if I’m honest, I’d have been crying if hadn’t watched this on a midweek morning with a roomful of journos; I was that affected.
No-one will ever really know exactly what happened in those few long days and no-one will ever really know what makes mankind want to push itself to such limits, where every second you spend in the death zone (8000m & higher) your body is dying. The Summit at least shines a small light on human nature and the fragile relationship man has with the planet.