Due to its status as the highest mountain on Earth, most laymen think of Mount Everest as the greatest of all mountaineering challenges. But mountain climbers know that the second-highest peak, K2, is actually far more dangerous. The path to the top is more hazardous than that of Everest, and the climb back down is brutally exhausting. One out of four people who ascend K2 do not leave the mountain alive. Over August 1st and 2nd, 2008, the worst disaster in the history of the mountain took place, as eleven people died on the treacherous slope. The Summit looks at how and why these events took place.
The film uses footage taken by some of the mountaineers during the fated climb, interviews with survivors and climbing experts and extensive sequences of reenactment of the events. Those reenactments will inevitably draw comparisons between The Summit and 2003’s Touching the Void, another doc that told a tale of mountain climbing gone horribly awry through a lot of recreation. The contrast is not favorable for this film. While Touching the Void created some memorable scenes of tension and dread, The Summit only sporadically approaches anything like what that doc accomplished.
Whereas Touching the Void is very straightforward in relating its story, The Summit jumps around in the timeframe of the days of the 2008 expedition. It is immensely disorienting to go from the middle of the early morning of August 2nd to the afternoon of August 1st for no other reason than to provide a context for what happened, which just as easily could have already been established.
Worse, though, is that the movie utterly fails to manage its herd of characters. There were dozens of people, part of three separate groups, who were involved in the disaster, but the doc never gives any of them a proper introduction. Select individuals get backstory sequences at random points, but it’s hard to get more than a general sense for who any of them are. Combine this with the tangled narrative, and it’s nigh-impossible to understand who was where at each point during those two fateful days.
This all but wrecks the film, since knowing the logistics of how the climbers were moving about is crucial to understanding why those eleven people died. There was a “traffic jam” of sorts in a narrow pass on the climb up, which delayed all the parties on their ascent. Time is everything on these kinds of expeditions, as the climbers need to be able to conserve their energy and get to the summit and back to their camps before night fall. On August 1st, these mountaineers failed to do that, and when an icefall knocked out their guidance lines, they became stranded or lost on the mountain face.
It’s when the film gets to this part of the story that it manages to achieve some form of impact. In one horrifying scene, falling ice wipes a climber out in the blink of an eye, without any warning whatsoever. Yet even the accounts of such deaths are underwhelming. Each time someone dies, the filmmakers make the baffling decision to put up a title card with their dates of birth and death. It’s meant to be a tribute but instead is utterly tone deaf.
It doesn’t help that the movie pays a disproportionate amount of attention to one of the fatalities: Gerard McDonnell. It makes sense, given that this is a mostly Irish production, and McDonnell was the first Irishman to reach the summit of K2. But the doc indulges his story to the neglect of the other players. And it focuses on the controversy around differing accounts of his actions on the mountain in the aftermath of the disaster while paying little mind to how other family members of the deceased reacted, or what other survivors now think.
The doc is attempting not just to examine this disaster but to look at how conflicting recollections of events shape the popular perception of them. To that end, the film also features Walter Bonatti, who was a part of the Italian team to first successfully climb K2, though he was not one of the members to reach the summit. Bonatti was later accused of hoarding oxygen tanks during the expedition, which he bitterly argued against for years.
McDonnell is directly compared to Bonatti, whose integration into the main story is weak, since the point of his appearance is only evident at the end. The movie doesn’t devote enough attention to this (very worthy) idea to justify its inclusion. It’s understandable that director Nick Ryan and his crew wanted to do more than just tell a tale of death and survival, but they get in the way of a coherent story in the process. It’s especially disappointing considering that this comes from writer Mark Monroe (The Cove; Sound City), who has done some terrific work in docs in recent years.
The Summit takes material that’s full of promise and riddles it with badly-calculated artistic flourishes and generally misaimed ideas. One could read the Wikipedia page about the 2008 K2 disaster and come away with a better understanding of what happened, and why.
The Summit is now playing in select cities. For more info, see the film’s official website here.