In the summer of 2008 the mountaineering world was shocked at the events that unfolded on K2, the second tallest mountain in the world at 8611 meters (28,251 ft). Over the course of a few days, running from July 31 to August 2, a total of 11 people died on the mountain, most following a successful summit bid. In the months that followed, many stories of heroism and survival followed, as did a bit of controversy, as the climbers, along with the rest of the world, attempted to figure out just what happened.
The events that took place on K2 during that fateful season are the subject of a new film entitled The Summit, which as been in theaters for the past week. Over the weekend I finally got the opportunity to catch this powerful documentary and although I went into it knowing most of what happened, I still found it to be extremely tense and enthralling.
For those who aren’t familiar with the story, on July 31, 2008 a large group of climbers moved up K2 amidst great weather on a summit bid. Over the course of the following days, a series of events led to the worst tragedy that the mountain has ever seen. Everything from logistical errors to late summits conspired to put the climbers in danger, but the situation was made all the worse when a large serac hanging over a portion of the mountain known as the Bottleneck, collapsed down the face, sweeping away the fixed ropes that the teams would need to descend. Some managed to down-climb without the ropes, others fell to their death. By the time the dust had settled, 11 people were killed and several more were injured or suffering from exposure.
The film does a good job of blending actual footage from the 2008 season with scenes that were reenacted for dramatic effect. Director Nick Ryan fills time between those scenes with interviews with the actual survivors, each of whom shares their own very personal experiences from those difficult days on the mountain.
Over the course of the film’s 1 hour, 40 minute run time, the tale unfolds in stilted fashion. At times the main focus is on what exactly happened on those disastrous few days but numerous flashbacks to weeks – and in some cases years – earlier help to fill in some gaps. Much of that information provides context and history on the mountain and the climbers, but there were times when it felt shoehorned in to add padding. This was especially true of the scenes that featured legendary Italian climber Walter Bonatti, who was there to discuss the first successful climb of the mountain in 1954. But because his tale isn’t told very well, his presence in the film probably left some audience members wondering exactly why he was in the film.
Because I wrote extensively about the tragedy back when it happened, I had a good idea of what went down before I ever set foot in the theater. Still, The Summit did put everything into perspective as the story more-or-less unfolded in chronological order. It helps to put the perspective exactly what happened, which essentially can be broken down to being a series of unfortunate events. There wasn’t one or two big mistakes that you could point to that led to the disaster, but instead it was several small choices and decisions that were eventually exasperated by the collapse of the serac.
If you have followed the story over the years, you probably know that some controversy erupted after the fact due to shifting stories by Italian climber Marco Confortola. One of the casualties on the mountain that day was Ger McDonnell, an Irish climber who was much loved in the mountaineering community. In the aftermath of the K2 disaster, Confortola said he and McDonnell attempted to help injured Korean climbers down the mountain but due to exhaustion and the lack of fixed lines, they were unable to help. Marco then claimed that he tried to get Ger to go down together, but he instead inexplicably turned back up the mountain, where he died. McDonnell’s friends and family don’t believe that is the case however, as they have asserted that the Irishman would have stayed to help the injured climbers. They suspect that he was there, with the Koreans, and that Confortola abandoned him and went down on his own. It was later reported that McDonnell was seen being swept up in another ice collapse.
What really happened that day will remain a mystery, as Confortola is sticking with his story – at least for now. But the film seems to have two agendas, the first is to tell the story of the tragedy and the second is to clear McDonnell’s name. It succeeds to a degree in both areas.
So, is The Summit worth seeing in the theater? If you’re a mountaineering junkie, then I’d say without a doubt. It puts into context the events that took place on K2 five years ago and fills in some gaps of the story. It also allows us to see the mountaineers that were there in a very real, human light. Watching Ceclia Skog talk about the final moments of her husbands life was incredible moving for example.
I do think the film does a good job of explaining most things for non-climbers to absorb what is happening as well, although it probably won’t shed any clarity on why mountaineers go to these big, dangerous mountains in the first place.
It is difficult to say that you actually “like” a film like this one. After all, it is about the real life deaths of 11 climbers. Still, it is easy to recognize that it is a well made documentary that treats the subject matter with respect and reverence. It is a also a powerful film that will stay with you after you’ve left the theater, which is exactly what it is meant to do I suppose.
Find out more at the film’s official website, including where it is showing near you.
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