INDIEWIRE.COM
INDIEWIRE.COM

4/5 stars

I could never be a mountaineer. I lose my breath climbing to the top of Yates and constantly second guess my decision to attempt the ascent. While I remain content at low altitudes, certain people feel obligated to travel miles into the sky at a high risk. To a layman, the trek up Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, sounds like the most perilous climb imaginable, but to experienced mountain climbers, K2, the world’s second largest peak, holds more significance because it has a greater degree of risk. The new documentary, The Summit, looks to explain the events of summer 2008, when a group of expeditions to the top of K2 ended in 11 fatalities. The film combines actual footage from the climbers with new interviews and reenactments of actual events. Although at times difficult to watch, The Summit provides an insider’s perspective on mountain climbing and brings much needed clarity to the tragedy of 2008.

In May of that year, 70 mountaineers from 15 teams started the climb to the top of K2. More than two months later, those teams converged at the death zone, a treacherous area above 8,000 meters and the last obstacle before the summit. Although 18 climbers made it to the peak, only 11 made it back down. Most of the fatalities occurred during the descent, which, quite often, is the most dangerous part of the expedition. “When we reached the summit, I was both happy and unhappy because we were only halfway,” said Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, one of the survivors of the trek.

Nick Ryan, the film’s director and producer, was especially attracted to the story. “I’m not a climber,” he said. “I wanted to know why people put themselves at such a risk.” K2, in particular, carries an enormous risk. For every four people who reach the top, one will die trying. The Summit directly addresses what compels people to climb; one mountaineer theorized that all children have a desire to climb and some people never grow out of it. But more frequently, the film relies on sucking the audience in — or, rather, pulling the audience up — to the world of K2. “All I can ever hope for is for people to get a sense of what it’s like,” Ryan said. He achieves that in The Summit, revealing the appeal of the mountain and the friendly spirit of the climb. It becomes clear that these brave men and women are not danger seekers, but instead friends and acquaintances who find adventure to be rewarding.

Although it explores the motivations behind climbing, The Summit also strives to shed light on exactly what led to the deaths of 11 of these climbers. At a time when not even the people climbing knew what was happening, reports from the media began to circulate and often misrepresented the situation, questioning the capabilities of the mountaineers. The true story, to Ryan, was “one that needed to be told.” Using visually stunning recreations of the events, the film answers questions and fills in the holes left empty by the press.

More than just a film about mountain climbing, Ryan intended The Summit to be a story “about human emotions.” K2 tests not only the physical endurance of the climbers but also their emotional and moral strength. In an environment where instincts dictate to trust only oneself, climbers must work together and deal with loss 27,000 feet in the air.

At times, it can be easy to get disoriented watching The Summit. The film tries to explain concepts with mountaineering terms that most of its audience will find unfamiliar, and some viewers lacking experience in the area may still feel like they don’t have enough equipment. However, any moviegoer can grasp the allure, beauty and danger of K2 captured in the film. Awe-inspiring and gut wrenching,The Summit stays frozen in the mind long after you see it.

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