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What goes up doesn’t always come down

Tragedy on The Summit

October 22, 2013, 12:00 am

In August 2008, 18 climbers ascended K2. Eleven died. Nick Ryan’s documentary makes clear why climbers (some of them, anyway) consider K2 more dangerous than the taller Everest. It makes clear why assholes live and nice guys die, and what happens when, worse, you’re unreliable. It doesn’t explain exactly what happened—and takes a circuitous route to get there—but it’s still compelling stuff.

All 18 climbers were experienced, and a perfect storm of shit resulted in casualties that maybe, though it’s impossible to know for sure, could have been avoided. But that’s a chance climbers take each time they go up—they may never come down no matter how good they are.

Piecing together scant found footage, video of the climbers discussing climbing plans, reenactments, and photographs taken on the mountain, we slowly begin to see what happened. There are some questions that go unanswered—a key survivor refused to take part in the film—but that’s natural in a piece in which there’s bound to be a ton of finger pointing. One in four people die descending K2, but 11 of 18 is a very grim statistic indeed.

One of the biggest unsolved mysteries of The Summit is why the Korean team leader, who was supposed to assemble his team early and affix ropes for them and the others to use, did not. If the Korean team leader had left his tent on time, maybe the ropes all the other climbers needed would have been affixed to the mountain earlier. Then they all could have gotten down faster.

But that’s not what happened. The Korean team didn’t start when it was supposed to and one of the following teams got a late start with the ropes. (One of the survivors derisively details about seeing cigarette smoke come from the Korean team’s tents all night.) It would have been a help to the storytelling to hear the guy’s version of events.

Then there’s the mystery—which is The Summit’s main focus—of what happened to Ger McDonnell, the first Irishman to summit K2. Did he die helping others? Did he freeze to death? Take a fall? His friends and family make up a good portion of the interviews, and though they afford him near Christ-like praise, which, depending on your point of view is heartwarming or irritating (put me down for irritating).

The Summit doesn’t really answer the question, “Why would you climb K2?” But it doesn’t need to. The mountain is beautiful, and anyone given to adventure or pushing physical limits—even if mountain climbing isn’t your particular bent—will understand the desire to take part in such a risky enterprise.

The most fascinating (living) figure in all the drama is Wilco van Rooijen, a Dutch climber and, to the uncharitable maybe, a certifiable jerk. Or maybe it’s just his deliberate and confrontational manner. Whatever you think of him, he’s alive, despite snow blindness and being stuck outside in the cold for two nights on the side of K2.

And then there’s Pemba Gyalje, McDonnell’s good friend and perhaps the key to the entire puzzle. He rescued several people but wasn’t able to find McDonnell.

What must it be like to see climbers dying meters above you and have to make the decision to save yourself or try to help? McDonnell found out but didn’t live to tell. Van Rooijen, Pemba and others fill in the gaps. The Summit is a fascinating story of survival, willpower, strength and frailty.

The Summit wants to fill in the gaps in the story, but it doesn’t quite get there. Maybe what happened is just too murky—everyone remembers differently—or maybe it’s not edited very well. But it’s still worth seeing, even if the mountain is as big a mystery entering the theater as leaving.

Directed by Nick Ryan
CCA Cinematheque
99 min.


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