Climbing Up is the Easy Part– K2’s The Summit (Movie Review)

The Summit TNIt’s a well-known fact that the world’s highest mountain peak is Mount Everest. But within the mountaineering community, it isn’t necessarily the most notable claim to fame to conquer its summit. Mount Everest has had some 3,000 people successfully reach its peak, but to the northwest between Pakistan and China, lies K2— the second highest mountain just 784 feet shy of Everest. With less than 300 successful summit attempts and a 20% higher death toll amongst its climbers compared to Everest, climbing K2 has proven to be one of the most difficult and deadliest mountains in the world. The Summit uses interviews, footage and photography shot by the climbers, and reenactments in an attempt to recreate the deadliest and most controversial day in K2 history.

In August 2008, 25 climbers from around the globe gathered in the foothills of K2 ready to conquer its summit, but it was the decent that brought the deadly misfortune to 11 members of the party. Director Nick Ryan and writer Mark Monroe patch together the mysterious details that shroud this controversial expedition. The result is a bombardment of viewpoints from both the surviving climbing party, family members of the perished, and various mountaineering experts. The timeline of events becomes somewhat muddled as multiple characters tell a new and different side of the story with each interview.

It’s not only the tragic events of the K2 ascent that make up this gripping story. The climbers discuss and explain their morale and code they uphold while attempting such dangerous expeditions. As some witnessed their fellow climbers perish, the majority carried on the climb and later compare it to passing a fatal car accident on the highway– not everyone will stop. This slightly disturbing, yet intriguing philosophy was unsupported by one, Pemba Gyalje, a Nepalese Sherpa who climbed back up the mountain and saved two climbers from what would have been certain death. Gyalje’s heroic efforts did not go unnoticed as National Geographic named him their 2008 Adventurer of the Year.

As the interviews are conducted, it’s clear that there truly is no way to present a concise recount of the events as all of the surviving members of the expedition have cloudy recognition of their time on the mountain. This is a result of high-altitude cerebral edema. When exposed to extreme altitude, excessive fluid begins to surround the brain and cells are starved of oxygen resulting in poor coordination, fatigue, and disorientation and eventually resulting in death if lower altitude is not reached. One may begin to present with these conditions at a height of 14,000 feet. K2’s peak is above 28,000 feet. As the story initially leaked to the media, speculation and assumption was mixed with the already unclear story resulting in hurtful accusations and falsifications. Those interviewed touch on this topic and discuss how these contradictions only further fueled the torment with which they are plagued.

The Summit delivers suspense you’d expect from a horror movie. Your muscle tense and tighten as your breathing becomes shallow and rapid right from the opening scene. The power and fear K2 commands is similar to that of a theatrical killer, but ironically, moments of relief come in waves from the visual feast that is K2’s landscape. Outdoor enthusiast of every terrain will appreciate the breathtaking visuals presented in a combination from both filmmaker and climber perspectives.

The Summit’s multi-angled approach delivers a dramatic and thrilling experience from start to finish. However, with the sheer number of characters, each of which having a varying opinion, the storyline can become unclear and difficult to follow. The documentary remains neutral throughout and neither writer nor director try to infer one side of a story as fact over another. Mystery will forever entangled this K2 expedition, but The Summit does a commendable job presenting and honoring a group of passionate and skilled mountaineers in their final days doing what they loved.

The Summit Poster


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