Pemba Gyalje Sherpa survived the deadliest day in mountain-climbing history. The tragedy unfolds in The Summit.
Thanks to the advent of lightweight camera gear and sport technology allowing the masses greater access to altitude, the climbing movie has become a genre unto itself as an ever increasing number of thrill-seekers swarm the world’s highest peaks.
Yet, for all the open, snowy terrain, making a standout climbing film remains a lofty challenge.
Just as amateur trekkers bound onto the slopes with naive conviction and gigantic egos, the same could be said for inexperienced filmmakers looking to make a name for themselves.
Without the right moral framework, the climbing movie can slide into the crevasse of self-absorption, or get buried under an avalanche of self-importance. After all, no one really needs to climb any mountain. All the big peaks have long been conquered.
There is no news value in the quest, or any adventurer’s spirit that deserves the reward of collective awe.
With the exception of porters and sherpas, the people who end up pitching tents and downing Diamox in eiderdown jackets are not there for anyone but themselves.
So unless something dreadful happens, the climbing movie becomes a big so what? — a reality TV show no one can relate to, and that’s not fun. It’s not even interesting.
Fortunately for first-time feature director Nick Ryan, everything went very wrong for the group of climbers who ended up at the top of K2 in 2008.
Considered the deadliest day in mountain-climbing history, 11 out of 25 climbers perished among the icy seracs and rock faces of the Savage Mountain, so called for its record of claiming one in four mountaineers.
One of those climbers was an Irishman named Ger McDonnell. McDonnell had successfully summited K2 before, but had a hankering to return with his good friend and climbing buddy Pemba Gyalje Sherpa. McDonnell and Gyalje made it to the top, took a picture, and carefully picked their way down in the quickening darkness.
What happened next is completely confusing, but it forms the bulk of Ryan’s content as he tries to piece it all together, with limited success.
Hoping to use different versions of the story to isolate a unique picture of the truth, Ryan interviews many of the survivors and their respective teams.
He also gathers news and archival footage. He even goes to great lengths to recreate certain dramatic scenes for the camera, hoping his viewer will have enough information to glean what happened without necessarily pointing any fingers directly at the presumably culpable parties.
To his credit, we do get a pretty good idea of what happened, but there’s no drama to the denouement because we get lost in the multiple time frames.
No doubt Ryan was hoping to match the storytelling finesse of Kevin Macdonald’s breathless classic, Touching the Void, but he just didn’t pull it off.
Despite the undeniable tragedy standing in the middle of the frame, we get no real sense of character outside of McDonnell and Gyalje, the only two characters who seem remotely relatable because they attempt a truly daring rescue. Or at least, so we are told.
According to Ryan’s movie and the first-hand account of Gyalje, the Korean group did not have enough rope, slid off the icy serac and became entangled in the “death zone.”
Rescues at this altitude are considered suicidal, but McDonnell and Gyalje made the attempt to save their fellow climbers. Gyalje survived. McDonnell did not.
By the end of the movie, there’s no clear conclusion. You get the feeling we should hate some of the survivors because they appear to be lying, but there is no clear path to judgment in The Summit.
Ryan creates a movie that wanders around in circles, growing more light-headed with each tour of the facts. It never lies down in the snow and surrenders, but it never presents a coherent story.
On the upside, thanks to Gyalje’s palpable sincerity and spiritual presence, The Summit rises above the foothills of cliché to bring some existential oomph to the accident scene.
3 stars of 5
Starring: Christine Barnes, Hoselito Bite, Marco Confortola
Directed by: Nick Ryan
Running time: 95 minutes
Parental guidance: Some offensive language