A Picturesque Stare at Death
The cold facts about the August 2008 tragedy on the K2 summit are harrowing enough: on a group trek, 11 of 24 climbers died, and some vanished, without a trace of their whereabouts. This has been re-dramatized effectively by director Nick Ryan into a documentary about that fateful trip, an exploration less into why climbers hike to death defying heights and more into the logistics of doing so. The majesty and myth of the mountain seems universally inherent, but only a small population sees it as a destination to conquer, not just photograph.
Ryan melds archival footage of the actual climb and seamlessly melds recreated footage to tell this story, a verisimilitude that appropriately increases our ability to empathize with the treacherous conditions of the Northwestern region of the Himalayan mountain range. The Death Zone (appropriately and implicitly named) and summit of K2 reaches eight thousand meters, a height that forces an internal fight in every breath and often causes delusions to those unable to supply themselves enough oxygen. The body effectively shuts down at that altitude, which means that staying on a strict schedule is not an arbitrary outline but a way to survive.
The likelihood of death however increases rapidly on the descent. One of four climbers who make the decision to climb will die, a percentage of mortality that is visible in the grave placards and memorials etched in tribute to past fallen climbers from around the world. The Summit could be dually realized as a title for the diverse groups of climbers working together, gathered from France, Korea, Italy, Norway, Serbia, and Spain. The most personal story regards Ger McDonnell, an Irishman with the heart of a lion and unfortunately one that may have also cost him his life.
There is a different code of morality eight thousand meters higher than sea level that dictates an individualist approach to survival. Ryan, with writer Mark Monroe, never dives too deep into the ostensibly irrational reason to traverse a long and grueling piece of land with such a high death toll. Cecilie Skog, who bravely recounts losing her husband Rolf Bae during the trek, defends her intrepidity by examining how we witness car accidents everyday and yet still all decide to drive. It’s a shaky analogy, but one not necessarily important to accept the fact that man will always try to conquer nature, in one way or another.
And it’s hard to disagree with their desire upon witnessing the view from above, a shot of eternity with the triangular sun setting shadow of the mountain. The picture, accompanied with beautiful surrounding panoramas of the range, remains for the last moments of sunlight, just a few minutes to appreciate the fruits of a month long journey to the top. Then it gets dangerous.
Descending the summit requires passing the serac, a boulder of ice ready to break at any moment, and sliding through a bottleneck between two rock ledges before declining to subsequent base camps. Communication on the mountain suffers, ropes aren’t where they need to be, bodily functions slow down, and family members back home don’t get the prompt phone call.
This is breathtaking work made all the more mystical in the accounts given afterward from survivors Marco Confortola and Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, among others, supplying oftentimes-contradictory details to the exact events of a day ending in disaster. The line between a tragedy like this and making history is finite, one wrong step or one bad pick of the ice. “History is written by the victors,” said Winston Churchill. The Summit is at least a worthy attempt to subvert that basic belief and return humanity to people who ill fatedly became statistics.
Photos courtesy IFC Films
- ‘The Summit’ Review: What Really Happened On One Of Mountaineering’s Deadliest Days? (medicaldaily.com)
- What Drives Extreme Athletes to Risk Life and Death? (psychologytoday.com)
- Watch ‘The Summit’ Trailer (reellifewithjane.com)