By Savanah Wood
K2 is a beautiful, formidable mountain, located in the Himalayas on the border of China and Pakistan, and its summit is one of the most respected and sought after elevations in the climbing community. Everest may be taller and more well-known to the mountaineering layman, but to say K2 is more difficult is an understatement–for every four climbers climbers who achieve the eminence of reaching the summit, one dies in the attempt. You may recognize K2 from the 2000 climbing thriller Vertical Limit, but more than likely you’re familiar with it in the wake of the 2008 K2 Disaster, which swept the global news cycle after eleven climbers were killed trying to scale the perilous peak. The Summit, directed by Nick Ryan, aims to piece together the events that led up to the tragic event.
Even documentaries need a narrative, but Ryan seemed discontented with the idea of building his structure around following the events and mishaps chronologically until well in to the film. The first third is beautifully shot and edited, but aimless. Sweeping, awe-inspiring portraits of the mountain are punctuated by strings of interviews and accounts of events and people that I hadn’t had time to acclimate myself to. It seemed Ryan had a difficult time deciding whether he wanted to start at the base of the mountain or take a helicopter straight to the top, so he tried to do both. It isn’t that the beginning of the film was extraordinarily muddled, it’s that it lacked the kind of clarity necessary to hold an audience in an informational piece.
Once The Summit hits the play-by-play chronology of the incident is when it hits its stride. Ryan utilizes a combination of footage from the actual day of the events, reenactments (that were confusing at first but in time blended in with the real footage well enough that it didn’t bother me anymore), and interviews with family members and survivors of the the K2 Disaster to create a paint by numbers portrait of the tragedy. The depth of emotion was hardly present except for in a few of these interviews, and those moments struck a greater chord with me than any staggering view or statistic. The deaths that hit me the hardest were those that had personal testimonies, families, footage of their normal lives–something that could have perhaps been explored further with others, particularly in the erratic first section.
Although it may have oversold the depth of the mystery, The Summit raised unanswerable questions about some of the details of the circumstances leading up to and during the accident. It’s truly a testimony to the duplicitous nature of human memory–every survivor has a different account, attributes different causalities, and accepts a different truth than the others. Fact and retrospection overlap and blur each other out to the point of unreliability. There’s a reason eyewitness accounts are never considered irrefutable. At the end of the film, you’re left with an understanding of the events but an incomplete picture–a confusing combination of fulfillment and dissatisfaction that took a few moments of introspection to reconcile. I came to the conclusion that my experience with The Summit was largely a positive one, and my ache to know more about the unknowable events on K2 in 2008 was a sign of investment that the film distilled in me–despite its flaws, it still stirred me.