A fairly compelling portrait of one of the world’s most dangerous pastimes, "The Summit" revolves around the events of the infamous K2 tragedy in 2008. While eighteen of the twenty-two climbers reached the top of K2, eleven died either during the climb up or the perilous descent down. Director Nick Ryan along with writer Mark Monroe ("Chasing Ice") craft an intimate look at the fateful climb, while raising questions about the sport itself and the questionable memories of those that survived.
At the time, a lot of controversy surrounded what happened on the mountain, mostly about how half of the people that were attempting to climb K2 did not survive. Once the survivors were interviewed, stories didn’t match, and this brought up more questions. Ryan and Monroe use that mystery as the basis for their film. The problem is that the mystery is a perplexing one, as the film almost posits us as already knowing the basic story. For those that didn’t follow it, the film’s odd structure catapults us into the fray, shows us some startling and unsettling events, and then backtracks to shortly before the ascent. The story itself is handled as if there were some diabolical machinations going on, whereas it never seems like anything more than a case of unpreparedness and nature causing a series of awful catastrophes.
Perhaps that was the intent: To titillate us with the promise of a shocking truth, that’s not really there. The interesting aspects of the story are the people involved and the interviews Ryan and Monroe got from them. Add in archival footage from the actual climb along with carefully constructed re-enactments and it truly is a fascinating look into a dangerous sport. It’s just not as jaw dropping or mysterious as the filmmakers would lead you to believe, which ultimately disappoints.
Press notes talk repeatedly about the various reasons climbers do what they do, but we don’t get the answers to that in the film. We never understand the passion, whereas tragic documentaries like "Grizzly Man" present such a full portrait that the tragedy is made even more terrible when it occurs. Here, I didn’t feel much when people we have learned about didn’t make it; I was more or less still trying to figure out where the film was trying to take us.
There are quite a few players that we follow here: Ger McDonnell, who died a hero being one of the main focuses, as well as Pemba, the Sherpa who became a bigger hero than anyone let on. There are a number of others whom we meet either in interview form or via photos and stories told from friends and family that also play key roles. I guess my issue with the film is that I wanted a clearer through-line. I wanted to know upfront: What is the big mystery here? Why did, and do, people question what really happened that day? Why is this not accepted as just a simple tragedy of nature?
The film keeps teasing that something else occurred, and that people were being quiet about that, but when it’s all said and done, it seems fairly cut and dried. It’s an interesting look into mountain climbing and an awful yet important story to tell. I just needed to be more invested in the people and know exactly what the end game was supposed to be. It’s not a great film, but it is a good film and worth watching for those interested in stories such as this. It’s just not going to change the face of documentaries, nor is it going to pack the wallop I feel the filmmakers hoped it would.