The Summit is a 2012 Irish documentary about an ill-fated K2 climbing attempt by a group of expeditions on the mountain in 2008. The incident is one of the largest losses of life on a 8000 meter peak and attained mainstream attention that had not been seen in mountaineering community since the 1996 Mount Everest disaster, which was chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s now classic, Into Thin Air.
I’d been looking forward to watching this film for well over a year when I first read that it was being released. As a very amateur mountaineer, I, like many of the people who are profiled in this film, are and were likely motivated by the great successes and failures of the mountaineers of history. This is a community of like-minded individuals where names like Hillary, Messner, Bonington, Scott, and Kukuckza are considered to be on the par of great athletes like Jordan, Montana, and Ruth. I myself have read countless volumes of literature describing both colossal successes and the amazing failures, the latter of which usually resulted in the loss of a life if not lives. There’s a reason why I’m on a first name basis, at least in the rhetorical sense with people like George Mallory (a hero of mine), Sandy Irvine, Toni Kurz, Andreas Hinterstoisser, Joe Tasker, Peter Boardman, and Wanda Rutkiewicz. Mostly because while I respect and have great admiration for what they accomplished in their lives (in every case very short), but because I want to avoid what happened to them on the great peaks of this amazing Earth like the Eiger, Everest, and Kangchenjunga. Herzog’s Annapurna is as gripping in its success as Into Thin Air is in describing the terrible tragedy that unfolded on Everest in 1996. I’ve been fortunate enough in the past few years to do some very minor climbing in the Alps and to stand at the foot of great Himalayan giants, knowing the history of who came before me and what had occurred, both great and terrible high above me.
The 2008 K2 disaster has long struck me as entirely avoidable as is the case with many mountaineering disasters in hindsight. There are 3 books that focus solely on the disaster that I’ve read (Bowley, van Rooijen, and Wilkinson) with another 2 that I’ve yet to read (O’Brien’s bio of Ger McDonnell, and Marco Confortola’s whose book has yet to be translated to English). That’s 5 books in 5 years, a somewhat staggering amount. I’m also sure (and eager) to read anything that Cecilie Skog may have to say, who is in my opinion among the most sympathetic figures to emerge from this terrible event in 2008. Needless to say, my respect and admiration for Cecilie Skog and Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, know no bounds.
The film is a good documentary that is composed very similarly to the wonderful “Storm Over Everest” (2008), made by the inimitable David Breashears about the 1996 Everest disaster. It has both actors re-enacting key moments on the mountain, actual footage, and is narrated mostly by the participants both there and those that were waiting for their loved one (in this film’s case, only Ger McDonnell) back home. It starts at the very beginning of the trek into K2 with very brief background information and then thrusts right into the climb itself. Its a very tight 97 minutes. I’m not the spoiling type, so I’m not going to go over the minutiae of the story. One of the real joys of this film is seeing and hearing from the Italian great Walter Bonatti, one of the greatest explorers this world has ever known and who was a member of the first K2 expedition that reached the summit, but he himself did not, however, I am critical of this inclusion below.
The use of actual footage in this documentary cannot be understated. The mountain views are truly spectacular and legitimate. You see the actual climbers in the midst of their climbs, 11 of which did not return. You see the beauty and the grim. Hearing from Ger McDonnell’s loved ones was truly touching and you can feel their agony and the weight of their loss in these words. On a whole, its a fairly meticulous project that years obviously went into. Hours after my viewing, I will not forget the sound effect of a serac calving into an avalanche, which is a sound that will stick with you whether you climb or you don’t.
What didn’t work.
-Bonatti, through no fault of his own. It was clear that the filmmakers were trying to convey the history and weight of the mountain with the inclusion of the Bonatti interviews, but the cuts and interjections he provided took away from the story this film is trying to tell in both content and the way they were cut into the film. It was truly remarkable to hear from this man, who lived a life that volumes have been written about and to see actual footage from the 1954 expedition was amazing. I do not feel that it added to the 2008 story. Bonatti’s story could and should be a documentary on its own. In my opinion, the 1953 American Expedition would’ve been better served as a historical waypoint as the Bonatti expedition was a success save for the controversy that followed. It’s arguable that Pemba Gyalje’s actions on K2 during these days is “up there” with Pete Schoening’s miraculous belay. I was truly excited to hear and see this man in this film, but the purpose of his inclusion is never fully understood as there’s no real similarity between the expeditions. There is a distinct disconnect concerning the historical connection the filmmakers are trying to make.
-The entire story was not told – I understand the limits of film making. However, this film as a documentary briefs over far too much important and in some cases, incredible detail. As its an Irish-made film and had the full participation of the McDonnell family, I knew it was to be “Ger-slanted”. This is understandable and respectable, as I gained even more admiration for him as a person through this film. However, I felt that the lack of detail of Pemba’s actions, Wilco’s incredible ordeal to survive, and the all too brief explanation of Hugues’ and the Koreans deaths were a disservice to the viewer and to their memory. The explanation for Mr. Kim not being heard from is appreciated. Not hearing from Maarten van Eck or Heleen van Rooijen was disappointing. I hope that a “director’s cut” is one day viewable as the entire story of these days in 2008 deserve to be told. The detail is paid to one member of the expedition more than any other, which again, is understandable considering the source but a bit of a disservice to the rest of the members of the expedition and to the viewer. The end comes all too swiftly.
Should you see it?
Yes. It’s a well made and thought out piece for both the non-mountaineer and mountaineer alike. The actual footage is extraordinary, the interviews are cohesive and plotted well. If this is your introduction to the story, there is a lot that isn’t covered that deserved to be. It’s not definitive, however I feel that the promotion purports it to be. It’s focus wants to be wider, but in the end it’s narrow and not quite all encompassing. It feels incomplete in many respects and its slanted towards one member of many who perished in this incredible tragedy.