While Mt. Everest is the world's tallest peak, K2, the world's 2nd highest peak which sits near the China/Pakistan border, is considered the more difficult and dangerous of the two to climb, reserved only for true mountaineers. And how dangerous? Of the 300 climbers who made it to the top of K2, one quarter of them died on the way down -- and that's not counting the ones who died on the way up. On August 1, 2008, 25 climbers from several international expeditions decided to team up to reach the summit on a spectacularly cloudless day. Yet of those 25, 18 made it to the top, but 11 died or were never recovered in the deadliest 48-hour period K2 has ever seen. The documentary The Summit tells that story in a film about adventure, disaster, and survival that attempts to solve the mystery of what actually happened over those fateful two days.
Watch the trailer for The Summit below.
One reason for the mystery is that K2 is 8,611 meters high, meaning that the final 600 meters to the summit are in the cheerily-named "death zone" where there isn't enough oxygen in the air to sustain human life for more than short periods. With your brain and every other part of you starved of oxygen, brain function can become impaired, causing poor judgment, madness, and loss of memory. While many aspects of the disaster are well-documented and corroborated, others rely only on the accounts and possibly compromised memories of the survivors, some of whom may have reasons not to tell the truth.
But what is known about the disaster is harrowing and terrifying, as The Summit shows in impressive detail how a steady accumulation of accidents, miscalculations, rescue attempts, and delays put the climbers far enough behind schedule that they became trapped in the dead zone as darkness fell. At the same time, The Summit attempts to solve the mystery of what became of Ger McDonnell, the only Irishman to have ever summited K2. With McDonnell's family questioning the account of the last climber to have seen Ger alive, they travel to Pakistan to find their own answers.
The cinematography of The Summit is spectacular, with stunning aerial footage that captures the hypnotizing mix of awe, fear, danger, and mystery K2 evokes that drives so many climbers to take the ultimate risk. The film also uses haunting video and photos shot by the climbers themselves, as well as some very impressive re-enactments that are often so good that it's sometimes hard to distinguish them from the climbers' footage. All of this serves an expertly-crafted structure which I assume is due in large part to award-winning writer Mark Monroe, who also wrote the scripts for excellent documentaries like The Cove, The Tillman Story, and Chasing Ice, as well as editor Ben Stark, who won the documentary editing award at 2013's Sundance Film Festival.
While I definitely recommend The Summit -- provided your nerves can handle it -- a big question it only barely attempts to answer is one that I as a non-climber can't shake, which is why seemingly intelligent people would spend tens of thousands of dollars and risk death and the destruction of their families to climb a mountain as lethal as K2, where the tiniest misstep or change in weather could kill you. When you add the fact that it's accepted climber code that climbers are not obligated to save the life of a distressed climber if it jeopardizes a summit attempt, and the whole thing takes on an even more disturbing layer of narcissism. How on earth could you take pride in summiting a mountain if it meant leaving someone to die?
That's a huge topic deserving of its own film, and I don't fault The Summit for not tackling it. But with a disaster like this that left eleven families shattered, it's hard not to feel like it's the elephant -- or the mountain -- in the room.