It takes a hardy soul to climb a mountain. Any mountain, really. But for the likes of something like K2 – the second highest peak in the world and inarguably the most dangerous – it almost takes full blown psychosis. In the documentary The Summit, director Nick Ryan looks back on the deadliest 48 hours in the peak’s history, and while its consistently thrilling and full of in-depth analysis about the type of person actually strong enough to attempt such a feat, it’s saddled with a bizarrely Rashomon-styled structure that gives the film an oddly directionless feeling.
On August 1st, 2008, 25 climbers from all over the world set out on several teams to make the most deadly ascent in the world. In a good year for every four people who reach the summit, one will still die trying. In this fateful month, 11 of the 25 climbers wouldn’t come home. Ryan tells the story of the tragic month from the still somewhat spotty recollections of climbers from around the world who survived, people who survived the trip previously, aspect ratio shifting recreations of what might have happened, and most chillingly, a great deal of archival footage that’s terrifying to behold because the whole time it’s unsure if the people on the tape survived.
Delays, illogical thinking, and quite often misplaced optimism led many to their demise on this fateful trek. With many describing the intense lack of oxygen, debilitating exhaustion, and a section of the mountain that’s essentially a 100 metre vertical climb, it’s interesting to note which people on the mountain that day were there for personal betterment or glory. Some would be willing to help their fellow climbers. To others, death means nothing if it’s around them and all that matters is the summit and the equally perilous descent. Making things even more harrowing to think about is how these deadly days weren’t even encumbered by awful weather. At times, the conditions were as perfect as they were ever going to get.
Ryan handles the stories of loss in respectful and genuinely touching ways. The archival footage is as marvellous as it is unnerving, and the re-enactments are well staged and shot. But there’s something irksome about the way Ryan has jumbled up all of his stories to tell them one at a time. There was probably no actual timeline to be gleaned across all the stories, but when adding elements about the geography and history of the mountain to the more personal stories and even throwing those bits around seemingly at random, it’s more disorienting than novel. It’s still exciting in its individual moments and stories, but there had to be a better way to assemble it all.