When the premise of a film deals with the story of a group of people away from civilization in which one by one members of said group die on mysterious circumstances, a standard horror flick comes to mind. Nonetheless, such description of horrendous occurrences applies not to a fictional narrative with the purpose of sensational gruesomeness, but to a true story of man against nature in a hostile environment. Nick Ryan's documentary The Summit attempts to piece together the events at the K2 Mountain in August 2008, a series of tragedies that lead to 11 people being killed.But, at such great heights, with the brutal damage to the senses, the weather, fatigue, and fear, it's hard to decipher why did it all happen.
Told through a series of interviews and reenactments Ryan’s exploration focuses on a certain individual among the big group of climbers. Irishman Ger McDonell became the first man from his country to get to the summit; sadly the story doesn’t turn out great for the charming guy, as friends and family describe him. It is important to mention, since the film fails to make a clear point of it, that all these adventures go into the trip knowing that 1 in every 4 people that attempt to reach the peak die. It is essentially a very expensive suicide mission for which people pay to be exposed to great danger. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t delve into the nature of such decision, or the motivation that pushes anyone to embark into it considering the fatality rate.
Nevertheless, there is a perpetual sense of suspense throughout the film that makes of it a riveting watch. As the different climbers tell their version of the fateful events the stories become more complex, intertwined, and at times completely illogical. Given that the same moral parameters don’t apply at 8,000 feet above the ground, the only significant rule is to guard one’s own life disregarding those that stay in the way. The last part of the film turns into a whodunit spectacle in which the media played a big part, leaving the task of unveiling the truth to Ger’s loyal local pal Pemba Gyalje Sherpa.
Perhaps even more thought provoking is the humanity that is lost at the mountain, or even before attempting to conquer it. By hiring the locals to carry
their equipment and guide them, foreign climbers are basically entitled to gamble with their lives, in an already irrational quest.
The amount of effort, resources, physical and emotional endurance these people are willing to risk for a fleeting, yet self-fulfilling, goal is mindboggling. Reaching the infamous summit is only the beginning of the odyssey, after a couple minutes of picture taking, smiles, and rest, the way down awaits the “brave” explorers, and that is the deadliest part.
Compelling for the most part, The Summit, irradiates menace and turns the mountain into a freighting force to be reckon with. It proves the fragility of men in the face of overpowering raw nature, and questions human’s insolence by defying it. Death lures in the background of this retelling of a tragedy, and though the heroic acts of some can’t be denied, the collective, but fragmented, recollection of what really happened is fictional. It is safe to say that what happens at the summit stays in the summit.