Review: Nick Ryan's Riveting Doc 'The Summit' Shows Death and Heroism on K2

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by Anne Thompson
October 3, 2013 1:48 PM
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'The Summit'
Nick Ryan's riveting climbing documentary "The Summit" (Sundance Selects, October 4) reveals the unfolding mystery of how eleven climbers perished on their way down from a successful 2008 ascent to the summit of K2, the victims of bad luck, poorly executed planning, and avalanches.

In the tradition of Kevin Macdonald's "Touching the Void," the filmmaker combined 45% archive footage and 20% gripping reenactments using CG--along with interviews--to seamlessly blend a thrilling doc about the lure and elation of climbing K2, which straddles the Himalayas between Pakistan and China, and the terrible dangers even for the strongest experienced climbers. One in four doesn't survive the descent down the mountain.

"It was too dangerous to go there," Ryan explained at a Sundance Film Festival Q & A. "It would put us in as much danger as the original climbers." He tried to blend the narrative between the archive footage and reenactments. It works.

'The Summit'

What happened in 2008 was an unusual confluence of circumstances and bad luck. A large multi-cultural group of climbers worked together to make the ascent, including Norwegian, Dutch, American, Korean and local sherpas, among them the heroic Pemba, who helped to save some of the climbers who made it down from the peak. His photographs--using the camera Irishman Ger McDonnell asked him to carry down-- helped to solve the mystery of what happened. "I'm still climbing," he said at the Q & A, "because my profession is mountain guide."

The first Irishman to make the climb, Ger McDonnell, broke the climber's code and tried to save some stranded Korean climbers. Two women are interviewed, both widows, one a climber and the other among the families who waited to hear about their loved ones. McDonnell's body was never found.

Documentary writer, Mark Monroe ("The Cove," "The Tillman Story") wrote the film (my interview with him here), which was shot by gifted cinematographer Robbie Ryan.

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