‘The Summit’ review


The trek back down K2 is more dangerous than the ascent, a point made all too clear in “The Summit.” (Image courtesy of IFC Films)
October 10, 2013

Much remains unclear about the events of Aug. 1 and 2, 2008, on the mountain known as K2, except that 11 climbers died there. As a possible result of disorientation from high altitude sickness, darkness and the physical separation that existed between multiple mountaineering teams from many different countries, even eye-witness accounts of the tragedy that is the focus of the documentary “The Summit” are, at best, contradictory and, at worst, hopelessly confusing.

One thing is as clear as the crystalline sky that greeted 25 climbers on those fateful days. The accident — the worst since the summit of K2 was first conquered in 1954 — was a nightmare. “The Summit” adequately captures that horror.

To refer to the episode as a single accident is misleading. It was a series of largely unrelated accidents, as the film lays it out, using a mostly seamless mix of found footage, survivor interviews and reenactments.

The deaths begin with a fall by a Serbian climber, Dren Mandic, who lost his footing while approaching the summit through a narrow couloir, or gully, known as the Bottleneck, that circumvented a massive field of overhanging ice, or serac.

Intriguingly, death was not enough to stop some from continuing the climb. Though several survivors were under the erroneous impression that Mandic had survived the fall, one later refers to an unspoken “code” among climbers that it’s not worth putting your own life at risk to aid a comrade who has almost certainly died. Another compares the climbers’ ability to mentally compartmentalize to what happens during automobile accidents, noting that you don’t stop driving when you witness a highway fatality.

Both of these explanations, to a nonclimber, seem shockingly self-serving, if not also untrue. At least one mountaineer did, in fact, risk his life in an attempt to rescue other people. Nepalese sherpa Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, who was named a 2008 Adventurer of the Year by National Geographic Adventure, helped save two climbers who had been stranded.

But the most surprising thing revealed by the film is this: Many of the deaths occurred not during the difficult ascent but during the even more grueling descent.

As one of the interviewees says of the trip down through the area above 8,000 meters known as the Death Zone, “Now the surviving starts.”

Many things went wrong, including an ice fall from the serac that severed a rope line, marooning several climbers; snow blindness; an avalanche; shortages of rope and other equipment; and delays in getting started that pushed the return trip for some well into nightfall. Because “The Summit” jumps around in time and because the events on the mountain happened over two days and at locations often far apart, the already garbled chronology of deaths is made even more confusing.

This in some ways enhances the drama and mystery of the film, not to mention the atmosphere of pandemonium. At the same time, it’s frustrating not to know exactly what occurred when, how and to whom.

Of course, some of this is due to the fact that nobody really knows everything that happened, except, as someone notes, the mountain itself.

★★½

R. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains disturbing thematic material, some blood and brief obscenity. 99 minutes.

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at The Washington Post, where he covers art, film and other forms of popular — and unpopular — culture.
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