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Non-Review Review: The Summit

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2013.

The Summit is a powerful exploration of the infamous loss of eleven lives within 24 hours on K2. This is the largest disaster in the history of K2 mountaineering, and – as The Summit concedes – that we won’t necessarily ever know the full details behind this tragic loss of life. However, while the incident serves as a bit of a flashpoint, one big event that it is impossible to overlook, The Summit drops an absolutely fascinating piece of information early one, and one which contextualises that horrible accident.

Apparently one in every four people to make it to the summit of K2 doesn’t make it back down.

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That’s a harrowing piece of information, and one not restricted to that horrible day on 1 August 2008. Even at the best times, one quarter of climbers will dies on their journey down the side of K2, described in the film as a “mountain on a mountain.” One climber notes that the mountain has a bit of a reputation among climbers. “If you want a nice story for birthdays, you climb Everest,” he explains to the camera. K2, on the other hand, is for real mountain climbers.

Director Nick Ryan has done a fantastic job putting this documentary together, exploring the loss of eleven lives during one large expedition to the top of the mountain. It is genuinely shocking stuff. In fact, the movie opens with several deaths, before the title even appears – it gives the impression of an impossibly brutal environment and a world where logic doesn’t really exist. There’s something almost ethereal in the way that some interviewees talk about the mountain or about some of their lost colleagues.

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One rescuer comments that a friend started acting funny while transporting a body, before falling to his death. We discover that the expedition had been planned for late July, in order to avoid the statistical increase in accidents on the mountain in August. The irony, of course, being that delays and problems pushed the journey into the first day of August and that was when things really went wrong. Ryan cleverly avoids dwelling on these aspects, and doesn’t sensationalise any of this, but a superstitious individual could easily believe that the trip was cursed.

Of course, there’s a logical reason for a lot of this. People act strange on K2 because there’s less oxygen. It messes with the brain. Some climbers bring their own supplies (and we see them wearing tubes in photos), but others don’t. The reason that accidents increase in August is seasonal – the ice melts and the snow becomes a little less stable. The whole uncertainty around the incident is down to the fact that nobody will ever know exactly what happened. Indeed, the film spends a significant amount of its last half hour exploring some of the post-climb discrepancies among the survivors’ accounts.

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The Summit wisely picks Ger McDonnell as the movie’s moral centre. McDonnell was an Irish climber from Limerick who died on the expedition, but whose ultimate fate was hotly contested. There were – in the immediate aftermath – differing accounts of McDonnell’s fate, and The Summit effectively serves as vindication for his family, offering a glimpse of a fundamentally decent and honest human being in an impossible situation.

Nick Ryan’s direction is powerful and compelling. It creates a genuine sense of awe around the events, providing both a sense of the scale of the challenge of reaching the eponymous peak, but also making the cost clear in human terms. The accounts given by the survivors are genuine and emotional, and Ryan frames a number of effective reconstructions that enhance the story rather than detracting from it. It is powerful and affecting stuff.

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There is one notable omission from the interviewees, but it’s hardly Ryan’s fault that this particular interviewee did not wish to share his story. It might have been interesting to cast his version of events against those of the fellow climbers, given that this individual doesn’t come out especially well, but his unwillingness to cooperate is entirely understandable and completely outside Ryan’s control. It would be nice to have that particular side of the story, but the film is candid enough to concede that there’s enough ambiguity around events that there’s never going to be a complete consensus on everything. As Ger McDonnell notes in a recorded statement, “Only the mountain knows the truth.”

That said, the documentary does seem to pull its punches a bit when dealing with the expedition. There’s no denying that there was a great deal of heroism and professionalism on display from some of the climbers, but there’s a section of the film where they pause to lambaste the news coverage of the event, unfolding live as the climbers were trapped. Various talking heads criticise some of the statements or the reporting conducted. However, the movie never really dispels the concerns suggested in the media clips shown on screen.

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Indeed, allegations of “summit fever” were even made by some of the survivors in the wake of the disaster, so it seems a bit cynical to include the phrase while criticising media coverage of the tragedy. The accounts and opinions may differ from the opinions held by some of those present during the trip, but The Summit itself concedes that those present can’t even entirely agree on the facts among themselves.

It feels like The Summit perhaps isn’t as critical as its subjects as it really should be. We are talking about people taking part in an activity that kills 25% of people who accomplish it. The Summit never entirely concedes that some of the criticism might be grounded. Come interviewees concede of the thrill of the climb. “The extremes are addictive,” we’re told. Another states, “It’s very hard to turn around.” However, despite that, the film never gives any substance to the suggestion that the decision to press ahead was in any way reckless or dangerous. As noted above, the most vilified individual on the expedition is one who wasn’t interviewed for the film.

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Still, this isn’t a fatal flaw, just a bit of nuance that would have made The Summit more compelling or more fascinating. There’s certainly room for development of some extra ideas – the film’s runtime is padded out a bit with an interesting (if disconnected) story of one of the first people to climb the mountain for Italy in 1954.

Nick Ryan has produced a powerful and fascinating documentary here, and one well worth a look. It doesn’t push quite as far or as heavily as it should, but it makes for fascinating viewing. It’s a harrowing and thoughtful account of an incredible tragedy, and one that offers an insight into a world quite different from what we might expect.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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