The single scariest image in any movie this year appears in The Summit. Taken from the top of K2, it’s a shot of the shadow cast by the world’s deadliest mountain: a perfect black diamond that cleaves an unimaginably vast, cold, remote horizon. It’s terrifying.
“It’s like a sci-fi image, isn’t it?” agreed director Nick Ryan, talking to the Straight at the Sutton Place Hotel last October during the Vancouver International Film Festival. “If you’re standing there and seeing that? Not good. It’s a portal into another world. There’s something about it that says, ‘If you’re seeing this, you shouldn’t be. You should not be there. You should be down. Go!’ ”
As we learn early on in Ryan’s riveting doc, opening Friday (December 6), the 8,611-metre-tall Savage Mountain claims one out of every four of the puny humans who attempts to scale it. The Summit is about the 48 hours in early August 2008 when 25 climbers ascended K2 and only 14 came back, making it the single deadliest event in the mountain’s history.
It’s still not entirely clear what happened. Ryan tackles this mystery with a Rashomon-like narrative built from interviews with the survivors—some of it conflicting—along with re-creations inserted to fill the gaps left by the photographic record. What’s certain is that a series of calamities unfolded that would have taken more lives if not for the heroism of some of the participants. Among them was Ger McDonnell, a gregarious Irishman who, although an experienced climber, “seemed incapable of leaving somebody behind”, as Ryan said. “He had done it time and time again [on previous climbs].”
McDonnell perished, but his friend Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, who went back into K2’s notorious “death zone” twice to aid the stranded, injured, delirious mountaineers, lived to tell what he saw. Pemba accompanied Ryan on his visit to Vancouver and simply said: “I have seen several tragedies on the mountains, but the tragedy on K2 in 2008 is….yeah, that is the worst accident I have seen. It’s very difficult to say. But, anyway, I was one of the lucky people among them.”
Like Touching the Void, there is a vaguely mystical aspect to this tale of catastrophe, a part of the narrative that eludes conventional understanding. “Morality seems to be skewed 180 degrees above 8,000 metres,” Ryan said. But, he added, “This is not like Everest, where people are walking over bodies to get to the summit…I understand it. They’ve been there 67 days; you’re six hours from your goal; it’s a perfect day: are you going to turn around?”
As a nonclimber, he views his film as an investigation, even if the subject matter is finally unknowable. Nature steps in to provide the perfect metaphor yet again with footage of K2’s peak, on the second day of the incident, enshrouded by an enormous cloud. “It was like a blanket, a veil drawn around a bed. We don’t know what happened. We know from the photographs that something extraordinary happened; we know from the radio conversations that something extraordinary happened, but it will forever be masked,” Ryan said. “Only the mountain knows.”