JDIFF 2013 Review – The Summit

In 2008, 11 climbers were killed as they attempted to reach the summit of K2; the world’s second tallest mountain. The Summit attempts to shed light on the mysteries surrounding the worst single accident in K2 mountaineering history.

Director Nick Ryan has pieced together a confusing and sometimes contradictory story about a tragedy that should never have happened. The climbers spent months preparing for their ascent, but pretty much everything that could go wrong, did go wrong. The story is told through eyewitness interviews from the surviving climbers, actual footage of the climb and hair raising reconstructions that are so well done that, at times, it is hard to tell which is which. Ryan also includes an interview with one of the Italian climbers who was in the first successful expedition to the summit of K2 in 1954.

The Summit does not lay out events in chronological order; instead the film jumps back and forth through time between the climbers preparing for their ascent and the actual climb. This works both for and against the film; at times it is difficult to pick up the narrative of the accident and, as there were so many climbers and so many fatalities, it is easy to lose track of who is who, and where they were on the mountain.

The tale that emerges is one of misfortune and tragedy; the lead climber fell ill, leaving the remaining mountaineers to share out the responsibilities of ropes and safety between them. This, as well as bad timing, ice falls and avalanches led to many people needlessly losing their lives. The reconstructions are key to adding tension into the film, as the audience finds themselves right there with the climbers as they helplessly watch their companions fall and die.

Nick Ryan has pulled the story of Irish climber Ger McDonnell to the fore. At 37, McDonnell was an experienced climber who had bested Everest and had attempted K2 before. Through interview with his family and video taken during the K2 expedition, a picture emerges of a man who was the life and soul of the group, and a caring man who appears to have died while trying to help others.

While this story is fascinating and heartbreaking, it is somewhat dulled, as is the entire film, through a muddled and messy narrative structure. Nick Ryan took a chance when he decided to tell the story non-chronologically, but it is a chance that does not always pay off. The accident itself was mysterious and confusing as the climbers got separated and their stories are often conflicting, but in the film, timelines get mixed up and the players in the story become confused.

The Summit is an engaging documentary about the single biggest accident in K2 mountaineering history. The film suffers, however, from a lack of directorial clarity that could have cleared up some of the confusion surrounding these events. As it stands, however, The Summit is a gripping film that appears to add more mystery to the story, rather than solving it.

Rating: 3.5/5

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