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Movie review: 'The Summit' explores tragedy in the Himalayas

Published October 11, 2013 1:18 pm

Review • A deft mix of video, interviews and re-enactments.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The documentary "The Summit" is a fascinating account of a horrible tragedy: the deaths of 11 climbers descending from the top of the most dangerous mountain in the Himalayas, K2.

In early August 2008, several expeditions met up at Camp Four, the last stopping point before the summit of the 28,251-foot mountain. They decided to join forces for the final push.

To get to the top of K2, climbers must climb up a narrow canyon, called The Bottleneck, then move quickly across the mountain's sheer face under a precarious ice sheet, the Serac. All this is through the "Death Zone," above 8,000 meters, where oxygen is at its thinnest.

What happened on K2 that August, the film acknowledges at the outset, remains a mystery. Confusion brought on by darkness, cold and oxygen deprivation has turned the incident into a "Rashomon"-like scenario in which every survivor saw and remembered things differently.

Director Nick Ryan (making his feature debut) and writer Mark Monroe (a journalist whose documentary background includes "The Cove" and "The Tillman Story") do an amazing job putting together the pieces. They use interviews with survivors and with dead climbers' families, along with intimate video shot by the climbers.

Where existing visual records are scarce, Ryan stages illustrative re-creations filmed on the Eiger in the Swiss Alps.

What emerges in "The Summit" — which won an award for editing at this year's Sundance Film Festival — is a riveting chronicle of one bad step leading to another, of small mistakes in a place where any error is fatal.

But the movie also reveals an apparent bit of heroism by one climber — Irish mountaineer Ger McDonnell — that went unnoticed in the first flurry of media attention. Based on the account of his climbing partner, Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, the movie suggests that McDonnell attempted to rescue some Korean climbers, violating the unwritten law of climbing that says a mountaineer should save oneself first.

"The Summit" also answers the question that overarches any discussion of such a tragedy: Why would people risk their lives to climb K2 in the first place? Ryan's interview subjects respond in different languages and phrasing, but the answer — that it's the challenge itself that compels them — is at the heart of what it means to be a human being. —

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'The Summit'

A riveting documentary that chronicles the tragic deaths of 11 mountain climbers in a 48-hour period on K2.

Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas

When • Opens Friday, Oct. 11.

Rating • R for some language.

Running time • 103 minutes.