‘The Summit’ has considerable power, but limits itself in the end

TheSummit_posterThe Summit

Directed by Nick Ryan

United Kingdom and Sweden, 2013

The new mountain-climbing documentary The Summit has a few talking-head interviews, but is mostly dominated by dramatic re-enactments, much like the superb 2003 climbing doc Touching the Void. That’s really the best way to tell a story that takes place on the side of a mountain: talking heads or still photographs cannot deliver the pain of frostbite or the oxygen-depriving atmosphere inside the “death zone” above 8,000 meters. But where Touching the Void was very much about the isolation and loneliness of enduring the elements atop a mountain, The Summit explores how too many people can wreck the delicate process of climbing, and how they can obscure the truth of disaster and survival.

In 2008, a group of 25 climbers belonging to several international teams attempted to summit K2. K2 is known as the “Savage Mountain” (among many other nicknames) because one out of every four climbers who has attempted to ascend it has died. The story of the doomed 2008 journey is intercut with tales of Walter Bonatti, who was part of the first expedition to successfully summit K2 in 1954.

If anything, the film probably could have done without Bonatti’s story, because the main expedition is filled with tense and riveting plot lines. One member of the expedition is a legendary Spaniard, climbing the world’s most dangerous mountain solo; almost nothing is described about him, probably because he got up and down the mountain with no trouble. One of the Sherpas is an almost ridiculous badass, having summited Mount Everest on seven out of eight attempts, but he too survives the climb, so his surely fascinating life story is also in the background. The tale of the rest of the team is simply too important.


It’s interesting that documentaries such as this never have the charge leveled against them that, say, fictional prequels do: that the ending of the film is somehow spoiled by the knowledge that certain people must survive the climb because they were able to deliver interviews to the filmmakers. It’s likely because the emotion felt by the survivors is so real and raw, impossible for all but the very best actors to play. The point of this film is not that the audience has already guessed that a certain climber will live or die, it’s the heart-rending emotion displayed by the surviving friend, trying to understand what went wrong.

That emotion alleviates the film’s biggest mistake, when the survivors spend most of the third act attempting to discover the truth about the disaster. Conflicting eyewitness accounts, as well as ill-advised statements made to the press by climbers who were still in shock at the time, put a disproportionate amount of blame on Scottish climber Ger McDonnell in the aftermath of the disaster. It’s only natural that the survivors would try to correct the record, for the sake of emotional closure if nothing else, but it’s contrary to the movie’s best lesson: in the words of one survivor, “only the mountain knows the truth.”

There is no more beautiful shot in The Summit than the late-afternoon view from the summit, with K2’s immense shadow reaching off to the eastern horizon. It makes the audience and climbers alike feel insignificant before the power of the mountain. Concluding this story with a well-intentioned decision to instead challenge the media reduces the power of the picture and the mountain itself, though both remain considerable.

-Mark Young

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