Cinema Review: The Summit

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DIR: Nick Ryan • WRI: Mark Monroe • PRO: Nick Ryan • DOP: Robbie Ryan • ED: Ben Stark  •  MUS: Nick Seymour • CAST: Christine Barnes, Hoselito Bite, Marco Confortola, Pat Falvey

The summit in question is K2, the second highest peak in the world. In August 2008, eleven climbers perished at its top. Since the ending is clear from the start, the challenge the filmmakers face is to make the telling interesting. They succeed.

Mountaineering poses obvious risks. The adventurers are aware that one in four people have died in the attempt to reach K2’s summit. They hope to complete their quest before the end of July, as most accidents occur in August, when the weather changes. They describe the area above 8,000 metres as the “death zone”. Experienced Irish mountaineer Pat Falvey describes in detail how the altitude and extreme weather conditions affect the body. The expertise that each of the mountaineers displays is impressive, but their respect for nature, the daunting task and the inherent dangers also comes through.

The film includes archival commentary from Walter Bonatti, who was part of the first team that successfully reached K2’s summit in 1954. “Only the mountain attains perfection,” he says. He describes the “exotic timeless landscape”, as Nick Seymour’s music swells on the soundtrack. You need to be a spirited adventurer to attempt such a dangerous feat. The mountaineers seem to find it difficult to put into words why they strive to reach the top. When you reach the top, says Alberto Zerain, “You live it fully then … I had won it.”

In July 2008, about 70 climbers from different teams, of different nationalities and climbing experience, prepared to reach the mountain’s summit. Financed by the Irish Film Board, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, RTÉ and the BBC, the film focuses on Ger McDonnell, the first Irish person to reach the top of K2. His team included Pemba Gyalje Sherpa and Dutchman Wilco van Rooijen. Ger and Wilco had previously attempted to climb K2 together in 2006. Though he reached the top, sadly, Ger perished this time.

Nick Ryan, making his feature film debut, assembled interviews with the survivors and combines these with actuality footage, newspaper cuttings and impressive reconstructions. The numbers involved in the expedition might have presented problems for storytelling. Recollections differ, but Ryan and writer Mark Monroe (who scripted the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove) weave a balanced tale as they attempt to unravel what happened during those fateful 48 hours.

“You have to save yourself on K2; it is the only way”, says Bonatti. One of the principles that guides the mountaineers, as Bonatti and others make clear, is that you cannot risk your own life to save others. The film focuses on the last stretch of the climb, from camp four through a narrow pass known as the Bottleneck, beneath a serac, an icy overhang 100 metres high that could crack at any time, and then on to the summit. “If you make one step wrong, you’re history,” says Fredrik Strang.

Sadly, there were missteps and problems. The circumstances surrounding Ger’s death are unclear, and the filmmakers attempt to piece together what happened from those who survived. As the film progresses, the scale of the tragedy becomes more apparent as yet another adventurer falls victim to the mountain’s extremities. The altitude induces a condition known as “summit fever”, in which damage to brain cells makes it difficult to think logically. It also means that those who lived to tell the tale cannot remember everything that occurred. As Ger McDonnell himself said, “If you weren’t there, you won’t know. Only the mountain knows.”

Beautifully shot, The Summit makes for compelling, if grim, viewing.

John Moran

12A  (See IFCO for details)

102 mins

The Summit is released on 22nd November 2013

The Summit – Official Website

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