Review: Gut-wrenching 'The Summit' scales new heights

Review: Gut-wrenching 'The Summit' scales new heights
A scene from the documentary "The Summit." (Sundance Selects)

K2 in the Himalayas is known to climbers as the most difficult of mountains, a savage peak, the second highest in the world, with the power to cloud men's minds. On the morning of Aug. 1, 2008, however, everything looked easy.

"Conditions were perfect," recalls someone who was there. "It was a day in a million."


Or so it began.


"The Summit": In the Oct. 4 Calendar section, an information box with a review of "The Summit" should have noted that the documentary about an ill-fated scaling of K2 also is playing at Laemmle's Monica 4 in Santa Monica in addition to the ArcLight Hollywood.

Then, within 48 hours, things went drastically, horribly wrong. Eleven climbers perished, including seven who had reached the top and died on the way down. As presented in the compulsively watchable documentary "The Summit," the story of what took place up there is a complex and gut-clenching human drama that has the great advantage of all being true.

As directed by Nick Ryan and written by Mark Monroe, "The Summit" tells a multifaceted story that deals with more than the expected peril and exhilaration of adventure tales. Here you'll find love, fear and forgiveness, personality conflicts and cultural differences, even mysteries that have stubbornly resisted solving.

Because this is such a multi-sided story, Ryan has chosen to tell it in a variety of ways. There is stunning aerial color footage of K2 in all its majesty, actuality scenes shot in 2008 by the climbers, delicate and unobtrusive re-creations that are hard to tell from the real thing and extensive interviews with those who returned alive.

"The Summit" has been especially fortunate in these interviews. These "the bigger the dream, the bigger the risk" mountaineers are all articulate, vibrant people, great storytellers and remarkable in their ability to speak clearly about painful life-and-death events. Among the top talkers are:

— Wilco van Rooijen, a Dutch climber who survived 60 hours at higher than 26,000 feet altitude, an area ominously known as "the death zone."

— Cecilie Skog, a Norwegian woman who relates her heart-stopping experiences with her husband and fellow climber, Rolf Bae.

— Marco Confortola, a self-confident Italian who became the center of a controversy.

— Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, a Nepalese climber who succinctly encapsulates cultural differences between mountaineers when he says, "Westerners like adventure, our people love climbing."

"The Summit" also searched out and interviewed the legendary Walter Bonatti before his death in 2011. Bonatti was a member of the Italian team that was first to climb K2 in 1954 who became embroiled in a dispute that eerily echoed what happened in 2008.


Though its viewpoints and participants are many, if "The Summit" has a protagonist it would have to be the Irish mountaineer Ger McDonnell, an enormously charismatic man, much more social than the average climber, who lighted up every room — or high altitude tent — he walked into.

The imponderables surrounding McDonnell's actions on K2 are one of the focuses of "The Summit" and they're heightened because the key events took place in that 26,000-foot-plus area that, one climber emphasizes, "is not called 'the death zone' for nothing."

With every breath and every thought a struggle as oxygen depletion hits every cell in your body, the death zone is an area where actions are not always sensible and memories of those actions not always reliable.

"The Summit" not only investigates what happened during those terrible 48 hours, it also provides key insights into the events leading up to the cataclysm.

It's fascinating to find out, for instance, that K2 was jammed with 70 climbers from 15 expeditions that summer. As Norwegian, French, Serbian, Korean, Dutch and Italian teams jostled for space and precedence, differing cultural norms and approaches to climbing led to conflicts and misunderstandings that ended up having devastating results.

"The Summit" is at its best as it carefully dissects the multitude of things, from preventable human error to unavoidable natural event, that led to all that death. Just as interesting, and perhaps unexpected, is its examination of how we come to know what we think we know of reality, how unreliable presumed knowledge can be in an age when being first is often more important than being right.

'The Summit'

MPAA rating: R, for some language

Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes

Playing: At ArcLight, Hollywood, and Laemmle's Monica 4, Santa Monica