Mystery enshrouds 11 deaths in The Summit, a documentary that examines the fatalities that took place on August 1, 2008, on the way down from the summit of K2. The second tallest mountain on earth, K2—located on the Pakistan-China border—is also considered the most dangerous to climb, and it lived up to its reputation on the fateful day in question, when a collection of climbers from different countries attempted to scale the final stretch from Camp Four to the 8,611-meter summit. That journey resulted in one man plummeting to his death on the way up. Yet it was the return trip that turned the expedition tragic, with ten people losing their lives over the course of 24 hours, many after having been stranded on the mountain’s face overnight once fixed ropes—counted on to help with the descent—were cut and the men and women found themselves with no means of finding their way back to safety.
Director Nick Ryan dramatizes this horrific tale through a variety of hindsight interviews from survivors and the dead’s loved ones, footage shot by the climbers during their mission, and staged recreations that help bring clarity to the various speakers’ accounts of what went wrong. It turns out, that was just about everything, including illness, lack of preparation, organizational confusion, and a late start that forced the climbers to spend excessive time in the aptly named “Death Zone”—the area above 8,000 meters where lack of oxygen leads to both bodily and mental breakdown.
Given many survivors’ conflicting reports about what actually led to such loss of life, The Summit initially seems primed to assume a Rashomon-style view of truth as inherently unknowable, even to those who might have experienced the events in question. Yet despite the diverging details proffered by its subjects, Ryan’s doc seems less concerned with the boundary between objective and subjective facts than it is with simply salvaging the reputation of fallen Irish climber Ger McDonnell, who was originally thought to have abandoned Italian survivor Marco Confortola, but who was eventually discovered to have perished while heroically trying to save a stranded Korean trio. That’s an honorable objective for the film to assume, and one affectingly achieved by Ryan’s frequently harrowing non-fiction re-creation of K2’s deadliest day. It also, however, means that the proceedings somewhat sidestep the issues of risk and responsibility—including the raised, but never fully tackled, question of whether others should have gone back to try to save their fellow, trapped compatriots—that seem most in need of investigation.