“It’s not called the death zone for nothing,” a mountaineer says in “The Summit.”
It’s the area above 8,000 meters on the world’s highest peaks where the body strains for breath because the oxygen levels are so low. That lack of oxygen can lead to mental confusion and contribute to terrible exhaustion. It’s where every step can be freezing agony and where a misstep can send a mountaineer plunging thousands of feet to death.
And at the beginning of August 2008, the death zone on K2 more than lived up to its name. Eleven climbers died there in one of the worst disasters in mountaineering history.
Filmmaker Nick Ryan’s documentary incorporates talking-head interview segments conducted with survivors of the disaster, footage shot by the climbers and re-enactments filmed in the Bernese Alps in Switzerland. The resulting film is at once visually impressive and narratively unfocused.
It’s impressive because the footage of K2, the world’s second-highest mountain located on the border between Pakistan and China, dramatically conveys the fearsome majesty of that peak. Snowbound, windswept, a jagged spire jutting sharply upward toward the heavens, it commands awe. It looks dangerous. It is. It’s claimed the lives of about a quarter of all the mountaineers who have reached its summit, according to the film.
Climbers from nine nations, along with members of the Sherpa community affiliated with several different climbing teams, all started for the summit on Aug. 1, 2008. Two died on the way up, the other nine during the descent. Miscommunication among the climbers, avalanches and other accidents all took their toll.
The sheer number of interview subjects leads to confusion — which one is talking again? — and the differing perspectives they offer on the events of the fatal climb are not arranged in a way that provides a coherent narrative through-line. But what comes through with crystal clarity in “The Summit” is that there is no margin for error in the death zone.
Soren Andersen: firstname.lastname@example.org