A large chunk of ice falls down the side of K2 against a jet-black night and knocks one of the mountain’s adventurers to his death, with barely a sound. It’s the most terrifying moment in The Summit, a film that’s full of terrifying moments simply because it’s about mountain climbers. The documentary mixes real-life footage with reenactments to retrace a 2008 journey up the deadly Central Asian peak, when 11 members of a disorganized 25-person party perished over the course of 48 hours. With scenes like this, where elements far beyond anyone’s control conspire to lay waste to the humans who get too close, director Nick Ryan and writer Mark Monroe make the devastation feel cosmic.
On an average day, K2’s “mountain on a mountain” claims the life of every fourth person who guns for its summit, so the odds are bad from the start. The disparate 2008 group—climbers hailed from Norway, France, Serbia, South Korea, and elsewhere, and were mostly strangers to each other—had the deck stacked further when separate parties combined supplies to tackle the mountain together on the only good-weather opening of the season. Some lacked experience, while others didn’t cooperate easily; tensions flared early on when it was discovered the Koreans hadn’t brought enough rope. Late in the climb, disobeying the advice of their sherpas, the team gunned for the summit, knowing they wouldn’t have enough daylight to make it back down to the closest camp. “I don’t understand these people,” one of the surviving sherpas says, and it’s easy to relate.
Reenactments in documentaries are always a tricky business, but here, they feel necessary. The staged scenes communicate just how visceral mountaineering can be, whether winds are ripping up a tent in the dead of night, or climbers are cowering below that aforementioned ice block (a precarious column called a serac, with chunks that can break away at the slightest provocation) while voiceovers compare it to Russian roulette. Considering that much of the film takes place in the “death zone,” the altitude where a lack of oxygen hinders people’s abilities to make logical decisions, the confused immediacy of the reenactments is in line with how the climbers would have perceived their reality.
Though Ryan and Monroe prove adept at the film’s most elemental factors, they don’t offer enough backstory or characterization. They establish their martyrs and villains early on: Ger McDonnell, the first Irishman to summit the mountain (the film argues he died on the descent while trying to save the Koreans), is the only figure whose tearful family is interviewed at length. Meanwhile, the Koreans (the survivors from their party declined to be interviewed) are vilified for their perceived selfish attitudes, and for being ill-prepared. There’s a bit of the blame game going on, as though the film’s participants were primarily interested in settling scores, and the tone leaves a bad taste.
Other segments feature journalist Concetto La Malfa posing as Walter Bonatti, a member of the first team to scale K2 and live (in 1954). Taking the long view of the mountain is an admirable flourish, though the jumps in time are a bit too haphazard. But since much of this story turns its players into mounds of flesh—as everyone becomes when pitted against snow and ash—context for the 2008 climb should have been a higher priority. Without it, the movie toys with being a snuff film: The climbers are just waiting for their cue to die.
The highest compliment that can be paid to The Summit is that in its best moments, it feels Werner Herzog-esque. There’s something about wrapping dead bodies in aluminum foil for easier transportation that’s spiritually linked to Aguirre: The Wrath Of God, which also reveled in the nitty-gritty of tackling an impossible task under the worst possible circumstances. If the film’s subjects know they doomed themselves with poor decisions, however, they leave this realization unspoken. Ryan and Monroe have stumbled onto something profound, though there’s little evidence they realize what it is: Those who try to climb K2, particularly under the circumstances recounted in The Summit, entered a mental “death zone” long before they ever set foot on the mountain.