Documentaries aren't always the most obviously cinematic features, and aside from a few breakouts from the likes of Michael Moore or Werner Herzog, are unfairly given short shrift theatrically. There's still that small-screen association for most cinema-goers, lured away by the comfort of escapist fiction.
So when things like the visceral Senna or TT 3D: Closer to the Edge gain momentum, it's a minor triumph for the perennial box office underdog. I can understand lacking the drive to catch Into The Abyss on a bloody great cinema screen, but when an epic vista-laden doc like The Summit comes along, it's well worth catching on the largest screen you can find.
Nick Ryan's documentary attempts to piece together the extraordinary events in August 2008 that saw 11 out of 24 mountaineers perish whilst climbing the summit of K2, the word's second highest mountain peak. Whilst Mount Everest is the world's highest peak, K2 is renowned as the most challenging and the ultimate conquest for real climbers. Bordering Pakistan and China, the mountain's final assent beyond High Camp takes climbers above 8,000 metres, an area known as the death zone, where the human body simply cannot survive. With every second exposed to this altitude, the body is literally shutting down. Ryan's film moves back and forth in time, showing the months of preparation amongst a multi-national group of climbers that led up to that disastrous final push skywards - or more accurately, the notoriously dangerous descent back to High Camp. Poor timing, ice slides, fatigue and human error all took their ghastly toll.
Using amateur footage filmed at the time, talking head interviews with survivors and families of those less lucky, as well as convincing reconstructions, the film revolves around the mystery of what happened to Ger McDonnell, an Irishman who vanished amidst the chaos. What emerges is a thoroughly compelling and tragic tale of climbers consumed by their passion, arguably to the detriment of their safety and that of the other expedition members.
As their bodies started to fail, so too their decision making and power to make logical decisions collapsed. The extent to which the climbers lost track of events is frightening, revealed when the survivors make it down the mountain only to be unable to recount what exactly has happened to them or their fellow climbers; who's alive or not, what route they took and why. Ryan weaves the different narrative threads together slickly and maintains tension throughout, conveying the oxygen-deprived madness and instability of memories with skill. It does however, at times make for a confusing picture, where we're as unsure as the climbers as to what the hell is going on.
Amidst all this confusion emerge stories of admirable bravery and selflessness, as well as painfully frank acknowledgements of the need for self-preservation; the unwritten code that to survive you must leave those in trouble behind. These worrisome moral choices weight heavily on the film and the survivors, in particular around a scene McDonnell (and others) came across of three climbers tangled in their ropes, injured, and freezing with time quickly running out.
Some evocative cinematography both sends a shiver down your spine, and shows the terrifying majesty of K2. Shots from the peak of the mountain are both breathtaking and tragic as the climbers take what amount to holiday snaps, belying the horrors to come.
A fascinating insight into the lives and deaths of those driven to conquer the world's most 'perfect' extremes, The Summit is informative and diligent film-making. If, on occasion, it struggles to piece together a coherent picture, it's never less than engrossing.
Review originally published during the BFI London Film Festival in October 2012. The film opens in select U.S. theaters on Friday, October 4. Visit the official site for more information.