It might not be as insanely arduous as trying to scale the 28,000-foot Himalayan peak K2, but making a documentary about the climb — specifically, about one gone horrifically wrong — is incredibly ambitious in itself. First-time director Nick Ryan isn’t entirely up to the challenge in “The Summit,” but he does deliver some dramatic and visual highs in the attempt.
The film focuses on an August 2008 summit push by an international collection of a couple of dozen mountaineers during which 11 of them died. The risks that come with the territory are underscored by some facts and figures floated in the documentary’s early going — notably, the scary stat that one in four climbers doesn’t make it back down “Savage Mountain.” Situated between Pakistan and China, K2 is second in height to Mount Everest but regarded by many as the greater prize. At more than 8,000 meters (yes, the movie expects you to know your metric system), the mountain tempts climbers into a so-called “deathzone” in which breathing and clear thinking border on impossible. But even with all of that, the 2008 episode was an unprecedented tragedy.
The movie trains its brightest spotlight on one of the fatalities, Ger McDonnell, the first Irishman to summit K2. He’s seen in expedition footage as a rugged young high-on-lifer who’s atypically social for this driven breed, leading his fellow adventurers in cheery sing-alongs in the tent back at camp. Ryan, writer Mark Monroe (“The Cove”), and crew actively make the case that McDonnell died trying to save some doomed Korean climbers, ignoring unwritten codes of self-preservation. He’s the true hero of the story, the filmmakers and McDonnell’s family argue, more so than, say, Marco Confortola, an Italian climber widely hailed in media reports.
The intent, in short, is to try to make definitive sense out of utterly chaotic circumstances. Think the dread-laden vividness of “Touching the Void” on a group scale. But there are so many different players giving so many confusing, occasionally conflicting accounts of their all-but-unknowable ordeal, the specifics remain a logistical muddle. Norwegian climber Cecilie Skog’s tearful memory of losing her husband, Rolf Bae, registers more distinctly than most — but ashamed as we are to admit it, that owes partly to pathos, and partly to her boys’ club uniqueness and her uncanny resemblance to Meg Ryan.
The film makes heavy use of climbing reenactments (shot in the Alps) in its quest to deconstruct everything, but while these sequences do lend impressive visual tension, they don’t make the big picture significantly clearer. The sight of one climber suddenly disappearing elicits a gasp — strikingly cinematic work, considering that much of high-altitude climbing plays out at an oxygen-deprived crawl. But even here, we still aren’t entirely sure what happened.