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I admit my love for movies about mountaineering disasters is a little strange. Not only do I not climb mountains myself, I actively avoid it. I’m not a thrill-seeker, and I hate being cold. I think this love comes from the same place as my love for horror movies: a sort of “thank god I’m safe and this isn’t happening to me” feeling, combined with a prurient fascination with other people’s misfortunes. If that sounds remotely like you, The Summit, the story of the deadliest day in K2’s history, should give you plenty to be fascinated and horrified by.
The Summit follows an arc that anyone who’s read Into Thin Air will be familiar with: several groups of climbers take advantage of a small window of good weather to summit the peak on the same day. Many groups get delayed due, in this case, to poor planning and communication; the lead ropes haven’t been put in place yet, so the first group has to lay them down as they go. As in the Everest story, climbers get bottlenecked and slowed down, and impatience makes them do stupid things. One man unclips his rope to try and leapfrog the climber in front of him and promptly slides back down the mountain and is killed when he hits a rock. The delays and mistakes multiply: the last climber doesn’t reach the summit until it’s nearly dark, meaning they have to descend in pitch black. By then the lead ropes have been cut during an earlier avalanche during which another climber was killed, and everyone is suffering from exposure, frostbite, and exhaustion. The problems are compounded by altitude sickness, which can affect any climber, including sherpas, who are popularly and incorrectly thought to be immune to altitude-related afflictions. On top of everything, there’s very little chance of rescue since helicopters can’t go up that high due to the thin air. The area above eight thousand meters is often called the Death Zone, not just because it’s cold and dangerous, but because your body is “disintegrating from the inside out” (this quote horrified me so much I wrote it down in all caps).
What makes these stories of heroism and adventure gone wrong so compelling is the mystery of what exactly happened, the total inaccessibility of the truth. The eighteen climbers who reached the summit of K2 that day in 2008 were alone with the mountain. There were no news cameras to document their accomplishment, no bystanders with smartphones, no one but each other. When things go right, you can ask someone on another climbing team to take your picture on the summit; when they go wrong, the entire day turns into a Rashomon story with a different version for every survivor (only eleven, in this case). One experienced climber, Gerard, was reported lost on the mountain after he refused to descend with the rest of his group. Director Nick Ryan interviews Ger’s partner, brother, and brother-in-law for the film; you get the feeling they were anxious to clear Ger’s name and explain his death to themselves and the world. Unsatisfied with the report, Ger’s family convenes a meeting with several of the surviving climbers, asking them to recreate the day’s climb using a hand-drawn map. The conversation is clearly painful to the survivors, who are forced to relive their own trauma while also confronting the guilt of surviving. Finally Ger’s family gets some closure when they talk to a sherpa, Pemba, who explains that Ger went back up the mountain in order to help another team that was in trouble. They’re finally satisfied now: they have an explanation that fits with the Ger they knew, or thought they knew. But there’s an uneasy sense that this explanation is just as uncertain as the ones they had already discarded and that they are shaping the facts to fit their own narrative of Ger, rather than genuinely seeking the truth.
The other fascinating thing about mountaineering stories is the self-mythologizing that goes on among the more ambitious climbers. We all subconsciously think we’re immortal, but attempting to summit K2 means you have a one in four chance of dying, and as many of the climbers explain, you disregard that risk at your own peril. While none of them treat the risk lightly, there’s a sense that the enormity and the insanity of the task they’re undertaking is fueling an outrageously heroic self-image. Several of the climbers claim they’re attempting the summit “for [their] country,” and while of course there’s value in this, the same way there’s value in Olympic athletes competing for national pride, it’s hard not to wonder if their sense of their own heroism is disproportionate to the task itself and its contribution to society. Perhaps that changes if you’re the first or oldest or youngest; Ger was the first Irishman to summit K2, so you could make the case that his contribution outlived him.
Another 2012 film about K2 refers to the mountain as the “siren of the Himalayas,” and after watching The Summit, it’s easy to see why. None of the climbers uses the old “I climbed it because it was there” chestnut, but the danger inherent in the climb is clearly a huge part of K2’s allure. The Summit doesn’t give easy answers or platitudes about whether the risk was worth it to the climbers who lost toes to frostbite, or the families of the climbers who died. But the beauty of the mountain is bigger than the tragedies surrounding it; as one climber explains reverently, you can prepare and do your best, but in the end, “only the mountain attains perfection.”