K2 in the Himalayas is known to climbers as the most difficult of mountains, a savage peak, the second highest in the world, with the power to cloud men’s minds. On the morning of Aug. 1, 2008, however, everything looked easy.
“Conditions were perfect,” recalls someone who was there. “It was a day in a million.”
Or so it began.
Then, within 48 hours, things went horribly wrong. Eleven climbers perished, including seven who had reached the top and died on the way down. As presented in the compulsively watchable documentary “The Summit,” the story of what took place up there is a complex and gut-clenching human drama that has the great advantage of all being true.
As directed by Nick Ryan and written by Mark Monroe, “The Summit” tells a multifaceted story that deals with more than the expected peril and exhilaration of adventure tales. Here you’ll find love, fear and forgiveness, personality conflicts and cultural differences, even mysteries that have stubbornly resisted solving.
Ryan has chosen to tell this story in a variety of ways because of its many sides. There is stunning aerial color views of K2 in all its majesty, footage shot in 2008 by the climbers, delicate and unobtrusive re-creations that are hard to tell from the real thing, and extensive interviews with those who returned alive.
“The Summit” has been especially fortunate in these interviews. These “the bigger the dream, the bigger the risk” mountaineers are all vibrant people, great storytellers and remarkable in their ability to speak clearly about painful life-and-death events. Among them are:
Wilco van Rooijen, a Dutch climber who survived 60 hours at higher than 26,000 feet altitude, an area ominously known as “the death zone.”
Cecilie Skog, a Norwegian woman who relates her heart-stopping experiences with her husband and fellow climber, Rolf Bae.
Marco Confortola, a self-confident Italian who became the center of a controversy.
“The Summit” is at its best as it carefully dissects the multitude of things, such as preventable human error and unavoidable natural event, that led to all that death. Just as interesting, and perhaps unexpected, is its examination of how we come to know what we think we know of reality, how unreliable presumed knowledge can be.