'The Summit' Review: Doc Captures Mystery Behind 2009 Climbing Tragedy

While documentaries presumably capture real life, fact and fiction can blend just as easily as in any other genre.

So when The Summit opens with an acknowledgement that the exact truth of what happened on K2 in August, 2009 is unknown, it’s not only refreshing but quite radical.


K2 is the second-highest mountain on earth. But the Pakistan peak is arguably more difficult to climb than Everest, as it involves ascending beneath the shadow of a massive ice cliff near the summit--from which chunks of ice routinely break off to crush anything beneath them. That happened several times in 2009 with devastating consequences.

Beyond the ice cliff cracking, there are a lot of unknowns about what happened in 2009. There are two big reasons for that. One is extreme oxygen deprivation--even while using oxygen tanks, climbers nearing the summit of the world’s highest peaks use less oxygen because they ration the use of their air tanks.

As author Jon Krakauer writes in Into Thin Air, his personal account of the 1996 Mount Everest climbing disaster, “At [the top of the mountain], so little oxygen was reaching my brain that my mental capacity was that of a slow child. Under the circumstances, I was incapable of feeling much of anything except cold and tired.”

Read: No one really knows what happened, and memories at that altitude are subject to the influences of the extreme conditions.

Then there’s the other reason: Of the 25 people who were climbing to the summit that August, 11 died in a period of 48 hours. Some fell, some were crushed, others were lost. 

When I read Krakauer’s book, I couldn’t fully comprehend how it could take weeks to reach the top of a mountain. I understood the concept of acclimation to higher altitude, but when the summit is only a few thousand feet away, why does it take a day to get there?

Then this summer I went with my wife to Alaska, and we climbed a glacier. Even when walking on the flat surface of the ice, going was slow. When climbing, wielding ice axes and alternating weight between my crampon-covered boots and the axes in my hands, I was moving at what felt like a foot a minute. When I finished climbing just one 60-foot glacial cliff I was exhausted.

Still, The Summit captured better than my personal experience or Krakauer’s excellent writing what it’s like to climb to the top of the world, and how supreme beauty and extreme danger can be so intertwined. There are places in the world that seem hostile to humans--like the location wants to kill any intruder. K2 is one of those places.

Part of the reason The Summit captures the tragic experience so well is it combines the actual footage that the climbers recorded while on K2 with reenacted dramatizations of the most harrowing moments of the expedition--times when the cameras weren’t out, and instead the climbers were fighting for their lives, or losing them.

Director Nick Ryan said in an interview with The Oregonian, “There’s no such thing as true documentary, unless you take a piece of footage and you present it unedited, in its raw form. The thing is to put people in the climbers’ boots, and to make you feel like you’re there.”

The Summit does just that.

Jumping back and forth in the timeline of the story--from when teams from numerous countries first set out to climb the mountain, the various camps they acclimated in, and finally, to the tragic 48 hours as they climbed to the summit and then tried to descend. This is overlaid with interviews from many of the survivors, and the spouses of the deceased. Among those interviewed is Pemba, an assistant of one of the climbers. He is a highly skilled mountaineer himself, and hearing his account of how small errors added up during the expedition is quite harrowing.

It shows that no one person was to blame, and that--for many of the dead--there was no way to save them.

In the aftermath of the actual event, many in the press and in the climbing community accused different members of the team of cowardice or worse for leaving their fellow climbers to die. At that altitude though, it’s all about personal survival. And as one of the climbers said, if you weren’t there, you can’t really know what happened, or who to blame. In the end, “only the mountain knows.”


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