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Examination of K2 accident as jagged as mountain itself

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Filmmaker Nick Ryan falls short of the storytelling summit in his documentary.

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Filmmaker Nick Ryan falls short of the storytelling summit in his documentary.

On the border of China and Pakistan, K2 is the second highest mountain in the world, and certainly one of the most deadly.

How dangerous is it? For every four climbers who attempt K2, one will die trying.

It is a small mercy, perhaps, that most die on the descent. Presumably, many of the climbers who died got to the summit before succumbing to the mountain’s deadly combination of thin air, freezing temperatures and falling ice.

In the doc The Summit, first-time director Nick Ryan examines a particularly deadly day in August 2008 when 11 mountaineers died on the Karakoram peak. Ryan attempts to solve the mystery of what went wrong and simultaneously addresses the mystery of what drives these people in the first place.

Unfortunately, Ryan isn’t much of a sleuth. If you want a concise wrap-up of a series of mysterious demises, read Raymond Chandler.

Some degree of incompetence can be attributed to the loose multinational association of climbers, particularly among the disaster-prone South Korean team. (The 25 climbers on the mountain that day also included Norwegian, Serbian, Italian, Pakistani and American participants.) But there are conflicting reports about what happened to whom.

While 11 people died, Ryan is fixated in particular on the first Irish climber to reach the summit, Ger McDonnell, a charming, gregarious guy (as seen in pre-climb footage) whose family rallies to investigate when a surviving climber suggests McDonnell was behaving erratically in the so-called "death zone" before he died. (To some extent, everyone will behave erratically 8,000 metres above sea level.) An account by heroic Sherpa Pemba Gyalje serves to restore McDonnell’s good name, but a more precise, coherent account of the disaster remains maddeningly elusive, despite Ryan’s use of re-enactments, a wealth of video footage of the climb and loads of talking- head interviews with survivors.

The film is more successful in personalizing the tragedy in interviews with Norwegian climber Cecilie Skog, who was clinging to the side of the mountain when her husband, Rolf Bae, was felled by falling ice right beside her. (Undeterred by the loss, she continued her own career of adventure, including crossing the Antarctic on foot and participating in Norway’s version of Dancing with the Stars.) Even so, the filmmaker’s prejudice emerges: Ryan is far more interested in beautiful, charming people than the less photogenic climbers on K2.

Hence, The Summit fails to impress with a narrative as craggy and uneven as the peak itself.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

 

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