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Review: The Summit – Mountain of madness

Posted by on October 11, 2013 – 12:01 am

The SummitIt takes a special kind of person to climb the highest mountains on the planet. It requires more than just physical ability, a “because it was there” attitude and a Sherpa guide to carry all your incidentals; it might also help to be an self-centered egomaniac – at least that’s what I took away from The Summit, the new documentary film about the disastrous K2 climbing expedition in 2008.

The Summit mashes up actual footage, interviews and re-creations into a fairly seamless story about the climbers who attempted to reach the peak of K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, on August 1, 2008. Eleven climbers died during this adventure and no one seems to know for sure what happened or why, but the film attempts to examine the events leading up to the ascent and the calamitous descent.

For those, like myself, who know very little about mountaineering, The Summit does a pretty good job of showing the detailed preparations that are involved in an attempt on a mountain like K2, and if the events portrayed here are accurate, even a layman can see that there were too many cooks, of too many different languages and cultures, in this high-altitude kitchen. It is like watching a group of engineers planning what will most assuredly turn into a train wreck.

Several different teams decide to try and reach the peak together, but they instead end up blocking each other at critical areas and eating up valuable energy and time, especially in an ominous section called the “Serac,” an enormous shelf of ice that hangs over a portion of the climbing route.

As the teams get closer to their destination, common courtesy and concern for the welfare of their fellow climbers begins to get as thin as the air the mountaineers are breathing, and for many of the adventurers, reaching their destination becomes the only thing that matters.

The SummitThe saddest moment in this film is the fate of climber Rolf Bae, who, after being only 100 meters from the summit, turned back after seeing the fiasco the expedition was turning into, only to die during his descent by being struck by falling ice.

Director Nick Ryan and writer Mark Monroe do a decent job of creating a dramatic narrative in this film, especially considering the pieces they had to work with. That said – there were a few sections of the movie that felt disjointed and created a bit of timeline confusion. In trying to foreshadow the disaster, their jumping forwards and backwards in time left me a little disoriented more than once.

Additionally, I’m not quite sure how I feel about some of the re-creations in this film. To reproduce action in order to fill in gaps between the actual footage helps tell the story, sure, but I don’t know if I like not knowing what was real and what wasn’t. What is for real in this film, though, are some awesomely beautiful scenes of the Karakoram mountain range in Asia.

Whether you are an experienced mountaineer or only have a casual interest in mountain climbing, or if you simply enjoy an interesting documentary film, The Summit is a captivating, although sometimes clunky, look at both the best and the worst of mankind and the majesty of nature. Grade: 6/10

Photos © 2013 IFC Films

Opens in Arizona on Friday, October 11, 2013, exclusively at Harkins Camelview.