'Outside' at Sundance: The Deadliest Day on a Dangerous Mountain

We spoke to director Nick Ryan about his new film The Summit, which revisits a 2008 tragedy on K2, a mountain for mountaineers

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A still from The Summit.

A still from The Summit.

In The Summit, director Nick Ryan revisits the 2008 K2 tragedy in which 11 climbers died over the course of 48 hours. It’s virtually impossible to determine exactly what happened, but Ryan comes as close to the truth as possible by interviewing climbers who were on the 24-man expedition, including Wilco van Rooijen, Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, Cecilie Skog, Marco Confortola, and Lars Nessa. Drawing from expedition footage as well as harrowing recreations, he recounts the terrifying disaster from start to finish. We spoke with Ryan, writer Mark Monroe, and climber Pemba Gyalje Sherpa at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered.

What compelled you to do a documentary about the expedition?
Ryan: I was drawn to what seemed to me at the time the pure insanity of why people go and climb these mountains. There was an element of trying to understand but also to try and get to the bottom of the events themselves. We very quickly interviewed Wilco and Pemba in succession in October and November [of 2008] respectively, and the divergent points of view that came from those initial interviews suggested to me that there was far more to the story than meets the eye.

So piecing together the narrative was a challenge that you wanted to take on?
Ryan
: Yeah. Since March 2009, we’ve been working on this film consistently to get the story across. And believe me, once we started interviewing other people and getting all the stories, it’s a super complex film.

People’s memories are fuzzy even within a week of an event, not to mention they often differ from other people’s memories of the event.
Monroe
: Pemba can certainly speak to this much better than I can, but I think these are traumatic events you’re talking about. When you look at someone like Marco, I think he went through something clearly physically but also emotionally. I think that plays with your mind with everyone who survived. There are so many versions of the truth because everyone has their own perception of what happened, what happened to them, what they believe happened to others, and it’s based on their experience and what they went through. But at the same time what they did go through was traumatic, and that affects your story.

You mention a staggering statistic, that one in four people who summit K2 end up dying on the descent. Pemba, why do you climb K2 when there are so many deaths related?
Pemba: Yeah, I know the dangers on that mountain. Even my family was unhappy when involving with the expedition. Not only family, many friends—always complaining. “Why taking unnecessary risks with something like that?”

What do you tell them?
Pemba: I have to go there. Not really for the summit—we don’t know yet. I have to see. I have to go there for the experience, to see the mountain, because K2 is a mountain for mountaineers.

Monroe: I’m not a climber, but Ger said something that we put in the film, that climbing is one of the first things you learn as a child. That’s one of the first things you’re trying to do. And I will tell you that mountain climbing, to an outsider, I can see where it would be so seductive because it is putting one foot in front of the other. From the outside point of view, you think I could do that. If my body could hold up, if I had the right safety gear, if people taught me, if I worked at it, I could do that.

You talk about the climbers’ code—don’t rescue other climbers if it might put yourself at risk. A lot of people adhere to it in the film, but for some people it’s hard.
Ryan: It seems incredibly callous to us down here, but up in the mountain, I think all Western climbers who go and say, We’re gonna try K2, you know that when you go up there, if something happens, you’re on your own. And that is the code. For whatever reason it is, certain people—and I’ve said this to Ger’s family—certain people are hard-wired not to be there. I mean, Ger was a very strong physical climber, but if he wasn’t prepared to actually save his own skin, in the most crass terms, he possibly shouldn’t have been there. He seemed very incapable of just walking by and leaving climbers. We have many more examples in different versions of the film. On Denali, he stopped to help stranded climbers who’d been cut loose from the team. But the one thing that didn’t happen on K2, nobody walked by a dead climber. Nobody went past somebody who was ailing to get to the summit. All the people died on the way down.

After talking to everyone, was there a consensus about the most crucial factors that contributed to the disaster?
Ryan: No is probably the answer. The Basque climber Alberto [Zerain] said that the problem is everyone relied on everybody, they shared the responsibility, and when you do that you relax and things happen. The climbing leader got sick, then the expedition leader didn’t wanna come out of his tent, so Pemba took the lead. I mean, people can ask why didn’t you start putting in ropes early. Why did you let that happen? But the Koreans were really controlling who was bringing what on the mountain, and they were scared. The Koreans come out kind of bad in this film but not for any particular reason other than they make very different kinds of decisions. A very different style of climbing. They’re willing to take risks that other Western climbers aren’t.

What percent of the film was recreations?
Ryan: Only about 20 percent. About 45 percent is the archive from the 2008 expedition, and then there’s an element of looking back at the story of Walter Bonatti, who was a member of the original 1954 expedition that were the first Italians to get to the summit. That story also shows what the mountain has done to people over the years and the levels people will go to.

You shot the recreations in Switzerland and did a test shoot to prepare. What did that entail?
Ryan: To do the recreations, part of me went, Well, we could do this in a studio, just build an ice wall. But it just seemed wrong and I thought we need to be somewhere where there’s ice and snow. Where we went was in Switzerland. It was relatively safe. There were points where you were over an edge if you fell, but it was accessible. So I went there in 2010 to do a test. A couple of days, just to see how feasible it was to have cameras up there, because it’s still a high altitude and thinking alone is just hard. Even at 3,700 meters you’re very tired and you really wanna be very prepared.

How did you approach family members of the victims and how difficult was it to get them to speak?
Ryan: Obviously I talked to climbers first. Certain climbers are very willing to speak and others weren’t. Marco was initially tough. Ger’s family, I spoke to them quite early in the process, in December of 2009 or January, and to say they were cagey would be to understate it. They just didn’t want anything said or done. But I just talked through what we intended to do and how we were gonna do it. At the end they saw what we were trying to make and the story we were trying to tell and fully endorsed it. They were the first people I showed the finished film to, and that was possibly the toughest screening of anything I’ve ever had to do. The toughest ones were people like Cecilia—that interview was done in January 2011 just before we started doing the reconstructions and we were all debating would Cecilia talk about it.

Where did the expedition footage come from?
Ryan: Ger had a camera. Ger was actually making a documentary of Pemba at the time, so he was filming Pemba climbing the mountain and base camp life. So he had eight or nine hours of material. Swedish climber Fredrik Strang had this incredible camera with him, just going around base camp and climbing the mountain with his camera.

At first I thought some of the recreated scenes were actually archival footage, because there are so many athletes that film what they’re doing these days.

A lot of that climbing footage is real. In some cases, reconstructions for people are a big no-no. Pemba was there for when we were doing the recreations. He was the technical advisor and more than once he kind of went, No, no, something was there, Ger was here, Marco was here. I specifically went through everything and cross-checked everything. We were very careful about that, because when you’re making a film like this, 11 people died—you can never forget that.

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