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.