This month, IFC Films releases The Summit, a documentary about the 2008 K2 disaster that killed 11 mountaineers. Opening in more than 100 U.S. theaters, The Summit is the biggest climbing release since 2003’s Touching the Void. Which makes it all the more surprising that the film, the first feature-length effort by Irish director Nick Ryan, mostly falls flat. Ryan apparently couldn’t decide whether to make a documentary, a docudrama, or a historical biopic, so he crammed all three into 95 minutes.
A quick refresher: In August 2008, after summiting the mountain, 16 climbers were trapped above K2’s infamous Bottleneck—a narrow couloir overhung with seracs at 26,900 feet—when falling ice tore out their fixed ropes. For two days, the world waited to see who found a way down and who didn’t.
This is challenging material, to be sure, with multiple storylines. The Summit’s problem is that it fails to pick one. The film starts by declaring, “What happened that summer remains a mystery even to those who lived to tell the story.” Unfortunately, the plot diverges wildly before even identifying that mystery: whether Irishman Gerard McDonnell, 37, went back uphill to help a team of foundering Koreans before they were all killed by icefall. Instead, we flip back and forth between a number of subplots (including an oxygen-canister scandal during the 1954 first ascent) before we finally get to McDonnell at the film’s end.
The cinematography is also jarring, owing to the odd marriage of documentary footage—some of it from deceased climbers—and re-created scenes, which look great but feel fake next to the real stuff. (Imagine if Werner Herzog had dramatized the bear attack in Grizzly Man.) It’s unfortunate, because in those documentary clips the emotion is raw, including a scene of McDonnell near tears after making it to camp four on his way to the top.
Ultimately, unraveling McDonnell’s last noble acts is probably more comforting to his family than it will be to viewers. As his girlfriend, Annie Starkey, says, “Had they made it to camp four safely”—back down out of the Death Zone—“it would be one of the most amazing stories in mountaineering history.” That’s true, but it’s not enough to save The Summit.