Not a mountaineer himself, award-winning producer and director Nick Ryan set out to discover why people risk their lives climbing a mountain with a fatality rate of 25 percent. In his film The Summit, which was released in Seattle October 4, he puts the mystery surrounding the events of the deadliest day in K2 history under a microscope. Combining footage, reenactments and interviews with survivors and their families he uncovers the truth behind the events of the day while trying to understand what draws people to such a dangerous sport.
I had the opportunity to speak with Ryan as well as Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, one of the survivors and heroes from the day, about their experience making the documentary.
“This is a film about my journey,” said Ryan. “I may have been slightly critical of the climbers in the beginning, wanting to know why they did it. I would hope that when people go in [to the film] that they’ll go on a journey and if you can go through this film, see this film and come out thinking somewhat differently and if it sparks a debate, I think that’s all you could ever hope for.”
In August of 2008, 24 climbers from around the world set out to summit K2, one of the deadliest mountains on earth. Only 13 of these mountaineers returned; the rest perished in a series of events that led to a controversy concerning the reasons this happened: if it was a matter of inexperience, misfortune or a combination of the two. Different perspectives brought different stories and many of the voices that weren’t heard in the post-event coverage were given a voice in The Summit.
Pemba shared his thoughts on the documentary.
“There are just so many things in your mind in making this documentary, even talking now,” said Pemba. “A lot of things remind me what I have seen on the mountain. Through the documentary I hope the families of the victims get relief and understand what happened on the mountain and also the climber and mountaineer community… I think this documentary is one of the good lessons for the international community about high-altitude mountaineering.”
Pemba is an experienced climber and guide who has summited Mount Everest seven times as well as climbed Cho-Oyu, Ama Dablam and many other peaks around the world. During this 2008 excursion he was responsible for saving Marco Confortolo, a climber from the Italian team, from falling to his death on K2.
Pemba was involved in the documentary playing himself, but also had another important role; he worked alongside producers to make sure the story and reenactments were authentic.
One of Pemba’s climbing partners, who did not survive the climb that day, was a man by the name of Gerard (Ger) McDonnell. Ger is featured in The Summit for his heroic acts that were not necessarily recognized by the mainstream media following the events of this climb. The first Irishman to summit K2, Ger spent the last moments of life helping his fellow climbers.
Ryan spoke about his interview with Ger’s brother. His brother shared a story with Ryan about another time Ger showed his character. They were climbing Denali.
“Ger had come across a climber who had been cut loose from his team and left to die, I mean literally, and when Ger got to him there was nothing he could do,” said Ryan, sharing Ger’s brother’s story. “He just stayed with him and held his hand until he passed and… the last thing he said was all he wanted to do was to be there on K2 to hold his brothers hand and let him pass with the dignity that he had shown to this guy.”
While there were many challenges faced by the crew while filming in harsh conditions, Ryan said that talking to the families and asking them to discuss the loved ones they had lost was the most difficult part of making the documentary.
Though Ryan was critical of climbers going into filming, through his journey he was able to realize that this was not about pointing fingers at climbers or at the media for their coverage. Following the events of the 2008 K2 climb, there were a lot of accusations about what happened, but as Ryan said “if you’re not there you don’t know.” A journey for Ryan, as well as viewers, The Summit seeks to understand the life of climbers and shows some incredible stories of true heroes, like Pemba and Ger, who were willing to risk their lives doing something they loved.