Bad Time in the Death Zone – ‘THE SUMMIT’ DETAILS INFAMOUS K2 CLIMB

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BBC/Ireland Film Board documentary “The Summit” explains in detail the disastrous 2008 expedition to climb K2, the second highest peak in the world. According to experienced climbers, K2 may be shorter than Everest, but it’s harder. Despite excellent conditions — clear skies, very little wind, and decades of experience and skill among the groups of international climbers — eleven climbers lost their lives, and others lost toes to frostbite in their efforts to rescue their comrades.

“The Summit” plays out like a murder mystery of sorts. Is it K2 in the drawing room with the crampon? Or was there an accomplice? Was it bad luck or negligence? In the end, “The Summit” seems to suggest that it’s the popularity of climbing K2 itself that had a lot to do with it. One wouldn’t think there’d be a bottleneck of climbers trying to climb a vertical wall of ice, but most of us don’t run in those circles.

There are other reasons too, and Nick Ryan’s doc gets a bit tangled up like climbing rope in trying to lay them all out straight. One of the problems with “The Summit” is its structure. It jumps back and forth in time, trying to tell its story first as a collective, then back tracking to various individuals and groups. On top of that, Ryan interweaves the story of Walter Bonatti, who experienced similar criticisms with his own, 1954 K2 climb, with interviews and archival footage.

Add to this the ubiquity of climbing gear that sensibly covers their faces in the cold, and a mix of reconstructions (with actors playing the climbers), and you have a very complicated narrative to keep correctly in the mind as it progresses.

A few people come through: the daring and vivacious Ger McDonnell, whose fearlessness didn’t lead to his death, but instead his unselfish nature when others were in trouble; his girlfriend and fellow climber Cecilie Skog, who tells their story up to the final moments with soul-baring clarity; Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, Mr. McDonnell’s partner who photographed a lot of the film’s events and went to save people himself.

There’s a sense that Mr. McDonnell was attacked after the events for not doing enough, but if it’s a vindication, the film never pretends otherwise beforehand.

But one of the main reasons to see the film is the reconstruction work. Although the state of adventure photography has advanced to unbelievable degrees, the reconstructions fill in footage of tragic events that were never shot. But they certainly feel like they were, and viewers might find there’s a running dialog in their heads about each shot and its veracity. The enormity of the ice wall called a serac that hangs over the climbers’ heads as they head towards a bottleneck of rocks looks genuinely frightening in film. It must have been a hundred times more daunting in real life. Mountain climbing footage often belies the steep angles where the climber works, but “The Summit” brings its vertiginous state to the screen. Palms will sweat, no doubt.

In the end, the film doesn’t pinpoint any one reason the 2008 K2 expedition claimed so many lives: it was lack of preparation among some of the climbers; it was the inability for the entire 25 members to come up with a cohesive plan; it was the “Death Zone” of altitude that plays tricks on the human mind; and it was two-dozen people, all desiring to make it to the top, and many willing to die for it.

The Summit
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: UCSB Campbell Hall
Cost: $10 general admission, $5 students
Information: 893-3535, ucsbartsandlectures.ucsb.edu

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