In the summer of 2008, a large expedition set out for the summit of K2. The mountain is not just the second largest in the world, but it’s also the most deadly. The mountaineers journey like vikings beneath a vicious bottleneck barely keeping the icy seracs from crushing the climbers. On this particular climb, the path through the “death zone” is marked with two casualties before the descent, the most dangerous part of mountain climbing. A total of eleven climbers lost their lives in the darkness, and The Summit tries to shed light on the events.

While the combination of archival footage, interviews, and dramatizations is something usually reserved for a made-for-TV doc of the week, The Summit manages to pull off the otherwise cliché form with surprising grace. The moment a climber finds his comrade (thought to have perished) any sense of ease is quickly washed in the harrowing echo of avalanche. While the visual effects are quite weak, the sound alone carried enough shock and dread to sell the scene.

In terms of narrative, The Summit is purposefully vague with events. Early on, one interviewee discusses how an altitude such as K9 can affect the brain, depraving cells of oxygen— gone are strength, breath, logic, memory. One survivor’s account was markedly different with each telling while another toed the line between certainty and amnesia. Considering this is a tale of survival, albeit immersed in mystery, it finds its heroes in Ger McDonnell and Pemba Gyalje Sherpa and with them finds its central question: is a rescue worth your life when the other is most certainly lost?

At times, McDonnell’s family and life outside of the K2 climb take precedence over the central question to the point that the film is in danger of becoming more of an obituary than a documentary. It is made clear by the end that the audience needed to know who McDonnell was, due the ambiguity surrounding his demise, for its argument to stand.

If there’s one side of the story that isn’t fully realized, it’s that of the Korean group’s leader. His refusal to speak to the documentary crew along with the accounts of survivors serve only to vilify him. It’s hard to say if director Nick Ryan sees him as such, but it’s hard to watch this and not at least think “this guy is a jerk.”

Is The Summit opening weekend worthy?

Yes. Granted, it’s a particular individual who rushes out to the opening nights of documentaries to see the very real threat of death, but The Summit is quite exceptional. Its story demands to be heard.

The Summit opens Friday, October 25, 2013 at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Check their website for details and showtimes.

More About The Summit

The Summit trailer

The Summit gallery