The Summit is a documentary detailing the tragic course of events which led to the deaths of 11 climbers trying to get up and then down K2, largely known as the most dangerous mountaineering challenge in the world.
Moutaineering feels like a subject matter tailor made for cinema and it has produced highs, most notably Kevin MacDonald’s breakthrough documentary Touching The Void but has also given us Chris O’Donnell’s magnum opus Vertical Limit. With stunning scenery, tales of daring-do and the sheer fact of people pushing themselves to the upper limits of their abilities, it’s stuff which should make for captivating cinema, so it’s a shame that for the most part, The Summit somewhat drops the ball.
Part of this is due to the film’s agenda. It is, of course, the right of the filmmaker to have something to say with whatever they are making but here, we are sold on a story about the intricacies of what went wrong with this tragic event and indeed when the film is hitting these points, it is pretty riveting. But as it goes on, it becomes clearer that this film is not just wanting to chronicle the events, it’s wanting to pay tribute to one man in particular, Ger McDonnell, one of the climbers who would appear to actually break the code of mountaineers by trying to help others.
What’s that you say? Mountaineers don’t want to help each other? It’s made clear through the film that the code is, if someone is stuck, leave them. This doesn’t paint them in too much of a sympathetic light, and indeed in one bizarre moment one person’s recollection is seen from someone else’s eyes which gives the impression that one climber literally tried to send his wife to her death. But this is interesting subject matter, painting these people as vain, selfish and pretty much out for themselves. The only exceptions being the people that the doc doesn’t want to be portrayed this way, namely Ger and his friends. It’s an oddly contradictory experience for sure.
All this is compounded by directorial choices which feels a touch on the amateur side. The film takes a while to find its footing narratively, starting our main story then going off on tangents and flashbacks which never really flow, and also interjecting with the recollections of an old climber, here physically played on screen in talking head interview form by a different actor entirely. This is a side-plot which only really makes complete sense in the end and then only belabors the already subtle-as-a-sledgehammer agenda it has discussed previously.
The Summit threatens to be an interesting look at the darker side of exploration, but instead turns into a rather too on-the-nose tribute to a man who did some brave things, and emerges as something of a disappointment.