When George Mallory was preparing an expedition in the 1920s to climb Mt. Everest he was asked by a newspaper reporter why he wanted to climb the mountain, to which Mallory cavalierly replied, “Because it’s there.”
He later died on that mountain, which makes you wonder if maybe he needed a better reason. Even still, this central question of why do people (needlessly?) risk life and limb to climb an enormous pile of rocks is probed at again and again in the fascinating documentary “The Summit.”
The movie focuses on a day in 2008 when 11 climbers died near the summit of K2, the world’s second-highest peak. The film mixes actual footage shot by the expeditions with interviews with the survivors and recreations.
Unfortunately, it’s not initially clear what is real and what is staged, which fosters a little bit of distrust with the movie as you run the emotional gambit from “Whoa! Did I just witness that dude falling to his death?” to “Nope, wait. That was just an actor skidding down a bunny slope.” Not cool, movie.
Setting aside my Himalayan-snuff-film shock, “The Summit” is at its best when it tries to get to the bottom of what went wrong up on that mountain, which leads to exploring what sent these people up there in the first place.
Director Nick Ryan lets the camera make the case for climbers wanting to experience nature’s majesty. The views of the mountains from the roof of the world are nothing short of breathtaking, so part of me appreciates how awesome it must be to stand on top of a mountain and then turn around and see its shadow stretch literally beyond the horizon.
At the same time, there is also a lot of ego, hubris, and a YOLO (which, for those of you over 30, is best defined by the Urban Dictionary as “carpe diem for stupid people”) mentality on display.
Mistakes of overconfidence abound from the large number of people (18) who attempted to climb the summit that day. The fateful decision to continue to the top made by the group after a delay caused by the death of a fellow climber (who apparently fell after attempting to pass another climber) was not only problematic from a moral standpoint but from a tactical one as well, because it meant they would be returning to camp under the cover of darkness.
The final element in play seems to be the very same thing that drives everyone from marathon runners to Iron Man competitors to the people who swim the English Channel, and that is the desire to push the limits of human endurance and emerge victorious on the other side.
Towards the end of the movie, “The Summit” gets a little too caught up in trying to uncover the “truth” of precisely what happened in those final, fatal hours; which seems pretty much impossible considering all the confusion and the he-said-she-said from the exhausted, frost-bitten, oxygen-deprived survivors.
When it takes the wide-angled approach, “The Summit” is a beautiful, thought-provoking documentary. But when it focuses on searching for revealing answers it loses its way and it can’t really decide what it is ultimately trying to say.
I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that “Because it’s there” winds up being just as good an answer as any because climbing a mountain is ultimately only meaningful to the person who does it. To the rest of the world, it is an unnecessary and unimportant accomplishment that only seems more so when people die trying to do it. That makes for an interesting and compelling film, but not really a satisfying one.
“The Summit” is rated R for some language.