Opens Fri., Oct. 4 at Harvard Exit. Rated R. 99 minutes.
Only a few Seattle climbers have seen the top of K2, Everest’s less-traveled little brother in Pakistan, which has a staggering 1:4 ratio of deaths to summit successes. In 2008, as was widely reported, 11 mountaineers perished in a cascade of bad judgment and warm-weather-caused icefall on the 8,000-meter peak. (Global warming? Maybe.) Nick Ryan’s documentary uses reenactments, fresh interviews, and some original footage to chronicle that calamity, with emphasis on Irish alpinist Gerard McDonnell, his countryman, who was making his second attempt on K2.
This storytelling here isn’t Into Thin Air, and the conflicting testimony among several nationalities and rival expeditions is not a model of clarity. It’s like Rashomon in the Death Zone. None of those oxygen-starved brains are ever going to agree on a sequence of events. It’s like asking drunks about a bender five years after the fact. After fixed lines are severed by a massive icefall that strands McDonnell and others on the deadly descent, there is no central, reliable Krakauer figure on the mountain. (Books have since been written, and the Internet was abuzz with reports even before the body count was known.)
As a result, sober analysis of the incident gives way to weepy testimonials—padded with the story of Italy’s first ascent of K2 in ’54—in an avalanche of sentiment. Whenever possible, Ryan opts for tears and conjecture instead of facts. His intent, it emerges, is to make McDonnell the hero, an Italian alpinist the heel, and the South Koreans the clowns who got in everyone’s way. But really, as with most big mountaineering disasters, the weather and overcrowding are to blame. As all the teams swarmed the same bottleneck, a Dutch climber recalls, “Everyone wants to use this window,” meaning the clear skies overhead. But the fixed lines weren’t ready because the different teams hadn’t cooperated, and McDonnell sensibly asks “Aren’t we too late?” about the slow progress beneath huge overhanging seracs. (Those, viewed in real photos and video, are terrifying—like office towers made of ice, gradually coming unfrozen from the mountain.)
As on Everest in ’96, climbers were suckered by the weather. All their costly preparations couldn’t match their harsh, lofty objective, notes the late, legendary Walter Bonatti: “Only the mountain attains perfection.”