Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The strangeness at the top of the world

When you ascend past Camp Four you enter something they call the Death Zone. It is not named that for nothing. After 8,000 feet every cell in your body is reeling from oxygen deprivation. Aside from the numerous physical difficulties this brings, this means that logical decisions become increasingly difficult to make. You are in a sense inebriated—you’ve gotten very, very, very high. That high comes with thrills of the sort you may never again come across. As is often the case, the hardest part is coming down.

Director Nick Ryan’s The Summit is a documentary chronicling an attempt made by representatives of various countries in August of 2008 to make it to the top of K2, the world’s second highest peak, but the one more serious climbers concentrate on, rather than Everest, which I guess is too much the terrain of motivational speakers for the sort of hardcore maniacs we find in this film. Am I out of turn calling Ryan’s subjects maniacs? Perhaps, but consider the fact that one in four climbers dies trying to get to the top of K2 and you might start to wonder about their sanity, even before they hit the Death Zone. Those odds actually turned out to be far too optimistic for the crowd of 2008: 18 climbers approached the summit; 11 did not make it back alive.

To nitpick Ryan’s approach to The Summit: the portent is laid on a little thick at times, there are a few too many title cards providing information someone could have just told or showed us, and the recreations seem a little superfluous and confusing when there’s so much excellent real footage to work with. But all that aside, The Summit is pretty riveting. The testimonies are engaging and ultimately very moving; the images of the Himalayas are consistently astonishing, a glorious landscape out of science fiction, Norse mythology, or illustrated religious pamphlets; the narrative is mostly very well organized, with the emphasis wisely not on psychology but on story, most of all on the strangeness of this story, on how everything is stranger when you’re up above the entire world, apart from it, immersed in airless beauty and imminent doom. So much of what transpired during the 2008 expedition is, in the end, a mystery. Even to those who survived. Why did some of the climbers do what they did when what they did would so surely lead to their demise? As one of Ryan’s subjects puts it, “Only the mountain knows.” 

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