K2, as it is commonly known, is the second highest but most dangerous mountain on Earth. The 8,611-metre Himalayan peak is so remote that the villagers along the Chinese/Pakistani border don’t even have a name for it. Even in this day and age, it takes weeks of hiking through one of the most intimidating regions on the planet just to get to the base of the mountain.
Conquering K2 takes commitment, not just to the task, but also to every other climber on the mountain. The window of ascent is so small, the weather so unpredictable, the person who saves your life may be the one next to you. Or behind you. Or the one you just met at Base Camp two days before. In a century of assaults on the Summit, only about 300 people have ever seen the view from the second highest peak on Earth. More than a quarter of those who made it didn’t live long enough to share the glory or even tell the tale. They were killed simply trying to get down. Experience is paramount but there is no guarantee. A climber can do everything right, be certain of every step, let caution rule every decision, and yet they could still take their last breath on the face of the monster known as K2.
Put very simply, climbing this mountain is tantamount to Russian roulette. Because of the age we live in, with every experience at our fingertips, those who survive The Summit carry with them a commodity to sell— The Story.
The 2008 K2 disaster occurred on August 1st, 2008, when eleven mountaineers from international expeditions died on K2, the second-highest mountain on Earth. Three others were seriously injured. It was the worst single accident in the history of K2 mountaineering. THE SUMMIT is a documentary about that tragedy.
Q&A WITH DIRECTOR NICK RYAN
Why did you decide to make a documentary about climbing K2? How did you learn about this story?
I was aware of the events on K2 as it was a major news story across the world, as confusion reigned over what had happened.
The film came about through a meeting with climber Pat Falvey, who had climbed Everest in 2003 with Ger McDonnell. Ger, along with Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, had helped to save his life when he ran into trouble a short distance from the summit. Pat had come in to talk with us very soon after the tragic events on K2, and at that time, we weren’t aware of what had transpired.
There was a lot of commentary as the tragedy unfolded, criticism about commercial climbing, bad preparation, and lack of experience.
The Sherpa, especially Pemba, who had done so much to help save lives were being written out of the story, and this was initially an attempt to redress that.
Many climbers attempt the summit at K2, why did you decide to focus on this group and specifically on Ger McDonnell’s story?
Twenty-four climbers left for the summit that day. The events that took place over the next 48 hours are complex and at times confusing, made more so by the conflicting memories of the various survivors. Writer Mark Monroe and myself found that the Dutch team which included Ger McDonnell and Pemba Gyalje, held a lot of the central story, having being the first there at basecamp in 2008.
We started the process of making the film by interviewing Wilco van Rooijen (in October 2008), the leader of the Dutch team. From that interview it was clear to us that not all was as it seemed initially. It was still unclear at that early stage what had really happened, and as is the case in these situations, the stories didn’t add up. By the time we interviewed Pemba and the other Sherpa in December 2008, the stories about what Ger had tried to do and had died so tragically doing, were becoming apparent.
This incredible story of courage and heroism, one that flies in the face of the conventional wisdom of high altitude mountaineering emerged. Had Ger adhered to the unwritten codes of the mountain, then he may have survived. It’s a terrible truth that a family has to face, but one which they understand because of the very nature of who Ger was.
Pat explained the nature of Ger and Pemba and the portraits he painted were very vivid, and of extraordinary people. The dynamics involved in climbing seemed fascinating to me.
I am not a climber and I was initially struck by the incredible statistic, that one in four climbers who successfully summit will die on descent. You have better odds playing Russian roulette. What drives someone to face that challenge with such overwhelming odds? That fascinated me as a non-climber.
Why is Pemba’s role in the film and story so vital?
Pemba was a full-fledged team member of the Dutch team alongside Ger. They became fast friends on Everest in 2003, and Ger wanted to climb K2 with Pemba.
The story is a mystery, and Pemba was instrumental in unraveling it. I believe the physiology of the Sherpa is such that they react and respond better than most western climbers, certainly those who either climb without oxygen or worse still, those who did, but ran out on descent.
There will always be elements in the story that will remain a mystery, but Pemba shed a light on key aspects of the events, with the photographs that he took, as well as the radio conversations he had with other Sherpa attempting rescues that day.
How much research did you do into mountain climbing history and K2? What do you think is the lure and attraction with K2, and why do you think mountaineers risk their lives to make the climb?
K2’s history is mired in controversy. It has earned its name, the ‘Savage Mountain’ or the ‘Killer Mountain’. I felt it also had a lure that changed those who wanted to climb it. This stretches all the way back to the first attempts in the early 1900’s. Walter Bonatti’s story from the 1954 Italian expedition, which is told in the film, was one that demonstrates the hold it seems to have over those who attempt the summit. Bonatti’s story echoed that of 2008, and it shows not a lot has changed other than some technology advances in clothing and gear. It is still man vs. nature.
When we started out on the film, I was interested in finding out why they go there, knowing the risk, knowing that one in four won’t make it back from the summit. I think everyone climbs for their own reasons, and they are different reasons, but I believe that some of the attraction is that statistic, that one in four. ‘Can I be the one to beat the odds?’
But ultimately, Mark and I also wanted to show the human side of the stories from that fateful expedition of 2008, and not make it so much about mountaineering history, but to tell these individuals’ and Ger’s stories.
Talk about the preparations you and your team took prior to shooting and production. Did you shoot all the mountain footage yourself? Were there any technical concerns you had to address when filming at such a high altitude?
We initially interviewed and filmed all the contributors, all the surviving climbers who successfully summited that day, as well as a few who didn’t. The exception was the Korean climbing leader, the sole survivor of the Korean team, who refused to be interviewed for the film. We also interviewed members of Ger’s family.
The film utilizes interviews, archival footage from 2008, recreations and aerial footage of K2. The recreations were filmed in the Jungfrau region in Switzerland, beneath the north face of the Eiger, a mountain in the Bernese Alps also in Switzerland. We did a test shoot in April 2010 to see how we could achieve the look for these scenes, and used lead safety climber Paul Moores in a sequence, replacing the surrounding alpine mountains with the correct Himalaya landscape. There is a significant difference in the two regions. We wanted to keep the audience in the moment and part of that was making it feel like this material was there in Pakistan. The test proved we could make convincing and compelling footage work in that accessible region. If you turned the camera around 180 degrees, there were groups of tourists taking photos from the ‘highest train station in Europe’!
We filmed at 3700m (12,140 feet) for some of the footage, which takes a small amount of acclimatization. Making decisions at that altitude is a little tougher than normal, you feel you want to go to sleep, so preparation was important. Also with actors who weren’t climbers, safety was paramount. This made everything take a lot longer than on the test shoot the previous year, as dropping Paul Moores over a cliff edge was quite different to one of the actors.
The crew was composed of traditional film personnel, which was mainly a camera department. Robbie Ryan (Wuthering Heights, Ginger and Rosa) was the director of photography. Making a film is like climbing a mountain. So making a film on a mountain is twice as difficult!
Filming the aerial footage of K2 was a different matter altogether on many fronts. The initial idea was to fly to K2 in a helicopter as high as possible, and film with a small hand held camera. A lot of investigation and planning went into it which resulted in a group of four of us, Nisar Malik (coordinator), Mike Wright (Cineflex camera engineer), Stephen O’Reilly (cameraman) and myself, travelling to Skardu, Pakistan and flying from there with the Pakistan Army to K2. We attached a gyro-stabilized Cineflex camera, which I operated on two of the three flights to K2. Stephen O’Reilly operated the third flight. We flew to height of 7400m (24,300 feet) far in excess of the operational ceiling of the helicopter, possibly because of the extraordinarily good weather.
When flying over glaciers in a single-engine aircraft, you must fly two helicopters, in case of an emergency, which happened in our case. On the second flight out, the ‘backup’ helicopter’s fuel system was blocked by debris in the fuel, causing the engine to cut out, resulting in an emergency landing. Thankfully all on board were fine.
We spoke with Pat in depth about the various factors surrounding oxygen, as we were concerned about the safety of the endeavor. The camera helicopter was fitted with oxygen tanks for the two pilots and a free flow tank for the operator in the back. To use this you have to physically place the mask to your face and breathe in deeply. At that altitude the air pressure is very low, and I spent an hour above 7000m (22,965 feet). Concentrating on filming, I only used 3 or 4 hits of oxygen, which resulted in a mild case of hypoxia, which at the time was massively disorientating. It certainly gave me a firsthand feel of how it must have felt for these climbers in 2008.
How did you acquire the first-hand footage from the climb?
Several of the climbers had been documenting the climb. Ger was interested in making a film about Pemba and the Sherpa, and filmed the trek in, as well as the crucial basecamp meetings.
Wilco also was filming, more on the mountain, physically climbing, as was the Swedish climber Fredrik Strang. He brought a camera to K2, with the idea of making a documentary about climbing the mountain. He filmed many hours at basecamp and interviewed various team leaders, as well as a huge amount of material on the mountain. He had his camera with him morning of the summit push, and filmed the line of climbers ascending slowly towards the bottleneck as the sun rose.
Strang also had a smaller Canon camera with him, which he brought up with him when he climbed up to help the fallen Serbian climber, Dren Mandic, who was the first to die that day. He had the camera on in his pocket when they were attempting to lower the body to camp four, so it was still recording, and the audio from his recording was what we used in the film for that scene. It is truly shocking.
Some of the climbers were quite upfront and willing to sell their footage or photographs for use in the film, and we deliberated for a long time over what we would show and use in the finished film. The photographs that Pemba took of the two Sherpas that died in the final avalanche are brutal testimony of what happened, but were crucial to showing the events. We felt the archive material was vital to piecing the story together and helped show the astonishing scale and beauty of the mountain.
As a filmmaker, why did you decide to include reenactment footage to tell some of the events of the story?
There were huge tracts of the story which were not filmed. Nobody seemed to film the event surrounding the fall of Dren Mandic at 11am that morning, with the exception of Fredrik Strang who zooms in on the bottleneck from camp four, searching for the fallen climber. When the teams started to descend from the summit, night had fallen and the concentration was on trying to get down the mountain safely, not on filming.
From the very beginning Mark and I felt the narrative of the film needed to flow as smoothly as possible, so that we are not taken out of the story. I worked with Pemba, as a technical advisor, on the reenactments. Alongside Pemba were Chhiring Dorje and Pasang Lama, who also summited that day, and Tshering Lama who was sent up on a rescue mission the following day. This was to ensure a reality was present in this material, and to portray the events as accurately as possible.
What are some of the difficulties you and your team faced during production, and how did you overcome them?
At all times we have been aware of the tragedy of the events portrayed in the film. Everyone in the film lost or knows someone who lost their lives. I am so grateful to everyone who spoke so openly and honestly about their experiences, placing a lot of trust in us to make the film as truthful as possible.
Mark and I had an incredible amount of material, and many strands and stories which we could use. I think documentary comes to life in the editing room. We worked with Editor Ben Stark who focused and defined a lot of those strands, it is where it really becomes collaborative, and a lot of problem solving comes into play.
Are you and/or any of the filmmaking team active mountain climbers?
I am not a climber myself. Pemba, Chhiring, Pasang and Tshering who were all on K2 in 2008, were also present for the reconstruction shoot, and they advised on the material. They worked closely with the mountain safety team lead by Paul Moores and Brian Hall in Switzerland.
Executive producer Pat Falvey has successfully summited Mount Everest twice. He was a huge benefit in helping us understand the language of climbing, the mentality behind it. It was really helpful to have someone who had spent a great deal of time in base camps and on high altitude mountains. He was a fantastic resource of knowledge in an arena I knew very little about. He was also instrumental in the story as Ger had stopped to help in 2003, and his firsthand knowledge of this bears testimony to how Ger thought and acted on the mountain.
What would you like your audience to take away from this film and story?
Whilst the film portrays tragic events, it is also a film about survival. There are many reasons why climbers make the choices that they do. I don’t think it as simple and straightforward as many at first imagine. I believe that Ger McDonnell and Pemba made incredible sacrifices on the mountain that day, and Ger paid the ultimate price. The film is a mystery and I hope that it engages the audience and provokes questions as well as answering some of them.