Irish movie goers don’t need much in the way of spoiler alerts for The Summit. Ger McDonnell became a national hero on August 1, 2008 as the first Irishman to scale K2, the world’s second-highest mountain.
And then came the aftermath.
Nine people including McConnell died after reaching the top of the Himalaya’s so-called “Savage Mountain.” Two more climbers fell to their deaths during the ascent.
With The Summit, opening this month, director Nick Ryan wanted to invest a documentary with the the kind of pacing, suspense, and character arcs normally reserved for scripted dramas. He defied non-fiction convention by crafting a taut first-act teaser and re-creating Himalayan tragedy in the Swiss Alps.
Ryan talked to Co.Create about how to make a documentary that plays like a Hollywood thriller.
Ryan sparked to the possibilities of a Rashomon-type narrative after hearing from mountain climber Pat Falvey. “Pat came in and told us about about how the western media had reported the story as if the westerners had almost saved themselves, but very little written about what the Sherpas had done,” says Ryan.
To unravel the riddle of what went wrong at K2, Ryan first interviewed Dutch team leader Wilco van Rooijen, then flew veteran Sherpa guide Pemba Gyalje to Ireland for his side of the story. Gyalje accompanied Falvey and McDonnell on their 2003 conquest of Mount Everest before joining the K2 expedition. “Pemba and Van Rooijen climbed on the same team but there were a lot of points where Pemba’s story and Van Rooijen’s story didn’t match. I realized this was a pretty direct story until suddenly everything explodes and goes off in different directions. That was the flash point for me: ‘Okay, not everything tallies up.”
“The re-enactments basically covered the areas where the climbers weren’t filming because they were too busy trying to survive,” said Ryan. “The question became ‘How do you fill up those parts of the story without using a bunch of talking heads?'”
Ryan re-staged the expedition’s central tragedy in the Swiss Alps. “‘Re-construction’ can be a dirty word for some people in the documentary world but we were very careful,” Ryan said. “I had Pemba and the four Sherpas who were actually at K2 as participants during the re-enactment, which made it a nightmare to film. They’d be like, ‘No, no, no, when this happened McDonnell would be here and Van Rooijen was over there.’ We couldn’t get away with anything; there was no dramatic license.”
Ryan and his editors spent a year figuring out how to jump-start The Summit saga. Ryan notes, “If we played the film in (strictly) chronological fashion, it would be 40 minutes before the first guy falls to his death. You’d have climbers in the base camp talking about ropes and people in the audience would be falling asleep straight away.”
Instead, The Summit, winner of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Documentary Editing Award, gets to the mayhem quickly before flashing back to a more detailed chronology. “We start by looking at these men and all the excitement of summit, and then the first guy falls to his death 10 minutes into the film and you’re suddenly going: ‘This isn’t fun anymore. This is serious.’ By the second act, we know that another nine people are going to die.”
Shooting re-enactments 12,000 feet above sea level in Switzerland at sub-zero temperatures wreaked havoc on both equipment and brain function, Ryan jokes. “I think we destroyed three RED cameras in the first two days. At minus 30 degrees, the LCD displays turned into jelly and when the screen goes dead, you know your brain is not too far behind.”
To capture aerial shots of K2 in its actual Pakistani-Chinese locale, Ryan filmed in a helicopter at 22,000 feet and suffered a mild case of hypoxia due to scarce oxygen supply. “That was massively disorienting but it gave me a firsthand sense of how things must have felt for these climbers.”
Ryan’s willingness to tinker with traditional doc constraints paid off when survivors of the K2 expedition saw the final cut and gave The Summit a collective thumbs up. “Once you subscribe to using re-constructions as a format, you do whatever you can to make the best of your resources,” Ryan said. “Anything goes, as long as it’s true.”