Getting to the bottom of a trip to the top

October 4, 2013

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Even as he started talking to people for his documentary, “The Summit,” filmmaker Nick Ryan had his own skeptical view of mountain climbers and the risks they take.

Those views seemed to be confirmed by the subject matter of the film: the disastrous attempt to climb K2, the world’s second-highest mountain, on August 1, 2008, that left 11 climbers dead.

“I thought, ‘What kind of insanity is that? Who puts themselves at risk like that?’” Ryan says, finishing an espresso in the lobby of the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, during a recent screening of the film. “I mean, I understand that it’s human nature to explore. But the numbers are there: For every four people who have reached the summit of K2, one has died. So the odds are worse than in Russian roulette.”

Yet, when it came time to film the mountain itself, Ryan faced even starker odds: “The helicopters we were in were only built to go 6,500 meters (roughly 21,300 feet) – but we went 7,500 (24,600 feet),” Ryan says, adding with a chuckle, “The odds of making it were one in three.”

There were other factors as well: Ryan was shooting on the mountain (in northern Pakistan) six weeks after the killing of Osama bin Laden, so there were fears of terrorism complicating the attempt to insure the filming; insurance companies refused.

“But we did a spread bet in London – we’d have gotten $250,000 if we were killed by terrorists, but $2 million if we died in the helicopter,” Ryan recalls.

“The Summit,” which won the editing award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, blends interviews, reconstructions and archival footage to unravel the story of how 11 climbers died in one day. Immediate press reports on the events cast the tragedy as the result of inexperience.

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But as Ryan discovered, the climbers were, in fact, all experienced mountaineers. Because he was friends with someone who knew one of the dead climbers, Ryan jumped in almost immediately and spent the next several years interviewing survivors, looking at footage the climbers had shot and reconstructing the events to make his film. His documentary doesn’t cast blame, nor does it have explanations for some of the deaths. In the end, he says, it may just have been a matter of luck.

He looks at the case of climber Rolf Bae as the best example of what went wrong. Bae, feeling unwell because of altitude sickness, had stopped 100 meters from the summit – about an American football-field’s distance. He waited for his wife, Cecilie Skog, and another climber to reach the top, then started down with them – and was swept off the mountain by falling ice, which also cut the fixed ropes meant to guide the climbers back through one of the trickiest areas. Bae died – and the loss of the ropes was one of the contributing factors to the other climbers’ deaths.

“Rolf Bae made arguably the wisest decision of anyone that day, by stopping,” Ryan says. “Then he gets swept away by ice that doesn’t touch people on either side of him. You can’t call that bad decision-making. That’s just bad luck.”

Everyone who survived has their own version – and some of them were unflattering to one of the climbers who died, Ger McDonnell, the first Irish climber to summit K2. One survivor claimed that McDonnell, suffering from altitude sickness in the “death zone” above 8,000 meters (more than 26,000 feet), had simply wandered off and died. But Ryan, after his research, believes that McDonnell was trying to help members of a Korean team that had become tangled in their ropes after falling – and that they all had been swept away by another ice-fall.

Ryan got a personal taste of altitude sickness – caused by the combination of cold and thin oxygen at extreme heights – while filming K2 by helicopter. Though he recreated climbing scenes on the Eiger in the Swiss Alps, he was committed to getting footage of K2 itself for the film – and found himself sitting on a glacier while the crew of his chopper helped the second helicopter in his crew, which developed engine trouble and had to set down at about 6,000 feet.

“I started feeling stiffness in my elbows and knees and thought, ‘Oh, great, I’m getting the flu’,” he recalls. “I was feeling tired so I went back to the helicopter to rest and fell asleep. But I wasn’t using oxygen because I had to handle the camera. And when I woke up, my vision was all liquid, like I was underwater. And I thought, OK, I get it – this is altitude sickness. I need oxygen. Once I did, I was fine – except for a banging headache.”

Having spent so long looking at footage of the tragedy and dealing with its emotional aftermath on the survivors of the dead, Ryan is ready for a change of pace.

“You spend so much time dealing with this horror, feeling this huge amount of responsibility,” he says. “What do I want to do next? A comedy.”

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