Interview: Nick Ryan Scales “The Summit”

On making a thriller about the deadliest day in mountain-climbing history....Read More
Nick Ryan K2 documentary "The Summit"

When Nick Ryan first began work on “The Summit,” his thoughts were along the same lines as any rational person would have looking at pictures of K2, the world’s second highest peak that’s come to be known by those who climb it “Savage Mountain,” wondering why anyone would dare an attempt at scaling it.

“It’s sirens, isn’t it? And K2 is the siren of the Himalayas,” Ryan says now, having spent five years piecing together the story of the deadliest day in mountaineering history. “It has this lure that draws people in and I succumbed to the obsession myself that I happened to go there, but in a much lesser way than [the climbers] did. [Making this film] wouldn’t make me want to climb it any more. If I was Werner Herzog, maybe I’d have climbed it just to be absolutely sure.”

But in going on his own path, Ryan has found a way to allow the timid a chance to experience the exhilaration of those adventurer seekers who routinely through caution to the wind in attempting to climb such great heights on K2 while finding answers that even those who were there on August 1, 2008 have struggled to come to terms with when 11 climbers died, despite perfect conditions, and one, Ger McDonnell, appeared to have sacrificed himself for the sake of others. A film that elegantly unfolds using sleek recreations shot by Andrea Arnold’s go-to cinematographer Robbie Ryan to accompany the testimony of the survivors of the climb and close associates, “The Summit” proves to be as harrowing in the details that emerge from stories surrounding the dangerous hike as it is in depicting the tragic day. While in New York, the first-time feature director had time to talk about why he was drawn to the subject, how he found the look for the film and why history is doomed to repeat itself when it comes to K2.

Nick Ryan K2 documentary "The Summit"What got you interested in this subject?

The quickest answer to that was the statistic that for every four people that climbed this mountain, one had died trying. That was my initial interest in terms of why would anybody ever want to do something like this and through that, subsequently getting to understand that it wasn’t everything that I thought it was to start with myself.

I understand it was actually only a few months after this happened that you were drawn into it.

Yeah, ostensibly, it came through a friend of Ger McDonell’s, a mutual friend. I was at what you’d call a bachelor party with a colleague of mine and he mentioned the story. It wasn’t so much about Ger as it was the sherpa on the mountain called Pemba, who had climbed with Ger and what he had done to help rescue people on the mountain. He who had not been heard because the media had come and gone. Aand that was the starting point of the film. I had interviewed Wilco [van Rooijen], very quickly followed by Pemba and when I completed both those interviews, I had a good picture of what had happened on K2. Even though I hadn’t interviewed everybody at that point, it became apparent that not everything was as it seemed.

I’ve heard you say you didn’t have personal interest in climbing before this, but did actually going to the mountains give you insight?

By the time I went to K2, [my insight] as to why was probably slightly different anyhow. My initial kind of craziness was tempered just by interviewing people. I think obsession is a word that can be used easily with K2 because it does draw people back time again and again. My journey there was very different. I felt at this point K2 became so central to the film that it needed to be represented in a way that had never been seen before. That required flying there in a helicopter with the Pakistan military and when I did see it, the perspective that gave me was very much that I could see why Pemba, why Ger, why Wilco, everybody would go here. It’s so astonishingly beautiful.

Nick Ryan K2 documentary "The Summit"Your earlier shorts both heavily involved aerial photography. Was that something that helped contribute to giving a new look to this?

My previous [films] were more out of a love of aviation more than specifically aerial photography. That was a byproduct, but I knew from doing aerial photography, for “The German” particularly, that the best way of getting scale…look, Howard Hughes said the same thing — he knew making movies and shooting against a blank sky, you’ve got no sense of scale or movement. You need clouds to give you scale. In the same way, I knew that to film K2, I had lots of video of the glacier on the way in, but it’s in the background. It’s really hard to get a sense of how actually big that is and until you put something in there. On info graphics, you normally put a red double decker bus or the Empire State Building because everyone knows what that size is and you go, “It’s 50 Empire State Buildings on end.” But I didn’t want to do that. It wasn’t that kind of film, so I figured the best way was if you could see the majesty of the mountains with movement the way that they are, you get a sense of scale.

In terms of gathering information, at one point in the film, Annie Starkey, the girlfriend of Ger McDonnell, describes the precarious situation she was in, grasping at every piece of information she heard from from sources as potentially unreliable as message boards and mass media accounts. Was it a similar discovery process for you?

It is interesting, but she was doing that at the time as it was unfolding. It’s a microcosm of the nature of story, isn’t it? That people are feeding information from the mountain and it’s like, what’s true and what’s not true? I think her anger and confusion is born out of the frustration of wanting to know what was happening. But as soon as [we] started doing the interviewing, it became clearer that things happened on the mountain that obviously Pemba had told us about — Ger’s camera that he had taken pictures on, which showed Marco [Confortola] and Ger. If you calculate the times and positions that [Marco and Ger] work for about three hours or more to try and free the trapped two Korean climbers and the Sherpa Jumik Bhote, and subsequently, the rather gruesome image in the film, which shows the body of Jumik Bhote who had been trapped in the ropes, they became crucial pieces.

People weren’t really looking in that direction and it’s only when we saw this photograph, going, “Well, hang on, this is the person who Wilco came across that morning and Marco came across and they were both alive to be able to witness and say this guy had been hanging from the six lines all morning.” It may not look utterly clear in the film, but where they were hanging is a big bend and there’s no way you get carried down that mountain by any other way. You had to have got up from that position, walked up 200 meters across that area called the traverse to be at the top of the bottleneck to unfortunately be hit by ice and ended up in that position in the ice where Pemba took the picture. So you do a little bit of investigation and you figure out either somebody was sitting there all night long for 12, 14 hours, then they decide hey, I’m getting out of here or you do the deduction.

Nick Ryan's K2 documentary "The Summit"Because you did the interviews fairly close to the day of the tragedy, but spent another four years working on the film, did you actually go back to do interviews when there may have been some perspective?

That’s a really good question and no is the answer. The first interview I did was with Wilco and to be quite honest, I didn’t know [any of the technical terminology]. But I wasn’t that interested in the technical aspects, which I think comes across in the film. It’s more about the emotional journeys within the movie. And I think the rawness of [Wilco’s] interview at the end, his own questioning  is in that, and the same with Pemba. Even though we did other interviews while we were doing the reconstructions maybe two years later, it didn’t actually bring any more to the film. It wasn’t like anything had changed or brought [things] to life that were going to make any difference.

Walter Bonatti, who passed away during the production, actually offers an interesting counterpoint to the story you’re telling about Savage Mountain because his climb to the top of K2 during the 1950s was beset with controversy about what really happened involving the other climbers. How did he come into the picture?

In my endeavors to at least try and get a better understanding [of climbing], his work to me seemed to be very interesting. He was obviously part of the first successful climb of K2 and he had written this famous book and I was drawn by the parallels about how in many ways what that obsession, again, does to people. His life was awfully destroyed by people wanting to take credit and put the blame on him for something he did not do, out of fear of being usurped and beating them to the summit. It just seems crazy. But to me, it was a perfect way of carrying a lot of exposition in the film because it shows that the mountain is really the same today – we have better equipment, lighter equipment and gear in terms of weatherproofing and so on. But the mountain will still kill you in a second. Nothing has changed.

“The Summit” is currently in theaters across the country. A full list can be found here.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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