Interview: Director Nick Ryan & Climbing Expert, Pemba Gyalje Sherpa of ‘The Summit’
With its near constant threat from avalanches and alpine blizzards, not to mention a steep, icy summit that requires the utmost physical and mental skill to conquer, it’s no wonder that K2, the second tallest peak on Earth, is also known as The Savage Mountain. Though 237 meters shorter than Everest, this majestic monster has a notoriously grim death rate of nearly 30% for all who reach its elusive attic.
That means that getting down is just as hard as coming up… something that a global team of climbers including experts and best friends Ger McDonnell of Ireland, and Pemba Gyalje of Nepal learned tragically on August 1st, 2008. A day regarded as the single deadliest in history on The Savage Mountain, it’s one that Pemba won’t easily forget, and now, thanks to Nick Ryan’s harrowing new documentary The Summit, a film that masterfully recreates every spellbinding moment of that fateful climb, piecing together a fractured narrative that has begotten one mystery after another (many of which surround Ger’s controversial death), audiences won’t either.
“When I initially started the film, the part that drew me in most was that statistic about one person dying for every four who reach K2’s summit. That was like a peculiar form of insanity to me and I just wanted to know why,” Ryan says, his infectious energy as conspicuous as his Irish brogue. “But that is not what the film is about; it’s not about trying to say that these people are insane or that they’re not insane.”
He continues: “It’s not craziness, it’s a deep seeded passion and a love… Naturally, the people who get involved in this extreme sport are prone to making extreme decisions, but I don’t think that for one second they think they’re gonna die. Why would someone take on worse odds than Russian roulette unless they were convinced that they wouldn’t be that 1 (person) in 4?”
As the director himself says, it’s for love of sport, or in Mr. Gyalje’s case, love of the Alpine landscape that is reminiscent of his birthplace. “I’ve climbed Everest seven times, Cho Oyu (the sixth tallest mountain in the world, located on the Tibet-Nepal border) five times, K2 once, and many other Himalayan and European peaks, but I just can’t pick a specific favorite, because I love all mountains, they are home to me.”
Alas, they weren’t to Nick Ryan, although that didn’t stop the filmmaker from embarking on quite the extreme adventure of his own. “It’s funny because I don’t see myself as an intrepid kind of person. I would never climb a mountain or jump out of an airplane; I’m terrible in those situations. But at the end of the day I did fly to K2 and hang out of the side of a helicopter.”
“When I look back at it now, I see how extremely dangerous it was and how it nearly ended in tragedy (when another helicopter carrying members of the film crew was forced to make a high altitude emergency landing after one of its engines became blocked by debris– luckily no one was hurt), but that’s not why I did it. To me, it was a logical thing to do (to obtain exterior shots) for the film.”
Yet not only did Ryan film exterior shots of K2 in the Himalayas, but he also restaged much of the action in the Swiss Alps, a decision that proved arduous but fruitful: “Truthfully, I thought the reconstructions looked considerably different because we (Ryan and his cousin, Robbie Ryan, the talented cinematographer behind Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights) used 235 anamorphic – literally, we shot anamorphic – and you can’t get really wide on those lenses, even though all of the climbers’ cameras (Ryan also used actual first hand climber’s footage from that day) are fully wide and you can see everything.”
“But I guess because we did a lot of work replacing backgrounds, that it worked. It’s like a magic trick, or almost a form of misdirection, you just have to draw an audience in, and whatever technique is involved, as long as it’s truthful, in this case, it’s ok in my opinion.”
Clearly, despite his copious talents as a filmmaker, the director was most concerned with presenting an honest, objective glimpse into the events of that day in ’08. “I want an audience to go in to see this film and come away making up there own minds about what these people do. One of the things that I discovered when I did my initial research about this tragedy was that there was so much criticism from the public going, why are these people doing this? They’re idiots! They’re putting other people’s lives at risk! Why should I care? It’s a very first world problem undoubtedly, but I would love to think that if people get to see this film, they might better understand.”
Mr. Gyalje is fine with the fact that some people find his passion to be somewhat crazy, he’s just happy that the film depicts the tragic events of that day accurately: “The Summit includes pretty much everything that happened to us on the mountain, and really shows what happened to Ger.”
Gerard McDonnell, much like his good buddy, Pemba, was an expert climber who had tackled several 8000+ meter summits – including Everest – and was widely considered to be one of the best Alpine climbers in the world. Unfortunately, for reasons that the film does it’s best to illuminate, McDonnell made it to K2’s summit that day, but lost his life as he was helping his fellow climbers descend after their stabilizing ropes had been destroyed by a sudden avalanche. It is a tragedy that deeply affects everyone who knew and loved the loyal and affable Irishman.
“It’s very difficult for Pemba to talk about even today”, Ryan says, quite subdued himself. “At first I thought it was an initial reticence or shyness, but it’s a much more cultural thing. It’s not in the film, but I witnessed from seeing his reaction to watching it that he is affected by Ger’s death much more than he will ever say.”
Despite confronting nature’s fury, it was the delicate nature of this event, and the fact that Ryan was recreating a tragedy in which Ger and 11 other people had lost their lives, that proved to be ‘the most challenging aspect of making the film.”
But it was also the most rewarding: “It’s because people are so open and honest and have been able to tell their stories that you have a film in the end that actually has any real emotional resonance. Not being a climber, I wasn’t interested in doing a hell yeah, we’re all climbing the mountain kinda movie. It’s the human stories that were important, because at the end of the day it’s a human tragedy, and film has this magical ability of being able to bring someone back to life, albeit briefly.”
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