Editor's note: "The Summit" was not previewed for Pittsburgh critics.
If you can accept its extensive use of reconstructions, you're likely to find "The Summit," a documentary examination of an August 2008 mountaineering disaster, to be intense and sometimes painful viewing. Eleven climbers from several international expeditions died during a two-day period on the side of K2, the world's second-tallest mountain.
Located on the Pakistan-China border, K2 has a terrifying reputation. The film tells us that for every four climbers who have reached the top, one has died.
"The Summit" uses footage shot by climbers, supplemented by interviews with survivors and re-creations of events, the last of which are effective but sure to put off documentary purists.
Even if the film can't answer every question about exactly what happened during that horrific 48-hour period, it creates a growing sense of dread as we watch events start to go badly awry, especially on that part of the mountain appropriately called the Death Zone.
The events depicted raise ethical issues, complicated by the fact that at least some climbers have a kind of "soldier on" mentality that might prompt them to leave behind injured fellow mountaineers. First-time director Nick Ryan brings these questions to a head by focusing on the Irish climber Ger McDonnell, who was thought by some to have abandoned an injured climber, although the film argues that he actually lost his life trying to aid three badly hurt Korean mountaineers.
The movie offers conflicting accounts of what happened on K2, and viewers looking for detailed and definitive answers may find that frustrating. But those who can tolerate a degree of mystery will find "The Summit" hard to forget.
Opens today at AMC-Loews at the Waterfront.
First Published October 17, 2013 8:00 PM