Painful Decisions on an Angry Mountain


Just two days after the news that 18 climbers from Dutch, Korean, and Norwegian teams had summited K2 began spreading through the climbing community, a second report began circulating. Eleven climbers were dead. It was early August 1, 2008, and the 28,251-foot peak on the China-Pakistan border had cemented its reputation as the ultimate monster mountain. 

Director Nick Ryan decided to make a documentary about the climbers caught in the "death zone" on the world's second tallest peak because the characters and drama came pre-packaged. But, after digging into the accepted narrative about K2's deadliest day, he became convinced that there was more to the story. In particular, Ryan felt strongly that Pemba Gyalije, a famous local guide, had not received credit for his heroism during those disastrous 48 hours and that the survivors and casualties had been unfairly accused of amateurism.

"There were a lot of inaccuracies about who had done what on the mountain," Ryan told 'Men's Journal.' "I think Pemba [Gyalije]'s contributions to saving lives that day were overshadowed."

Ryan's new film 'The Summit,' which debuted last week in New York and Los Angeles and will soon be released nationally, argues that many of the deaths on K2 were the result of an accumulation of minor errors and happenstance and that selflessness was all that kept the massacre from being worse. Pemba, who'd made his way down to safety after summiting, climbed back into the danger zone to help struggling climbers. He saved the lives of two men left exposed on the mountain, hauling them back to camp. And he wasn't the only one fighting to save lives. Irish mountaineer Ger McDonnell, who had joined the Dutch expedition, refused to descend after a ledge unexpectedly collapsed on members of his expedition.

"Nobody walked past somebody who had fallen and continued to the summit," says Ryan. "The people who were on the mountain were commercial climbers. . . . They were good climbers."

For non-climbers, the decision to not walk past a dying man might sound like a no-brainer, but, in such dangerous conditions, alpinists are trained to look after themselves. Ryan explains that the Korean team on the mountain that day was "quite prepared to lose a man to reach the summit." Not so with Pemba, who still guides on the mountain, or McDonnell, whose body was never recovered. They made the choice to endanger themselves and Ryan's film honors that selflessness without accusing other climbers of cowardice. Ryan, who re-creates some of the drama, seems to understand that cowards don't climb mountains and that each and every one of the men on K2 made a decision to put themselves in harm's way.

'The Summit' is a film about heroism at the edge, but it is also a movie about scale. One day in 2008, K2 brushed off a bunch of climbers like so many flies. Ryan isn't interested in assigning blame because he knows that monsters will be monsters.

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