We talk to Irish director Nick Ryan about his documentary, THE SUMMIT

In August 2008, 11 experienced climbers died while climbing the world’s second tallest mountain; K2; among them, Irishman Ger McDonnell, who had previously summated Mount Everest. Director Nick Ryan heard about the tragedy, and the conflicting reports surrounding what went wrong on the mountain, and delved deeper. Last week, Movies.ie caught up with Ryan in Dublin, and found out more about the motivation behind THE SUMMIT.

How did you first hear of the 2008 tragedy on K2?
Nick Ryan: I remember it on the news but I didn’t go ‘woah, I’m going to do something about that!’. Then a matter of weeks later, a business partner of mine had been at a stag weekend – all things in Ireland start over drinks! – and he met a guy called Stephen O’Reilly. Stephen had been friends with Ger [McDonnell]. He’d been to the Antarctic with him and he told him about the story and he said there might be something in it, because apparently more went on at the time than was reported.

So many people attempt to climb K2 every year, what do you think draws them to this particular mountain.
NR: K2 is not like Everest, where you have thousands every year climbing it, or attempting to climb it. K2 is the second tallest mountain in the world – it’s only maybe 300 metres smaller than Everest – but it’s infinitely more difficult to climb. It’s a beautiful mountain. The obsession and the allure that draws people in is kind of peculiar on that mountain because you find what you have is a lot of repeat attempts; not anyone who’s ever summited, you don’t go back. It’s a one time summit mountain. It’s something that I discovered myself over the period [of making the film] as well.

Irish climber Ger McDonnell emerges as the heart of the film, was that something you drew out?
NR: Everyone assumes because he was Irish and I’m Irish, that’s what it was. It was nothing to do with that. Ger stood out because he was so gregarious; he was so unlike the other climbers. It was not that Ger was any less serious about getting at that mountain; he would not have gone back a second time if he wasn’t serious, it was just his manner. His story just stood out.

How supportive were Ger’s family when they heard about the film?
NR: Initially, it took about a year. I met them very soon afterwards; Pat [Falvey – executive producer] and myself went down to the house to talk to Gertie [Ger’s mum] and the family, just to get their blessing. I think they looked at me with distain; they were just grieving and I felt intrusive there. I knew I wanted some kind of access to his story; it took about a year and eventually Ger’s brother in law Damien was super helpful. I think he had a million questions himself and he knew I had answers to questions, so we could be mutually beneficial to one another. I know them all quite well now, they are the nicest people in the world but I also had to keep them at arm’s length because I had to remain impartial.

Other that talking with Ger’s family, how did you go about researching the film?
NR: Oddly enough, I didn’t. I stayed away from anything other than Walter Banotti’s story, which I include in the film; his were the only writings I read about K2. In the very beginning I started reading the history of the Himalaya, it had just come out. Climbing is only a new thing, up until the mid 1800s, mountains were considered evil because they routinely killed people, superstition used to rule our world. So I thought I would get a bit of history, but all of a sudden I found myself getting too much history and I already had enough story and how much did I need? Most of the research was from interviewing the survivors, which took place over a two-year period, so I had a good rounded version of what happened on the mountain that day.

Did you actually go to K2?
NR: At some point I realised that K2 was so central to the story, and how do you tell the story without showing the mountain? Everyone has that same image, that same photograph you’ll see time and time again. It’s great, but they have already photographed it; 10 of the climbers videoed in coming in, everyone photographed it, so how do you do it differently? The only way I thought, to get a sense of the scale of the mountain was to film it from the air – I had done some aerial work before. We got some amazing footage. It’s amazing, to go there. I felt the obsession to go there myself; I kind of had to see it.

You spoke to many of the survivors of the disaster, I imagine it would have been traumatic for some of them to recall that day; did you meet any resistance from them?
NR: The only person who wouldn’t talk to us was Mr Kim, the Korean team leader. Hopefully one day he will give his version of what he thinks happened. Everybody else who stood on the summit that day and survived, I talked to. For the longest time I didn’t approach Cecilie [Skog] because how do I even ask her to describe her husband being killed in front of her. I had been dealing with Lars, who had climbed with her on the same team and he put me in contact with a contact for her and she called me. People ask what was the biggest challenge in making this film, technicalities are simple, and filming a mountain is simple… Asking someone to describe their husband being killed in front of them… I don’t feel good about it still, thinking about it. We circled around it for about an hour. It was almost as though, as the moment was approaching, the answers were getting longer and longer because you are putting a buffer between actually getting to that. She broke, and she told us afterwards she couldn’t do it and her friend said ‘they seem like good guys, they seem to be doing the right thing, I think you should talk about it’. I think it was cathartic for her to be able to talk about it.

Why did you decide to use dramatic reconstructions in the film, rather than the footage filmed by the climbers themselves?
NR: For people, reconstructions are a really dirty word, and I don’t care [laughs]. I knew, even before seeing the footage, that there were going to be holes. Even if there was footage of Dren Mandić or Jehan Baig sliding to their deaths, I wasn’t going to use it. I just felt it was too ‘snuff movie’. It’s a complex enough story, a super complex story, and I wanted to keep the audience engaged as much as possible, using the axiom if ‘show not tell’ in many places. I think it makes people understand because a lot of what the climbers show doesn’t give a sense of perspective of where they are, how they are, the geography of the mountain, the scale of the mountain. I certainly wasn’t trying to fool anybody into thinking this is real footage. In the reconstructed scene where Jehan Baig is sliding to his death, the audio that you’re hearing in that real audio because Fredrik Sträng had a camera in his pocket and the audio was rolling. That scene sticks with people and they say it feels so real, that’s because it is real, but it’s reconstructed real.

You worked on the film for five years, so how does it feel now that it’s all over?
NR: it was four years on the film and a year talking about it! [laughs] It’s hard to let go because it is kind of like old shoes; it’s comfortable. Sometimes it’s easy to talk about it, sometimes it’s not. I try not to watch it anymore because I find when I do watch it, it upsets me still. I look forward to moving on to something else, but it’s almost a career in itself; five years is half a decade. There is a responsibility on my shoulders to deliver this story, they story has to go out there. All we tried to do was make as definitive and the definitive version of what happened in 2008.

What do you hope audiences take from the film?
NR: It’s a very first world problem. I hope people, if they are going into this thinking ‘why should I care?’, if they can walk away just having an ounce of empathy with why people are on this mountain and why they do what they do; and to show that there is more to this than just ego. Also to see the true humanity that is shown in that mountain, and it takes them on that journey. The film isn’t about my journey, but I went on a journey making this movie, and hopefully that comes across.

What’s next?
NR: A romantic comedy! [laughs] My background is narrative film and I have been absent for a long time because it has been five years focused on this, to the detriment of my burgeoning narrative career. You almost have to reinvent yourself and go back out there, because now I am the documentary guy. I am probably going to find something nice and small and contained in dramatic form; I would love to do another documentary, but a documentary really has to grab you and you have got to run with it. It’s got to become an absolute passion. You have got to love what you do, and I love what I do.

THE SUMMIT is in Irish cinemas from November 22nd

Words: Brogen Hayes