At any given backyard barbecue, you’ll meet scores of Northwest climbers who’ve done Rainier and McKinley, some who’ve bagged Everest, but only a handful who’ve been up K2. The daunting weather, remote location (in northwest Pakistan, very much a no-go area after 9/11), and death-to-summit ratio make it a grim trophy indeed. It’s far safer to go for Everest (or the Seven Summits—the high points on each continent) than chance a trip to the Karakoram. Mountaineers who flock to see this documentary by Dave Ohlson already know this, of course, and the film mostly traverses familiar ground.
Ohlson’s endeavor began in 2009, the year after icefall killed 11 on K2 and the centennial of the Duke of Abruzzi’s first attempt to climb it. The latter expedition’s movie footage and stills (by the great Vittorio Sella) are really the selling point here. Ohlson and the four climbers he profiles obviously respect that history, but it’s also padding for a project that clearly sat on the shelf too long. After the terrifying drive along crumbling roads, the long trek up the Baltoro Glacier, then the arduous process of setting fixed lines and camps for the summit push, all the HD footage and modern gear (right down to the satellite phones and espresso makers) gives you a sense of how much harder and more daring the Duke’s uncharted effort was in its day. A separate and more comprehensive documentary on that subject would’ve been a more fruitful approach for this first-time filmmaker. (He was assisted in the edit, entirely professional, by local director/producer Jason Reid.)
“The mountain looked sinister,” says one of the Duke’s journal entries (read aloud with an Italian accent), and it’s still infrequently climbed for that reason. Or as local mountaineering legend Ed Viesturs later described it, after pushing to the summit despite avalanche conditions (instead of turning around), “That was the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my climbing career.” Runs Fri., Sept. 26–Sun., Sept. 28 at SIFF Film Center. Not rated. 75 minutes.