K2 documentary “The Summit” is a gripping, emotional experience

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Much of the praise centered around the world-conquering “Gravity” involves its status as a cinematic experience — the feeling that the audience is there, to some degree. The documentary “The Summit” is not in 3D, and it’s not showing on IMAX screens, nor does it feature major stars. But make no mistake, it too is an experience — an emotional one. (The IFC Films release opens today at the Amherst Dipson.)

Nick Ryan’s film opens with sobering words: “11 mountain climbers died on K2 in early August, 2008. It was the deadliest 48 hours in the history of climbing the Savage Mountain.” K2 is located in northern Pakistan, and its status as second-highest mountain in the world has long made it an alluring target for climbers. But it is extremely dangerous even for veterans — the film refers to an area known as the “Deathzone” — and the site of many tragedies.

The disaster that took place in 2008 is the subject of the film, and controversy still swirls around what exactly went down, and how. That debate is a part of the film, especially near the end. But above all else, “The Summit” is a tribute to those who died, and to the heroism demonstrated by so many involved. As one climber puts it, “The question you should ask yourself: What would you do?”

Without question, the late Ger McDonnell is the most fascinating figure here. “[I’m] so happy to be here, I could almost cry,” he announces when arriving at the top, and it is easy to understand his enthusiasm. The film presents some backstory on the mountain, and it is clear that it is an almost incomparable physical feat.

But that means disaster can strike quickly, and without warning. The first time a climber falls, the effect is startling, as unexpected for the viewer as it was for those involved, for after it occurs … everything stops. From that moment on, the film portrays a desperate attempt at survival (the reenactments actually work well, which is not always the case) but also stops to look at the effect on the folks left at home, waiting to hear what was happening.

It is a sad story, one plagued by moral issues involved in helping — or not — and tinged with regret. After things had ended came various accounts, some of which did not add up; McDonnell’s brother-in-law wonders “how so many people on the mountain could have different stories about the same event.” Some individuals do not come off well, while a few others emerge as real heroes. Ger McDonnell had put this complexity into words before his K2 experience: “Just because you survive a mountain doesn’t make you an expert … when you weren’t there, you don’t know. Only the mountain knows.”

While at times a bit difficult to follow — there are many, many individuals involved — “The Summit” is a gripping, slickly shot and edited production, and a documentary that feels vibrant, direct, and emotionally involving. Even knowing how this true story ended, the journey is an unpredictable one. As the late climber Walter Bonatti puts it, “Oh, K2 … It was full of surprises.”