‘The Summit’: Why Do People Climb Dangerous Mountains?

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The Summit, a documentary about a 2008 mountain climbing expedition that left people dead, is a perfectly good iteration of its genre. There’s tons of awe-inspiring footage from the top of K2, the second highest peak in the world (after Everest, of course). There’s a lot of people remembering a very bad day in their lives with the appropriate balance of solemnity and excitement. There’s some conflicting evidence, and some recreation, and some present footage. It’s a perfectly good way to spend an evening. But at the end of the film you’re still left with the question that dogs all stories of this kind: why the hell are these people climbing these mountains?

Someone once asked Sir George Mallory that question. Mallory, famously, was one of the first people to try to summit Everest, and at the business end of one of its first very famous tragedies. Also famously (the legacy of the man is a marinade of famousness), he said to the reporter who asked it, “Because it’s there.” Mountaineers love that bit of lore (though it may be apocryphal), but mostly because, it seems to me, it excuses them from having to answer the question: why?

I understand wanting to go to the world’s most remote places. My own most memorable vacation, still, is the Galapagos, and I try to organize my travel by what kind of exotic animal I am likely to encounter along the way. What I do not understand quite so well is seeking out danger deliberately, and for person fulfillment rather than study. It’s one thing to want to meet gorillas or study sharks, and another to climb into the unforgiving cold for the purpose of striving for personal physical excellence, in my humble opinion.

Jon Krakauer, in his Into Thin Air, a book on another ultimately tragic mountaineering expedition, mused that the point of an Everest expedition was “enduring pain. And in subjecting ourselves to week after week of toil, tedium, and suffering, it struck me that most of us were probably seeking, above all else, something like a state of grace.” This, I think, sounds like a more plausible explanation for the popularity of such expeditions than the traditional critic’s pose that mountaineers are just thrill-seekers and idiots who get what they deserve when they die suddenly and horribly. It’s also the one that makes for more interesting storytelling, because in truth if the principle behind mountain climbing is that it’s just a more respectable veneer for Darwin-Award-type behavior, that’s way too neat of an explanation.

On this point, The Summit offers more proof of the complexity of mountaineering motives in the form of solemn testimonials. But it rarely seems to have a grasp on that central question. The primary tale of heroism that expedition offered was of its young Irish climber, Ger McDonnell, who perished after refusing to come off the mountain as he fought to save the lives of some Korean hikers. It’s hard to get a grip on that by watching the documentary alone, however; one loses track of who is talking, of what exactly happened, of the order of events. Funnily enough that happened in Into Thin Air, too, which is why the Wikipedia page on it contains an entire section on “controversy.” The truth is, even mountaineers, not typically the articulate sort, rarely seem to have much idea of why they do what they do. And there’s still a great documentary, one more ultimately satisfying, if less suspenseful, than The Summit, to be made there.