One in four: The odds of dying on descent after climbing K2

  • The Summit tells the true story about what is considered the deadliest day in modern climbing history when 11 of 18 climbers lost their lives while descending the K2 peak. (Photo by Robbie Ryan)

    The Summit tells the true story about what is considered the deadliest day in modern climbing history when 11 of 18 climbers lost their lives while descending the K2 peak. (Photo by Robbie Ryan)

After 18 climbers reached the summit of one of the most dangerous peaks on the planet, known as K2, in August 2008, one can only imagine the level of adrenalin and accomplishment they felt.

But less than 48 later, 11 of those climbers lost their lives in what is considered the “deadliest day in modern mountain climbing history”.

The documentary ‘The Summit’, created by filmmaker Nick Ryan, tries to get to the bottom of what happened on that descent.

Awarded the World Cinema Editing Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film will screen at the Bermuda Documentary Film Festival next Friday (October 18) at 8.30pm. Tickets are available at

Mr Ryan spoke to local festival director Duncan Hall about his motivations behind the documentary and what he hopes audiences will take away from the film.

Q: Why did you decide to make a documentary about climbing K2?

A: The film came about through a meeting with climber Pat Falvey, who had climbed Everest in 2003 with Ger McDonnell. Ger, along with Pemba Gyalje Sherpa, had helped to save his life when he ran into trouble a short distance from the summit. Pat had come in to talk with us very soon after the tragic events on K2, and at that time, we weren’t aware of what had transpired.

There was a lot of commentary as the tragedy unfolded, criticism about commercial climbing, bad preparation, and lack of experience.

The Sherpa, especially Pemba, who had done so much to help save lives were being written out of the story and this was initially an attempt to redress that.

Q: Many climbers attempt the summit at K2, why did you decide to focus on this group and specifically on Ger McDonnell’s story?

A: Writer Mark Monroe and myself found that the Dutch team which included Ger McDonnell and Pemba Gyalje, held a lot of the central story, having been the first there at base camp in 2008.

By the time we interviewed Pemba and the other Sherpa in December 2008, the stories about what Ger had tried to do and had died so tragically doing, were becoming apparent. This incredible story of courage and heroism, one that flies in the face of the conventional wisdom of high altitude mountaineering emerged.

I am not a climber and I was initially struck by the incredible statistic, that one in four climbers who successfully summit will die on descent. You have better odds playing Russian roulette. What drives someone to face that challenge with such overwhelming odds? That fascinated me as a non-climber.

Q: Why is Pemba’s role in the film and story so vital?

A: Pemba was a full-fledged team member of the Dutch team alongside Ger. They became fast friends on Everest in 2003, and Ger wanted to climb K2 with Pemba.

There will always be elements in the story that will remain a mystery, but Pemba shed a light on key aspects of the events, with the photographs that he took, as well as the radio conversations he had with other Sherpa attempting rescues that day.

Q: What do you think is the lure and attraction with K2, and why do you think mountaineers risk their lives to make the climb?

A: When we started out on the film, I was interested in finding out why they go there, knowing the risk, knowing that one in four won’t make it back from the summit. I think everyone climbs for their own reasons, and they are different reasons, but I believe that some of the attraction is that statistic, that one in four. ‘Can I be the one to beat the odds?’

Q: How did you acquire the first-hand footage from the climb?

A: Several of the climbers had been documenting the climb. Ger was interested in making a film about Pemba and the Sherpa, and filmed the trek in, as well as the crucial base camp meetings.

Wilco also was filming, more on the mountain, physically climbing, as was the Swedish climber Fredrik Strang. He brought a camera to K2, with the idea of making a documentary about climbing the mountain. He filmed many hours at base camp and interviewed various team leaders, as well as a huge amount of material on the mountain. He had his camera with him on the morning of the summit push, and filmed the line of climbers ascending slowly towards the bottleneck as the sun rose.

Strang also had a smaller Canon camera with him, which he brought up with him when he climbed up to help the fallen Serbian climber, Dren Mandic. The audio from his recording was what we used in the film for that scene.

Q: As a filmmaker, why did you decide to include re-enactment footage to tell some of the events of the story?

A: There were huge tracts of the story which were not filmed. From the very beginning Mark and I felt the narrative of the film needed to flow as smoothly as possible, so that we are not taken out of the story. I worked with Pemba, as a technical advisor, on the re-enactments. Alongside Pemba were Chhiring Dorje and Pasang Lama, who also summited that day, and Tshering Lama who was sent up on a rescue mission the following day. This was to ensure a reality was present in this material, and to portray the events as accurately as possible.

Q: What would you like your audience to take away from this film and story?

A: Whilst the film portrays tragic events, it is also a film about survival. There are many reasons why climbers make the choices that they do. I don’t think it is as simple and straightforward as many at first imagine. The film is a mystery and I hope that it engages the audience and provokes questions as well as answering some of them.

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Published Oct 10, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated Oct 10, 2013 at 8:31 am)

One in four: The odds of dying on descent after climbing K2

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