Film Review: K2: Siren of the Himalayas

Mountaineering documentary follows an expedition to K2 in the Himalayas.

One of the most difficult of the world's high peaks, K2 is a goal of every serious Alpinist. Hidden in Pakistan's remote Karakoram Valley, it is surrounded by glaciers and 8,000-meter mountains. This engrossing documentary follows a 2009 expedition to K2, while also commemorating a 1909 Italian expedition led by the Duke of the Abruzzi.

Mountaineering films generally follow the same pattern. Climbers get to know one another during the trek to base camp. Weather invariably becomes a factor. Fatigue and boredom compete with adrenalized terror. Consciously or not, filmmakers hope for mishaps to drum up the stakes.

K2: Siren of the Himalayas
sticks to this basic narrative, but with some noteworthy twists. The climbers interact openly with the cinematographers, perhaps because everyone is in awe of their surroundings. Even better, director Dave Ohlson utilizes footage and photographs taken by Vittorio Sella during the 1909 expedition. Sella's frankly stunning work is matched in beauty by the present-day landscapes.

Led by Fabrizio Zangrilli, the 2009 expedition traveled from Islamabad, Pakistan, to Skardu, Paiju and Concordia, on its way to a base camp some 12,000 feet below K2's summit. They took the same basic route as the 1909 climbers. Seeing identical vistas a hundred years apart gives a good idea of how rugged, isolated and humbling the Karakoram Mountains are.

In interviews, Zangrilli speaks openly about the dangers involved in climbing K2. Jake Meyer, the youngest person to reach the Seven Summits, is similarly honest about the physical pain associated with this climb. Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year in 2012, shows remarkable poise, even when describing the deaths of her hiking companions.

If K2 is less well-known than Mt. Everest, it may be because it is far more difficult to climb. Over 4,000 people have ascended Everest; with enough money and the right amount of luck, just about any physically fit climber can make it. By 2009, when this movie was made, only 302 Alpinists had reached the top of K2. A quarter of those died in the effort.

K2: Siren of the Himalayas captures courage, hardship and at times defeat, but above all Ohlson and his crew document the mountain itself, in all its staggering majesty. Some of the shots here are astonishing, in particular a pan from a close-up of Gerlinde beneath the K2 summit to the valley floor thousands of feet below. For some, this documentary could be the best way to experience just how difficult and rewarding mountaineering can be.

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