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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Wondering Heights
by Donald Levit

From Telluride Mountainfilm Festivals at worldwide locations, K2: Siren of the Himalayas came to a Film Society of Lincoln Center “weekend of outstanding adventure films.” With it were director-coproducer David Ohlson, Colorado-based mountaineer-guide Fabrizio Zangrilli, and backers, technicians and crew.

Brought out in the Q&A was their thankfulness for the peak’s difficulty of access in increasingly problematic northernmost Pakistan. “Siren” to the contrary, the resultant soulful lonesome serenity was preferable to the groupies massed at megastar Everest, “whose summit was so crowded I couldn’t find a place to stand after waiting in line two hours.”

K2 is so underpublicized that that unadorned designation -- indicating merely second in geographical line of the Karakoram Range -- is far more common than original 1850s Godwin-Austen or local Dapsang. Second highest in the world, this 28,250-footer is more grudging of its summit -- in 2009-10, eight hundred forty-three “conquered” Everest; zero did so on K2 -- and its steeper narrower slopes are far more lethal in kill rates.

Recent The Summit fused real footage with great amounts of re-creation to image the deadly August 2008 day on this mountain and to celebrate lost Irishman Ger McDonnell and others who perished then on the statistically more dangerous descent. K2:SH is the better, crisper picture. Except for headshot interviews both on and away from the mountain, its 2009 footage of an eight-week attempt to reach the top balances alongside movies and stills taken by Vittorio Sella exactly a century earlier. In addition to their quality, the latter are a staggering achievement, on top of the weight and bulk of four hundred 30x40 cm. negative plates added to those of equipment of that time. Setting a then-altitude record of 7,500m, that 1909 exploratory attempt headed by Prince Luigi Amadeo, Duke of the Abruzzi, was written up as it went along by Filippo de Filippi, pertinent parts of whose four-hundred-page account are given voice here by Simone Leorin.

A hundred years apart, the two now side-by-side adventures combine and complement in riveting viewing, recalling the 1953 excitement of Oscar-nominated The Conquest of Everest. This current documentary is dedicated to two who died at the time on the mountain -- one skiing down like Miura in 1975 Oscar-winner The Man Who Skied Down Everest -- and it concentrates on four world-class climbers: group leader Zangrill, Jake Meyer, Chris Szymiec and, the one to whom audiences probably will most warm, Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner. Warm, not because she is necessarily more or less engaging, but because most will root for the lone woman amongst the boys, even though today women are increasingly a presence in the fraternity.

To a man or woman, these alpinists speak of the beauty and truth of the slopes, of the quality of being fully alive way up there on them, of the physical demands, the addiction to climbing, and of the risks. But “we are not looking to die.”

Fiction films have conditioned viewers to expect victory or at least glory in defeat. Thus it is that the participants’ one by one turning back here comes as a surprise. They comment that through experience mountaineers learn when physical, mental, emotional limits have been reached. Subsequent attempts at that time and in 2010 fare no better. But, having suspected that this Siren “does not like me,” Kaltenbrunner first scaled Everest and then in 2011 returned to the Pakistan-China frontier and via another, less frequented route reached the summit. In doing so, she became the first of her gender to stand on the tops of all fourteen 8,000m peaks, without oxygen tanks and masks. In 2012, National Geographic Magazine voted this daring Austrian woman its Explorer of the Year.

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