K2: Touching the Sky – a film review

Saturday, 13 August was, for me, all about Pakistan. I was back in London to watch the cricket: England vs. Pakistan at the Oval. England were 2-1 up, but Pakistan had an opportunity to fight back and level the series. Which they did, quite comprehensively. By the end of the day Younus Khan had hit a double century, and Yasir Shah had taken three cheap England wickets. Pakistan went on to win the match easily.

But apologies to my American readers. I realise I might as well be talking about particle physics for all the sense that first paragraph makes to you. But if you ever go to Pakistan, it helps to know a little, because Pakistanis love people who can talk knowledgeably about cricket. Matches go on all day from 11am to 6pm, and last for five days, so after play finished for the day we continued the Pakistan theme by heading across the river to Russell Square to watch a film about Pakistan’s best-known mountain.

K2: Touching The Sky
K2: Touching The Sky, a thought-provoking documentary

We watched K2: Touching the Sky in the Bertha Dochouse, a tiny cinema attached to the Curzon which shows niche documentary films. This was my second visit, having watched the Sherpa movie there last year. Edita has a bit more of a fascination with K2 than I do, but I was keen to watch the film too (she was less keen to watch the cricket, but hey – what else is there to do in London?)

The film follows the story of four people whose parents died on K2 in 1986, as they trek to the base of the mountain nearly thirty years later, to learn more about their parents’ motivation and come to terms with their loss.

1986 was one of K2’s dark years. Thirteen people died over the course of two months in a series of separate incidents. The most notorious unfolded across a week in early August, when seven climbers reached the summit, but were forced to endure a four-day storm when they returned to their high camp. Five of them did not survive the ordeal, and one of the two survivors, Kurt Diemberger, is interviewed in the film.

Three of the people in the film are children of climbers who died in this incident: brother and sister Chris and Lindsay lost their mother, the British climber Julie Tullis, who was climbing with Diemberger and died of altitude sickness in her tent during the storm. Lukasz Wolf is the son of Dobroslawa Wolf, a female Polish climber known as Mrufka (“The Ant”), who died of exhaustion during the descent.

The fourth member of the film Hania’s father Tadeusz Piotrowski died in different circumstances. Along with the legendary Polish climber Jerzy Kukuczka he had made a first ascent of the South Face, but had to endure two exhausting bivouacs on the descent, which must have taken him beyond his limits. In the early part of the film we see archive footage of Kukuczka (who himself died in a fall on Lhotse not long after) describing the incident. One by one Piotrowski’s crampons worked loose, causing him to slide past Kukuczka and tumble down the mountain.

Hania talks of her sadness at never knowing her father
Hania talks of her sadness at never knowing her father

Hania is different from the others in the group, in that she never knew her father, who died before she was born. Although she speaks of her sadness at being deprived of his presence, there is a sense that she came to terms with it a long time ago and has got on with her life without him.

“You can’t act like a 5-year-old all your life,” she says.

“A 5-year-old who does what?” says the director.

“A 5-year-old who wants his dad back alive.”

Hania is also much quieter than the other members of the group, and doesn’t feature much in the film after this. Although it would have been nice to hear more from her, the film doesn’t suffer for it. Her three companions are interesting characters who have been more involved in their parents’ mountaineering stories and have much to say about them.

The lithe and supple Lukasz is in his early 30s, but his mature outlook belies his years. We see him climbing a boulder at Base Camp, contorting himself into positions that would give many people a hernia. We discover that he is climber too, but in contrast to his mother he is one who is unlikely to develop an obsession with climbing mountains like K2.

His mother died when he was 4½ and his father, also a climber, when he was just 8. He was separated from his sister and brought up by his grandparents.

“It was difficult,” he says.

He talks about risk. It’s something he must be acutely aware of as a climber himself, but unlike many of the more extreme climbers, he does not regard risk-taking as a virtue.

“There is no higher purpose to the risk,” he says.

It becomes clear later in the film that although he loved his mother, he regards the decisions she made on K2 that year as selfish.

The four protagonists discuss risk and the decision to climb
The four protagonists discuss risk and the decision to climb

We are introduced to the siblings Lindsay and Chris, who also have contrasting outlooks. Their mother Julie Tullis was a TV personality in Britain before she went to K2. We see archive footage of the TV presenter Anne Diamond announcing her death on the breakfast TV couch. Then we see Lindsay and her father Terry being interviewed immediately after Julie’s death. Both are in tears, but Lindsay, who would have been in her early 20s at the time, is very forgiving.

“It’s hard for us, but we know that she died doing what she loved, and we will always remember that about her,” she says.

Fast forward nearly thirty years, and Chris does a piece to camera on the glacier at K2 Base Camp. Although he is not a climber, it becomes clear that he has spent a lot of time over the years reading up about the circumstances of his mother’s death, and is very knowledgeable about both K2 and its history.

He describes receiving a note from his mother saying that she was coming home, but then they heard that she had changed her mind, and decided to go back up the mountain for another summit attempt.

“An attempt that proved fatal for a large number of them. All but two of them, in fact,” he says.

Unlikely Lindsay, the expression on his face does not betray sympathy. On the contrary, he appears to find the decision baffling.

The camera pans down the skyline of the Abruzzi Spur to the Shoulder, the place the climbers were camping when they endured the killer storm.

“So where’s Mum?” says Lindsay.

Chris knows precisely, and describes the point clearly.

Julie Tullis was something of a TV personality in Britain before going to K2
Julie Tullis was something of a TV personality in Britain before going to K2

Later all four of them sit on the moraine discussing the decision to go back up for another summit attempt. Hania is silent and listens, but Chris and Lukasz are both adamant that they made a bad decision. Lindsay interrupts them.

“I can understand why they went back up,” she says. “I know why they did. They were mountaineers. They were nearly at the summit. They worked hard to get there. I can understand why they did it. They’ve got that far. They’re not just going to give up and go back down.”

Her forgiveness and willingness to defend her mother are admirable, but unlike Lukasz and her brother, she does not understand that yes, they can give up and go back down. Mountaineers can and do make such decisions all the time. It’s necessary for their survival if they want to live to climb another day.

Chris then makes this very point to the camera during a separate interview.

“I have no problem with people who are mothers and fathers climbing … It’s risky for sure, but you can choose how risky you want to make it.”

Parenthood is one of the principal themes of the film: whether parents who climb mountains like K2 are being responsible for the sake of their kids. It’s a question that is of particular interest to the director, Eliza Kubarska, who appears in the film a few times herself to address this question. She explains at the very beginning that she is a climber who wishes to be a mother, but has doubts about whether it’s ethical.

I find these scenes a bit of a distraction. There’s one slightly bizarre scene at the end where she’s cradling a baby on a rocky beach. It’s the very last thing we see, and it means we’re in danger of walking out of the cinema thinking “that was a bit weird”. It’s a shame to leave viewers with this impression, as the film is otherwise quite thought-provoking, if not exactly cheery.

Besides, IMHO there’s a very simple answer to this question, and Chris provides it in just a few sentences. Which is: of course parents can climb big mountains, as long as they are responsible about the risks they take.

I also believe one of the film’s other main themes is a much more interesting one: why are people so obsessed with K2?

In his book The Endless Knot, about his and Julie’s relationship with K2, Kurt Diemberger describes it as their “dream mountain”. He says this about it:

Seen from some angles, the contours of K2 exhibit the perfect harmony of a triangle … it demonstrates the amazing symmetry of a cut diamond. Perhaps, indeed, one should call it the Himalayan Koh-i-noor after the celebrated diamond, the ‘mountain of light’, which similarly has been an instrument of fortune and disaster.

This is the very first paragraph in a chapter called Success and Tragedy – Russian Roulette? The Russian Roulette part is the bit that puts me off K2 (along with the fact that I’m a fairly shit climber). Not only is the mountain unremittingly steep on practically the whole of any route, but the routes are constantly laden with avalanche risk, so that there are virtually no safe places to camp that aren’t in the line of fire. It is also rocked by almighty storms most of the time, and there are very few safe climbing days. And then there’s the altitude, and the dangers of dying of altitude sickness if you’re tentbound during one of its many storms. Actually, that’s quite a few things that put me off K2, but also a few things that make me intrigued about why so many other people are attracted to it. Are they not aware of these things?

I’ve mentioned in a previous post that I sometimes have difficulty tuning into Kurt Diemberger’s wavelength and I had a similar problem when I read Julie Tullis’s book Clouds from Both Sides. So perhaps I’m not the best person to make an assessment of their motives.

But I do admire Kurt Diemberger for his thick skin and willingness to talk about it. People have been critical of his part in the tragedy, and how he survived when others didn’t, or of how he introduced Julie Tullis to the world of dangerous Himalayan peaks when he was clearly a much more experienced climber than she was (it would have been interesting to hear Chris and Lindsay’s thoughts on this, but they aren’t addressed in the film).

The tin plate plaque to Julie Tullis at the Gilkey Memorial
The tin plate plaque to Julie Tullis at the Gilkey Memorial

It would have been easy for Kurt Diemberger to decline the invitation to appear in the film, but he didn’t. He is interviewed somewhere cosy and warm, his frostbitten fingers waving in front of the camera as he makes a point. He describes the moment when they stood “on top of the crystal and touched the sky” and his last encounter with Julie, when she came to his tent during a lull in the storm. He describes their return to high camp, having reached the summit of their dream mountain, and the sense of elation.

“But we didn’t know,” he says in his thick Austrian accent. “We didn’t know what we still had to come.”

The film ends poignantly when the four protagonists climb up to the Gilkey Memorial above K2 Base Camp, to see the plaques erected to those who have died on the mountain. It’s a pilgrimage that appears to have a deeper effect on Lindsay than her companions. While they have attained some measure of understanding over the years, of what their parents went through, she has kept the events at a distance, carrying them deep in her forgiving heart.

She is far outside her comfort zone on the narrow path to the memorial. Chris has to hold her hand and encourage her on. She is nervous when she gets there, and in tears. It’s as if she is only now realising that if she finds it scary on this path above Base Camp, how much worse must it have been for her mother high above?

Is this the first time she has really tried to understand? She is still in tears at Base Camp when she is interviewed.

“I’m a 50-year-old housewife,” she says, “not a stupid person who wants to climb mountains.”

Apart from the weird image of the director clutching a baby, I left the cinema thinking about Maria Coffey’s book When the Mountain Casts its Shadow, about those who are left behind. There are not many films or books about mountaineering that tackle these questions in such a mature way, by trying to understand rather than being evasive or dismissive. K2: Touching the Sky doesn’t really answer them, but nor should it, because there are no easy answers. It’s a dark and poignant film, but it’s also thought-provoking.

The three-minute trailer below doesn’t really do justice to the film, with its spooky images and soundtrack. It’s the interviews and the characters that make it worth watching.

Watch on YouTube

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6 thoughts on “K2: Touching the Sky – a film review

  • August 31, 2016 at 8:57 pm
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    I have been affected by the “K2-bug” for at least a quarter of a century and, whatever thoughts or doubts you may be having about the appeal of this “most considerable protuberance in the landscape”, I must compliment you with being quite spot on with this review.

  • September 1, 2016 at 6:04 am
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    I’ve climbed a few small mountains in my time, and I always admired the daring and ability of those who go so much higher. After reading this review, I am wondering whether or not those who wish to climb the big boys should be put in protective custody and treated as people with a life-threatening mental illness.

    A very impactful bit of writing.

  • September 5, 2016 at 1:45 am
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    Btw Mark I just picked up my copy of Seven Steps from Black Bond books. It seems Barnes and Noble doesn’t operate in Canada. But they got me a copy one way or another. I was very happy to see the bit about the guy in the rhino suit climbing Kilimanjaro survived the final edit. 🙂 Any idea how many copies have been sold in Canada?

  • September 22, 2016 at 10:17 pm
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    Excellent but sad story.
    Man has never shied away from accepting challenges and this docu nicely depicts that.

  • October 3, 2016 at 11:42 am
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    I hope one day I will climb K2, feels like there is something magical about that place, it’s so desolate and remote, from another planet.

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