Interview: Nick Ryan - reaching for new heights
Film-maker Nick Ryan turned investigator for acclaimed documentary 'The Summit', piecing together the K2 climbing disaster
A workaholic's work is never done, but when Nick Ryan finally stops for the Christmas holidays, he has only one plan. "Sleep," the director cackles, his laugh a bit too loud to be mere levity.
Ryan estimates that he's had about ten days off since January 2011, and that, he swears, includes Saturdays and Sundays. The culprit is his feature debut The Summit, a documentary about the infamous 2008 K2 climbing disaster that claimed the lives of 11 mountaineers, among them Limerick hero Ger McDonnell. McDonnell was the first Irishman to summit K2 and died trying to rescue two South Korean climbers and their Sherpa.
Since screening at the Sundance and Jameson Dublin International film festivals, the film was picked up for US distribution and has received legions of glowing reviews. Naturally, Stateside promotional duties and special screenings have been eating up Ryan's time of late.
He's just back from Canada, where he was handed the Best Feature Length Film prize at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. "That was great," he says. "I was only there for the screening itself, which was incredibly emotional because the wife of one of the climbers who died that day was there and she hadn't seen the film yet. She watched it in front of an audience of a thousand people, which I thought was brave. There was an audible gasp when she came up for the Q&A afterwards and a standing ovation. It's at times like this you realise why you're doing this."
It is the second time I've met the 44-year-old, whose penchant for black clothing and thick-frame specs give him the air of an ill-shaven architect. He's an effortless conversationalist, the kind of person you pray you get seated near at a wedding dinner. He's bubbly and animated as he speaks about The Summit, snapping his hands together to punctuate ideas. You almost forget the tragic strands from which his film is woven.
The 2008 K2 disaster stands as one of the worst in mountaineering history, a 48-hour stretch where the planet's second-highest and most lethal peak preyed on a 24-man international climbing team. The particulars of how the 11 men died have been the subject of some bitter debate, a fact not helped by the delusional effects of altitude on the brain.
After being approached by O'Donnell's close friend, the Irish adventurer Pat Falvey, Ryan set out to initially tell the story of Pemba Gyalje and the other heroic Sherpas who had been left out of the news reports. But when no single reliable map of events was forthcoming from those who had survived, Ryan and writer Mark Monroe took on the mantle of investigators in a bid to piece together what happened and "put the events into an order where people could assess it".
Two years into the project, Ryan found himself needing to meet the monster, as if "part of that obsession these climbers have had transferred" on to him. It took 11 months for visas to be secured before he and production manager Stephen O'Reilly travelled to Pakistan to get actual aerial shots of K2.
They made things interesting for themselves. For starters, they arrived in Abbottabad three weeks after a certain most-wanted Al Qaeda leader had been killed there, which was less than ideal timing. They managed to avoid Taliban but not the Karakoram Highway, the world's highest – and diciest – international road. To get the shots required, they then went to 7400m in helicopters that had an operational ceiling of 6500m. Ryan recalls "feeling fine" without using the oxygen canister provided and not even feeling the cold. "The fact I was two-and a half miles up and wasn't worried, that should have been a warning sign that everything wasn't exactly right," he grimaces. Hypoxia introduced itself. Soon, his elbows and knees began aching before his vision deteriorated and he was finally vomiting bile.
Before leaving, he asked his wife Avril to sign his will, should anything befall him on this footage-gathering expedition. "From an insurance perspective, it was a super high-risk venture, so I had to. I remember going down to the company solicitor on a Friday evening and doing up the will and I just said 'whatever I have I leave it to my wife'. Then we met that evening in Peter's Pub. I gave her the solicitor's card and I said 'look, go in to this guy on Monday, and no we're not getting divorced'. I think she thought I was taking the piss. We got pretty drunk that night and laughed about it a lot."
There's something very can-do about Ryan, a mix of nerdish zeal for cool stuff and a precision-focus work ethic that rarely sits still. He marvels at how Star Wars swept him off his seven-year-old feet in one of Dublin's now-defunct picture houses. His Cabinteely family home wasn't particularly artistic (his father was self-employed and his mother dabbled in drawing) but he loved sketching and painting to the extent that he'd pull sickies from school to spend time with his art materials.
Then he and cousin Robbie discovered old Cine cameras in the attic and began shooting three-minute war epics ("That little piece of greenery on Sandymount Strand with the palm trees is very like Vietnam!") Equipment and productions slowly improved until Ryan graduated from Blackrock College in 1987 and enrolled in what was then Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design.
His parents were fully supportive, despite the perception at his alma mater that art college "was for drug addicts and homosexuals". He was now among like-minded individuals. Film-making wasn't a real profession back then, so he funnelled his eye into graphic design, then 3D animation, commercials, motion graphics and finally short films.
Jump forward to 2013, and cousin Robbie is now Robbie Ryan, the award-winning UK-based cinematographer. Nick, meanwhile, brought his debut feature to Sundance in January and was met with sold-out screenings, scuffles for tickets and luncheon with festival founder Robert Redford at his private ranch ("He's really nice, really polite. His family's from Cork ... go figure").
"It was a bit like Entourage," he guffaws. "You're sitting in hotel rooms, talking to people who are presenting what they would do if they bought your film. I woke up on the Saturday morning – the second day of the festival – knowing the film had sold." Avril, who is CEO of Fighting Blindness, had taken a couple of weeks off work to accompany her husband, and was "hugely helpful" in pushing The Summit effectively. "She has a real job," he quips, "so she's extremely focused and a better manager of people than I am."
"I have no kids," he reflects on the constraints his film is imposing, "which is just as well. My wife's been great support for the last five years. Without going into it, it's been very hard – we put all of our own money into doing this and so on, so it's been a tight, hard few years, as for the whole of Ireland. Crazy for air miles too but you don't mind that – jetlag stops being an issue because you don't know where you are!"
And with that, Dublin's jolliest workaholic finds energy for one more bellylaugh.
'The Summit' opens in cinemas on November 22. A special screening will take place at Cork Film Festival on November 17.
The Summit: How Triumph Turned to Tragedy on K2's Deadliest Days by Pat Falvey and Pemba Gyalje Sherpa www.thesummit.com