Death and Life on ‘K2: Siren of the Himalayas’

Written by Rachel Redfern.

In light of the 2014 tragedy on Mount Everest when 16 Sherpas were killed in an avalanche, the release of Dave Ohlsen’s 2009 K2 documentary, K2: Siren of the Himalayas, feels especially timely. On April 18, 2014, 16 Sherpas, the great guides of the Nepali mountain range, were killed in an avalanche from the Khumbu icefall, making Friday, April 18, the deadliest day in Everest history. The tragedy brought light to a controversy of Everest summiting that had been brewing for the past few years. Suddenly, there was a spotlight on the high-adventure tourist industry running out of Everest: the overcrowded and littered Everest summit, the fights between Sherpas and trekkers, and the fact that Sherpas do the hardest, most dangerous work of summiting without awards or recognition.

K2, however, is a slightly different animal than her more popular sister; while summiting the highest mountain in the world, at 8,848 meters, is no mean feat, and by 2010, 3, 142 individuals have climbed Mt. Everest.

As of 2010, 302 have climbed K2.

[caption id="attachment_12884" align="aligncenter" width="543"]k2: Siren of the Himalayas K2: Siren of the Himalayas[/caption]

At 8,611 meters, K2 is not only the second-highest mountain on earth, it is also widely considered the most dangerous; its faces are steep and technical, and there is no safe path to the top. Over one-fourth of those who attempt K2 will die.

K2: Siren of the Himalayas follows four world-renowned climbers, Fabrizio Zangrilli (USA), Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner (Austria), Jake Meyer (England), and Chris Szymiec (Canada) as they attempt to summit K2 on the 100 year anniversary of the Duke of Abruzzi’s surveying expedition in 1909.

For these four Alpinists, summiting K2 marks the peak in their careers; Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner especially since she had already climbed 13 of the world’s 8,000 meter peaks and K2 would make her 14th (only 32 people have ever completed all 14). And the Zangrilli/Kaltenbrunner expedition stands in stark contrast to those on Everest: Zangrilli and Kaltenbrunner explicitly climb without the use of oxygen or high-altitude porters.

For what at first glance feels like stock tribute to a group of male climbers dominating a mountain, is actually a contemplative, slow-moving exploration of the dangers of high-altitude mountain climbing. And while there are stunning vistas of sunrises, sunsets, and glaciated mountain ranges, the majority of the film centers on the close-knit climbing community and their measured patience and startlingly humility in the face of their accomplishments. Especially since so much of the film shows their unwearied acceptance of their failures over the mountain.

Rather than a puff piece on “Look what I did!” K2: Siren of the Himalayas is instead, “Look what I could not do, but continue to respect and admire.”

The film evolves as well as Kaltenbrunner comes into focus with her calm wisdom, joy of the mountains, and humility at her failures and successes. Kaltenbrunner would actually be the only one from the expedition to attain the peak and become the second woman to climb the fourteen eight-thousanders, and the first to do it without oxygen and high-altitude porters. Basically, she’s amazing.

[caption id="attachment_12883" align="aligncenter" width="630"]Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner after reaching the K2 summit in 2011. Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner after reaching the K2 summit in 2011.[/caption]

As much of the climbing world contemplates the unsteady future of Everest expeditions (the 2014 season was canceled after the avalanche), K2: Siren of the Himalayas stands as a moderated, joyful glimpse of why so many climbers do what they do, as well as highlighting the great dangers of our beautiful, and volatile home, and the adventurers who explore her.

K2: Siren of the Himalayas will be released in the USA on Aug. 22, 2014: visit their website here for information about screeners and locations.



Rachel is a traveler and teacher who spent the last few years living in Asia. Now back in her native California, she focuses on writing about media, culture, and feminism. While a big fan of campy 80s movies and eccentric sci-fi, she’s become a cable acolyte, spending most of her time watching HBO, AMC, and Showtime. For good stories about lions and bungee jumping, as well as rants about sexism and slow drivers, follow her on Twitter at @RachelRedfern2