Maciej Berbeka wanted to climb K2, not Broad Peak, but time refused to cooperate with the 1988 Polish expedition. Alek Lwow and Berbeka did not want to go home empty-handed. They convinced expedition leader Andrzej Zawara to let them be tempted by nearby Broad Peak in a quick alpine-style push.
What happened next on Broad Peak will forever mark Berbeka’s life and earn a place in the legendary history of high altitude winter mountaineering. To date, the film airs worldwide on Netflix. This means that 212 million subscribers in 190 countries learn about Berbeka’s fate.
What happened is something familiar to mountaineers even today. He went up and down the mountain, believing he had reached the top. But like many others, he had stopped abruptly, at the deceptive Rock Top.
The mere lack of the summit broke his heart. Although the physical wounds of his two nights outdoors healed, the feeling of failure, frustration and betrayal persisted for 25 years. Then, in 2013, a new opportunity arose to finish what he had started.
The Polish Ice Warriors
“Broad Peak” is the story of Berbeka and the poorly formulated “conquest” of the 8000ers in winter. It’s about the Polish ice warriors who dominated high altitude winter mountaineering in the 1980s. It also describes a time when mountains were wild and climbers faced extreme suffering and a stark awareness of possible death. But it is also a reflective look at loss and desire, an ethical debate on friendship, deception and destiny.
Watching the film also requires a conscious effort to go back to the 1980s, not so long ago yet seemingly centuries away. Here the events took place much more slowly, the mountains were climbed in solitude and a parallel, inner expedition took place in the soul of men.
The bluish patina in which this film is illuminated like an old photograph evokes this distant vision. The dialogue is short and to the point, without a word too many. Meanings are expressed through looks rather than words or gestures. Realistic enough, in a storm-swept winter field, or on a peak steeped in omens and doom.
True to time
The atmosphere is faithful to the time: the tents, the equipment, the old anoraks, the woolen caps and the ski goggles … We see worn men with gaunt faces, sunken eyes and frozen beards. Yet there are no histrions, no overbearing egos, no artificially dramatic speeches.
Despite a few small licenses, the film tells the story of the Broad Peak winter how it happened and when it happened: in two acts, before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain in the austere 1980s, and in the 2010s, during the revival. of the Polish winter national team, with a new generation of young gunslingers. Adam Bielecki still has his dreadlocks.
Overall, the sense of authenticity is almost shocking to watch, especially in this age of brightly colored mountain videos, Instagram stories with motivational clichés, and heavily filtered summit selfies. “Broad Peak” is about the unbearable cold, the slow progress on endless snow ramps, the breathtaking beauty of Karakoram and a climber trying in vain to escape his fate.
No green screens
The sense of reality is the result of a scrupulousness that did not resort to shortcuts, either techniques or in the narrative. The film, directed by Leszek Dawid, has been in production since 2014. It drew on many, many hours of interviews, thousands of pages of documentation and footage in dozens of locations from the Alps to Broad Peak itself. There are no green screens here, just real altitude and extreme conditions, with real climbers involved in the production.
On Broad Peak, in particular, the film crew, assisted by professional climbers, reached 5,600m. From there, they used drones, a propeller, and a full-size helicopter with a gyroscope-equipped camera.
They aimed to tell a story about an epic climb that surpassed, in its crudeness, any fictional film.
“We wanted to show the viewer the state of mind of a climber who, in extreme circumstances, is totally addicted to climbing and loses the sense of physical discomfort,” explained the producers. “We want to illustrate the state in which a person is so absorbed in the struggle with himself that nothing else matters.”
Overall, the film might leave those looking for a video game-like climb a little bit disappointed, with heroic characters in brilliant Gore-Tex armor, fast-paced action in the mountains, big speeches and triumphant endings. But the real 8,000m winter climb is a slow game of chess against death. Teamwork is the best chance of coming back to life, but success or even survival is not guaranteed.