Even viewers accustomed to mountain-climbing documentaries, in which climbers routinely concede a willingness to face death, may struggle to adjust to the grim stakes of “The Last Mountain,” a documentary that involves two fatal climbs in one family.
In 1995, the British mountaineer Alison Hargreaves died, at 33, on descent after summiting K2. In 2019, her son, Tom Ballard, died at 30 making a run at Nanga Parbat nearby in the Himalayas. Like his mother, he was a world-class climber, maybe even born to do it. (In archival audio, Ballard says Hargreaves climbed the Eiger in Switzerland while she was six months pregnant with him.)
“The Last Mountain” draws on footage that the director, Chris Terrill, shot of the family over the long term, beginning in the 1990s, when Tom and his sister, Kate, were children. While the film jumps around chronologically, the present action follows Kate to Nanga Parbat after Tom’s death. Near the end, she explains that she “wanted to see what he’d seen.”
Terrill doubles back to reconstruct Tom’s final climb, using video and online posts from the expedition, including a moment in which Tom says that it’s “time to go down.” Karim Hayat, a member of the team who turned back, considers why Tom pressed on. The movie raises the possibility that Tom’s climbing partner, Daniele Nardi, was a bit of a daredevil who overcame Tom’s better instincts, but also pushes back on that theory.
There are no real answers for anyone in “The Last Mountain.” If Terrill never finds a clear narrative or emotional through line for this account, it’s not entirely a surprise. The material resists attempts at uplift.