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Broad Peak tells the compelling tale of one man and his mountain

Broad Peak explores the life story of Maciej Berbeka, the Polish mountaineer who returned to the summit of his obsession and, sadly, never left

The compelling fact-based mountaineering drama Broad Peak. Photo: Netflix

It was obvious from an early age that I was not born to be a mountaineer. On a skiing trip with my dad, 11-year-old me threw what has since been described as a “major wobbly”. After traversing the slope with the alpine style of Bambi, I wiped out. Instead of dusting myself off, I had a far better solution: just stay put. My dad’s efforts to coax me down were met with silence and resistance. When asked what I was going to do, I glanced at the snow around me. “I’m going to build a house,” I retorted.

Thankfully, pre-teen me soon recognised how tiresome this was becoming and my residential igloo was, alas, never built. Decades before my tantrum, in 1988, however, Polish mountaineer Maciej Berbeka’s somewhat was. Out of sheer necessity, he burrowed into the snowy surface of Broad Peak, the 12th highest mountain in the world located in the Karakoram range in north-east Pakistan, when caught in life-threatening weather. Named after the mountain itself, the new Netflix film Broad Peak tells that extraordinary story.

In the 1970s, nearly 20 years before Maciej’s expedition, there was a common understanding among mountaineers that most 8,000-metre peaks could only be reached in the summer when the weather was as much on the climbers’ side as nature would permit. And so, Andrzej Zawada, one of the most famous and charismatic Polish mountaineers, played here by Tomasz Sapryk, proposed a winter ascension. Under the leadership of Zawada, the expedition began to take shape and the group earned the name Ice Warriors. One of the most experienced and daring of them all was Maciej Berbeka.

The film opens in 1988, after an unsuccessful attempt to reach K2. One of Maciej’s fellow Ice Warriors, Aleksander Lwow, suggests they climb the neighbouring summit, Broad Peak. “At first, I didn’t want to do it but soon I could no longer escape the thought.” Played by Ireneusz Czop, this is how we first hear Maciej describe the summit, gazing at it through snow-encased binoculars. The relationship between one man and his mountain had begun and it was one that shaped, and haunted, the rest of Maciej’s life.

Maciej reaches the summit through frostbite and blistering snowstorms (causing him to rapidly construct the aforementioned igloo on the mountain surface for shelter). But, he’d beaten the mountain – or, at least, so he thought. It later transpires that Maciej was just 17 metres short of the summit, a fact concealed by the blizzard he faced.

Zawada knew the truth the moment Maciej radioed in his status as the timings and his claimed location were incompatible. However, reveal this and the mountaineer would’ve almost certainly continued his ascension, ignoring his expedition’s leader’s warnings that such a move would’ve been fatal. A decision was made to let Maciej believe victory was his. Unbeknown to him, the Ice Warrior became a fraudster. It’s a title watchers see him begrudgingly wear around his neck for the rest of his life. That is until, in 2013, when he received the offer to return to Broad Peak to finish what he started.

Broad Peak is an adventure film that in no way sells its genre short. However, it allows room for snippets of other tropes, namely romance. In the 25 years between Maciej’s first and second expedition, watchers gain an insight into the other great love in his life, his wife Ewa Dyakowska-Berbeka. Naturally, the life of a mountaineer’s wife is hardly straightforward. For a man like Maciej, the perception that he lied about the feat to which he dedicated his career could have easily driven him to the edge. A deception from which there could’ve been no return.

His fellow mountaineers may have thought they were saving his life, but it was Ewa who truly did. Only his spouse could bring him back from the cold and into the warmth.

She knew him unlike any other, made clear in one tender moment between the two of them when he reveals that, 25 years later and no longer the young man he once was, he planned to face his mountain again. Ewa asks him to promise her that he won’t ascend the peak if he isn’t feeling strong enough – it’s a request that’s met with silence. She asks him a second and a third time. “Ok,” he concedes. Yet, the look between husband and wife says that both of them know, in reality, it’s a promise he can’t keep.

Part of the mountain never left Maciej in 1988. Indeed, part of him stayed there too, hence his determination to return. In 2013, it became the adventurer’s final resting place as he and his expedition team member Tomasz Kowalski lost their lives on the descent. This was not before he triumphed and reached the full 8,051 metres, radioed in on-screen with the simple three words: “I did it”. For the first time, watchers see Maciej reach some level of peace and in more ways than one, the story of the man and his mountain is over.

Cinematic productions that exist under the caveat of “based on a true story” can only be as engaging as the events they represent. Broad Peak makes for compelling, and inspiring, watching simply because of Maciej’s contagious passion. It’s a tale of achieving the unachievable, against all odds, and one of both defeat and triumph. It’s the life story of Maciej Berbeka, a man who returned to his mountain and, sadly, never left.

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