Rangers Gabriel "Gabe" Walker and Jessie Deighan are dispatched to rescue their friend Hal Tucker and his girlfriend Sarah after Hal suffered a knee injury and stranded them on a peak in the Rocky Mountains. As they try to rescue Sarah, part of her harness breaks, and though Gabe is able to grab her, her gloved hand slips out, and she falls to her death. Hal blames Gabe for her death and Gabe is overcome with guilt, taking an extended leave.
While climbing in Monument Valley, siblings Peter (O'Donnell) and Annie Garrett (Tunney) lose their father, Royce (Stuart Wilson). After two falling amateurs leave the family dangling, Royce forces Peter to cut him loose to save Peter and his sister. Peter has since retired from climbing and is a full-time wildlife photographer, and Annie has become a renowned mountain climber. Three years later during an wildlife shooting at lower Himalayans in Pakistan, Peter's assistant falls and injures his leg. Peter is dropped off at K2 base camp and searches for Annie who is planning a summit attempt on K2, the world's second highest and most dangerous mountain, due to unpredictable weather conditions and difficult technical climbing sections. The expedition is funded by wealthy industrialist Elliot Vaughn (Paxton) who is also part of Annie's expedition, with the help of renowned climber Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea).
In March 1996, several commercial expeditions arrive at Mount Everest base camp to prepare for a climb to the summit. Rob Hall, who first popularized guided Everest climbs, is the leader of Adventure Consultants, whose clients include Beck Weathers, an experienced climber; Doug Hansen, a former mailman pursuing his dream; and climbing veteran Yasuko Namba, who is hoping to complete her last of the Seven Summits. Scott Fischer is the chief guide for competitor Mountain Madness. Helen Wilton is Rob's base camp manager.
Le documentaire de 45 mm est commenté en voix-off par l'acteur irlandais Liam Neeson, et a été tourné entièrement en IMAX. Le documentaire décrit l'entraînement requis pour accomplir l'ascension du sommet de 8 848 mètres, ainsi que les difficultés auxquelles doivent faire face les alpinistes au cours de celle-ci : avalanches, tempêtes, et manque d'oxygène. Le film suit une équipe menée par Ed Viesturs et le réalisateur David Breashears. Les autres membres de l'équipe sont Araceli Segarra, un alpiniste espagnol et Jamling Tenzing Norgay, fils du premier homme à avoir atteint le sommet de l'Everest avec Edmund Hillary : Tenzing Norgay.
Engineer Aron Ralston (James Franco) drives to Utah's Canyonlands National Park for a day of canyoneering. On foot, he befriends hikers Kristi (Kate Mara) and Megan (Amber Tamblyn), and shows them an underground pool. After parting ways with the hikers, Ralston enters Blue John Canyon through a slot canyon. He slips and falls, and a boulder falls and traps his arm against the wall. Failing to move the boulder, he calls for help, but no one is around. He begins recording a video diary on his camera and using the larger blade on his pocket multi-tool to attempt to chip away at the boulder. He also rations his water and food.
College art history professor Dr. Jonathan Hemlock (Clint Eastwood) is a retired government assassin who performed "sanctions", a euphemism for officially approved killings. He also has a reputation as one of the world's top mountaineers.
Both climbers successfully reach the summit of the previously unclimbed West Face of Siula Grande in Peru. Joe is injured during the descent after falling, resulting in a badly broken leg. The pair decide to lower Joe with the help of ropes on the steep snowy slope, while an enormous storm rages on. Simon cannot see where he is lowering Joe and Joe eventually drops off a cliff and is suspended by the rope in mid-air. Simon arrests his fall, but neither sees the predicament his partner is in nor hears him, due to the severity of the storm.
Taylor Brooks (Michael Biehn) and Harold Jameson (Matt Craven) are white-collar professionals by weekday, and accomplished mountain climbers on weekends. Though they share a love for scaling mountains, the two friends are opposites in their personal lives. Taylor is a thrill-seeking attorney and womanizer, while Harold is a married, level-headed scientist.
The movie portrays an attempt in 1936 to summit the Eiger via the north face by two competing climbing teams. The more prominently featured pair of German climbers are Toni Kurz (Fürmann) and Andi Hinterstoisser (Lukas) from Berchtesgaden. After being refused leave from the German army (falsely claiming one of them is getting married and the other is to be Best Man), they quit their service in order to make the attempt. They are portrayed as being more interested in mountaineering than in the current politics of the time. The competing team of Austrians that eventually teams up with the German team are portrayed as hoping for a Nazi-led incorporation of Austria into Germany. Watching their summit attempt is their childhood friend Luise (Wokalek), now working for a German newspaper, who is accompanied by her cynical superior Mr. Arau (Tukur).
Dr. Johannes Krafft (Gustav Diessl) and his bride Maria are spending their honeymoon mountain climbing in the Bernina Alps in southeast Switzerland. While climbing the north face of Piz Palü in the strong föhn winds, the loving couple's guide Christian (Christian Klucker) warns Krafft not to be cocky in this dangerous environment, but the doctor dismisses the warning. Just then a violent avalanche descends on the couple, the safety rope breaks, and Maria is swept down into a deep crevice in the Piz Palü glacier. Despite his wife's initial cries for help, Krafft is unable to reach her in her icy grave. Krafft spends the next years wandering the mountain alone like a ghost, looking for the body of his lost bride.
Diotime, une danseuse professionnelle, se retrouve au sommet d'un triangle amoureux quand elle est poursuivie par deux alpinistes, Vigo (Ernst Petersen) et Karl (Luis Trenker), son ami plus âgé, vers lequel Diotime se sent attirée. Cependant Diotime ne peut s'abstenir d'encourager les attentions de Vigo lors d'une séance de ski fougueuse. Alors qu'elle a un moment d'intimité avec Vigo, son ami les surprend et, de colère, défie Vigo de tenter une escalade dangereuse. Durant la course, il provoque la chute de Vigo mais se repent et le sauve. Les deux hommes se perdent dans la montagne et périssent avant que Diotime et les secours ne puissent les atteindre.
The Italian mountaineer Jean-Antoine Carrel wants to be the first man to reach the summit of the Matterhorn. He meets the British mountaineer Whymper and they decide to climb together. But due to an intrigue this agreement is dropped and the two men try it on the same day with two different teams, Carrel on the Italian side and Whymper on the Swiss side. The latter will successfully reach the summit along with his six companions, Hudson, Hadow, Douglas and the guides Croz and Taugwalder father and son. Only Whymper and the guides Taugwalder will survive the descent.