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The cast of The Summit, with host Jai Courtney (Photo: TVNZ)
The cast of The Summit, with host Jai Courtney (Photo: TVNZ)

Pop CultureJuly 26, 2023

The star of Australia’s newest reality show is… New Zealand

The cast of The Summit, with host Jai Courtney (Photo: TVNZ)
The cast of The Summit, with host Jai Courtney (Photo: TVNZ)

Tara Ward watches the new Australian reality series in which a group of Australians must climb a New Zealand mountain to win a million dollars.

What’s all this then?

Filmed in the South Island, The Summit is a new Australian reality show that follows a group of intrepid strangers as they embark on the adventure of a lifetime. The premise is simple: 14 competitors are challenged to climb to the top of a mountain, each carrying $70,000 (their share of the $1 million prize pool). Reaching the summit, however, won’t be easy. They must cover 200km in 14 days by crossing a variety of rivers, lakes and wild terrain, while also surviving a series of physical challenges designed to push them to their limits. 

But The Summit isn’t simply about who can climb the mountain the fastest. To win the cash, the trekkers must reach the top as a group. The more people that reach the summit, the bigger the prize pool, so it’s in everyone’s interests to work as a team. However, if the trekkers take longer than 14 days, they win nothing, so they can’t move too slowly either. If someone drops out, their share of the prize pool goes with them, but the group can also vote to eliminate a player at certain points along the track and steal their money.

There’s also a spooky helicopter called “The Mountain’s Keeper” that shows up at the most unlikely moments, hovering menacingly above the trekkers like a robotic harbinger of doom. “On this mountain, getting to the summit is just the beginning,” warns brooding host Jai Courtney. It’s so complicated your head will hurt, even at the low-altitude location of your lounge. Is this how Sir Edmund Hillary felt on top of Everest? Experts say: yes.

When you’re trying to do a ropes course and get spooked by a helicopter

What’s good?

First of all, who knew that thing called “the outdoors” was so charming? Lately it seems we can’t get enough of being chased outside (Tracked), being alone outside (Alone) or simply staring at things outside, like vomiting grasshoppers (love you, Endangered Species). The Summit continues this reality TV trend of embracing the outdoors, and New Zealand has never looked better as the show’s impressive background of snowy mountains, gushing streams and big old bush.   

The Summit hits the reality TV jackpot by mixing the wonders of the natural world with a motley cast of athletes, couch potatoes and someone who owns a donut company best known for their “boob and dick donuts”. There’s Brooke, whose longest walk prior to the show was two hours, and Isaac, who gets cramp when he’s sitting down. Stephen runs a sock company (it’s going badly, don’t ask) and hoped he’d see bears in New Zealand. “I have the upper body strength of a kitten, and the tenacity of a dad,” he explains. Another trekker starts the show in a pair of clean, white pants. You know this won’t end well.  

Five stars, would go outside again

These unprepared yet relatable underdogs are competing alongside several highly competitive athletes, including Jans and Sam, who speak only in cliches. “I love putting myself in the hurt locker,” personal trainer Sam tells us. “There’s only one way to the top and it’s my way,” boasts personal chef Jans. These two men are drawn together like a pair of muscly magnets, and in between their gratitude circles and motivational speeches, they complain about how slow and lazy everyone else is. I have a sneaky feeling karma is coming for Jans and Sam, and it’s probably wearing a pair of clean white pants. 

But the hero of episode one is outback nurse Kitty. At 61, Kitty is the oldest competitor and she quickly realises that she’s out of her depth, even though she packed a tube of haemorrhoid cream for emergencies. Sam and Jans worry Kitty is making them lag behind and plot to cut her loose, but Kitty successfully makes it to the first checkpoint 13km into the journey. Kitty spent day one stuck in Sam’s hurt locker, but the next morning, the woman who couldn’t stumble up a low grade slope proves all her critics wrong by making it across a terrifyingly wonky rope bridge. 

Kitty’s tenacity proves The Summit is about expecting the unexpected, and it’s halfway through this rope bridge challenge that the show throws its first major – and extremely bonkers – twist. With the group split evenly on each side of the cliff, the Mountain’s Keeper (aka a helicopter) swoops in and drops off a secret instruction. The group which has already negotiated the bridge must choose which of the remaining team members will be last to cross, and are ordered to cut the rope when that trekker walks onto the bridge. 

You are the weakest link goodbye

Without any warning, sock lover Stephen – a hero to felines everywhere – is brutally eliminated. “Grab your stuff, we have to go!” the other contestants cry, fleeing for the mountaintop as Stephen’s hopes and dreams plummet into the riverbed below. It’s a batshit turn of events, but there’s no time to feel sorry for Stephen. “What the Mountain’s Keeper wants, the Mountain’s Keeper gets,” Jai Courtney reminds us, in what must be reality TV’s weirdest catchphrase. Even Kitty’s haemorrhoid cream can’t save Stephen now. 

Verdict: Watch it

A lot of The Summit makes no sense, but it’s all part of the journey. It’s a beautifully shot series with plenty of surprising twists and turns, intriguing interpersonal dynamics and ridiculous adventures. It’s both tense and silly, and it’s the perfect show to fill the mid-winter TV gap left by Australian reality juggernauts Survivor and Masterchef. Put yourself in the hurt locker and enjoy the climb. 

The Summit screens Monday-Wednesdays at 7.30pm on TVNZ 2 and streams on TVNZ+. 

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