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, becoming a full-time wildlife photographer, and Annie has gone on to become a renowned mountain climber. Their relationship is strained as Annie still blames Peter for obeying Royce instead of waiting for her to secure the rope.
Three years later, during a wildlife photo shoot for National Geographic in the lower Himalayas in Pakistan, Peter's assistant falls and breaks his leg and has to be evacuated by the Pakistani Army stationed in a military station that monitors avalanches. 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. The expedition is funded by wealthy industrialist Elliot Vaughn (Paxton) who is also taking part as he wants to attempt climbing the K2 for the second time after his first attempt ended in tragedy with him as sole survivor. Vaughn has the help of renowned climber Tom McLaren (Nicholas Lea) and other expedition members include Pakistani mountaineer Ali Nazir.
The day before the climb Vaughn throws a promotional party with all the people at base camp that is interrupted by reclusive Montgomery Wick (Glenn), reported to be the world's best climber and foremost expert on K2, who asks if it will be Vaughn or the experienced McLaren who will be making the decisions during the climb, as the team cannot have two leaders. Vaughn states that McLaren is the leader and later on explains that Wick is against him because his wife, a Sherpa guide, was one of the people who did not survive his previous expedition. During that climb, they were hit by a storm and got lost in the mountain and Wick's wife died of pulmonary edema on their way down because she forgot her supply of dexamethasone, the only medicine capable of preventing it. Wick has never believed that story and has spent years trying to find his wife's body.
The climb turns out to be a disaster as Vaughn forces McLaren to continue despite the radio warning from base camp director Skip Taylor (Robert Taylor) of a storm approaching. As the storm closes in, the winds begin to wreak havoc and cause an avalanche and Annie, Vaughn, and McLaren fall through a patch of ice and become trapped in a crevasse, while the other expedition members are killed. Radio contact is lost but Peter remains by the radio and hears Annie using static to send a Morse code to inform base camp that they are alive. Peter manages to assemble a rescue mission with some of the climbers at base camp, including base camp director Skip Taylor, brothers Cyril and Malcolm (Le Marquand and Mendelsohn) who are experienced climbers looking for adventure, Monique Aubertine (Izabella Scorupco) who needs the money from the reward offered by Vaughn's company and Kareem Nazir (Alexander Siddig) who is Ali's cousin and wants to help even if he knows that his cousin is already dead. Skip and Peter also visit Wick, who agrees to join in the rescue attempt but requests that Skip remains behind, as he says that he needs someone he can trust at base camp directing the mission.
The teams pair off with one experienced mountaineer together with a less experienced one: Malcolm and Kareem, Cyril and Monique, and Wick and Peter. After an eventful helicopter drop-off, each team takes different entry points up the mountain to increase chances of success. They all carry an old canister of Nitroglycerine donated by the Pakistani Army to clear out the entrance to the crevasse. Monique and Cyril encounter trouble when Cyril loses his balance and clings to the side of a cliff. After Monique secures her harness to him, the peak cracks, and Monique also falls over the edge with the leaky nitro canisters exploding beneath them while they hang from ropes. Cyril is able to climb back up, but an avalanche caused by the explosion throws him over the edge without a rope this time. Monique, who survives because she was still under the cliff's edge, pulls herself up despite several broken fingers, and radios base camp that Cyril has been killed. Back at the military station, the nitroglycerine canisters come into contact with the sun and explode. Base camp tells the teams to get their cases of nitroglycerin into the shade. Kareem and Malcolm do so, but, while resting after covering the cases, the leaked nitroglycerin eventually gets into contact with the sun and explodes, killing the two.
Meanwhile underground, McLaren is severely injured, with his leg and ribs broken, and he has lost his dexamethasone. Annie shares her dex with him but Vaughn refuses stating that every climber should take care of his/her own supply or risk death. Annie risks her life to reach Ali's body and backpack and manages to obtain additional dex for both she and McLaren, but Vaughn tells her that it is unlikely that McLaren would survive and that they should keep all the dex for themselves.
The nitro explosions have shaken loose some ice and Wick finally discovers his wife's body in a glacier. The presence of his wife's empty dex box by the body seems to suggest that Vaughn lied and that Vaughn stole her dex, thus ensuring his own survival while leaving her behind to die from pulmonary edema. Monique joins up with Peter and Wick and the three spend the night on the mountain. Peter is wary of Wick, thinking that he might be more intent on his revenge than in rescuing his sister.
Meanwhile in the crevasse, Annie falls asleep and Vaughn kills McLaren with a dex syringe full of air to save the remaining dex for himself. Annie suspects Vaughn but decides not to confront him and save her strength as she is already suffering from pulmonary edema. Wick wakes up to find that Peter and Monique have gone already towards their destination, leaving him behind as they no longer trust him. Peter signals Annie their position and Annie and Vaughn manage to mark the crevasse entrance launching a homemade flare and using McLaren's blood as paint. Peter and Monique use the nitroglycerin to blast a hole, enabling access to the survivors and are joined by Wick, who promises Peter that he will rescue Annie. Wick descends into the cave and harnesses Annie, and although a weakened Vaughn thinks he is about to attack him, Wick attaches a harness to him as well. Along with Peter, he attempts to pull Annie out of the crevasse, but an ice boulder falls, knocking Wick and Vaughn from the ledge in the crevice and pulling Annie and Peter down. Monique alone remains on the ledge holding the rope with the other four hanging on to it. To save Annie and Peter, and to fulfill his revenge on Vaughn, Wick pulls a knife from his pocket, says a Buddhist prayer and cuts the rope holding himself and Vaughn dropping the two to their deaths.
Recovering at base camp, Annie reconciles with Peter, who finally pays his respects at a memorial for those killed on K2, including Kareem, his cousin Ali, Cyril and Malcolm, Tom McLaren, and Wick and his wife.Chris O'Donnell as Peter Garrett
Bill Paxton as Elliot Vaughn
Robin Tunney as Annie Garrett
Scott Glenn as Montgomery Wick
Izabella Scorupco as Monique Aubertine
Robert Taylor as Skip Taylor
Temuera Morrison as Major Rasul
Stuart Wilson as Royce Garrett
Nicholas Lea as Tom McLaren
Alexander Siddig as Kareem Nazir
David Hayman as Frank 'Chainsaw' Williams
Ben Mendelsohn as Malcolm Bench
Steve Le Marquand as Cyril Bench
Roshan Seth as Colonel Amir Salim
Ed Viesturs has a cameo in the film, playing himself as a mountain trainer.
Vertical Limit grossed $69.2 million domestically and $215.7 million worldwide, becoming the 17th highest-grossing film of 2000. Against a budget of $75 million, the film was a success.
In the United States, the film opened number-one during its opening day, December 8, earning an estimated $5.1 million, overtaking How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which had stayed since November 17. On its opening weekend, the film finished second at the box office, with $15.5 million.
Vertical Limit received mixed reviews from critics, as the film holds a 48% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 109 reviews, with the site's critic consensus reading: "The plot in Vertical Limit is ludicrously contrived and cliched. Meanwhile, the action sequences are so over-the-top and piled one on top of another, they lessen the impact on the viewer". The movie has the rating of on Allmovie.com. The film grossed over $217 million over a $75 million budget, making it a box office success.