Positive Altitude

Film-Lead-1533-MeruMen face high anxiety in intense climbing doc ‘Meru’

If you’re not crazy about heights, the climbing documentary Meru is not going to change your mind. This intense you-are-there filming of the 2011 ascent of a previously unclimbed (possibly unclimbable) Himalayan peak—shot on location by two of the three men who climbed it—puts the viewer smack in the middle of the action. Now you, too, can experience the thrill of eating and sleeping in a portaledge, a tent suspended 20,000 feet in the air on a sheer cliff face.

You can watch a surging avalanche knock down trees and everything else in its path, and enjoy a glorious sunrise over the Himalayas, and the equally stunning starfields during a climb in the dark (“Nighttime Ops,” says one of the climbers)—in temperatures so cold that no one can feel their fingers or toes. You can share in the fun when the climbers are forced to feast on a roasted cheese rind when their food supplies run low, with 90 percent of the mountain still left to climb.

Still, even if you’re the kind of land mammal who finds the very idea of such an expedition more crazy than exhilarating, the story told in Meru is pretty fascinating. Veteran climber Conrad Anker has always had a yen to attempt the “Shark’s Fin,” a mile-high, claw-like spur jutting out on Mount Meru, 20,700 feet above the clouds in India. His first move is to contact his friend and frequent climbing partner, photographer/filmmaker Jimmy Chin. As Chin explains to the camera, “The more nonchalant Conrad is (about a project), the more nervous I should be.”

And how. As wilderness non-fiction author Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air) explains, Shark’s Fin is “the test of a master climber … many of the best have tried and failed.” The Fin, he says, is “hard to climb in really complex ways,” mostly due to its shape and the remoteness of the location. “Meru is the anti-Everest,” says Krakauer, devoid of Sherpas or any other climbing amenities. “No one’s going to carry your stuff.”

The third man on the expedition team is Renan Ozturk. He’s a somewhat less-seasoned climber than the other two, but an experienced wilderness cinematographer, providing his own visual take on their ascent. And, make no mistake, the footage Chin and Ozturk shoot is spectacular—windswept mountain peaks, extreme clouds, and truly harrowing vertical vistas.

But the perils of getting those shots are just as extreme. The climbers’ first attempt, in 2009, is cut short by a snowstorm that traps them in the portaledge for four days, forcing them to consume over half their provisions. (That’s where that roasted cheese rind comes in.) To Ozturk’s dismay, they keep going up for a couple more days before conditions force them to abort the mission.

They move on to other adventures. No one is more astonished than Chin when he miraculously survives an avalanche that tumbles him halfway down another mountain. Ozturk wipes out on another climb, suffering a skull fracture and potential brain damage. Anker is continually haunted (and physically scarred) by the death of his former climbing partner a few years earlier in Tibet.

But, as Chin points out, “The best alpinists are the ones with the worst memories.” Two years later, the three of them team up again to go back to Meru. Despite the irony of these “big-time Himalayan climbers” breaking their portaledge early on, despite the dangers of altitude on Ozturk’s still-fragile brain, off they all go on one last attempt on the Shark’s Fin.

All three are intrepid (OK, and a little nuts) in their zeal to conquer the mountain. But perhaps most interesting is Jimmy Chin. Born and raised in Minnesota to strict Chinese immigrant parents, as accomplished a climber as he is a photographer (his work often graces the cover of National Geographic magazine), Chin is a wry and affable presence onscreen. He earns his first directing credit for Meru (having compiled the raw footage with co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who has since become his wife), and his insider’s perspective gives this movie a little extra pizzazz.


*** (out of four)

EXTREME HIGHS Adventure-seeking climbers Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk have their sights set on Shark’s Fin, a mile-high spur jutting out of Mount Meru in India, in climbing doc ‘Meru.’ With Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk. Cinematography by Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk. Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Rated R. 87 minutes.

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