By Elias Savada.
I like looking at mountains. From a safe distance. Or on my computer screen saver. Occasionally, from above, in a well-protected, warm airplane. And, of course, from the comfort of a nice secure seat in a earthbound movie theatre. I’ll leave the climbing of such extreme big rock candy peaks to the real professionals, those who cast danger aside for the rush of adrenaline and an irresistible calling to reach the top of the tallest and the most dangerous in the world.
Who are the daredevils who would challenge the nearly 21,000-foot summit of Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru in Northern India? They are the renowned alpinists and veteran risk-takers Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk. It’s not the tallest mountain in the world. Just the hardest to climb.
Meru the movie traces two high-altitude expeditions by these three extraordinary people. The first was an unsuccessful and stressful 17-day (and 40 minutes of screen time) scaling in October 2008, where the men are first seen on what looks like death’s door, perilously hanging in a porta-ledge tent tethered to the mountain. There’s no comfort here. No cozy fireplace. Subzero temperatures. Lots of snow – enough to sock them in for four days. Their rations are stretched to the limit. And they missed the summit by the length of a football field. You’ve not known trench foot, frostbite, and debilitating fatigue until you’ve seen how these guys suffered. Meru has been the greatest test of many climbers. It has also been the greatest failure. Climbing on ice, on rock, on big walls of both – straight to the heavens above.
Conrad Anker, the senior citizen (well, 52 years old right now) and high-grade mentor in the group, is a family man with three grown sons (their father was Alex Lowe, Conrad’s one-time partner, and you’ll get the low down on that incredible relationship during the film), a cautious wife, and a home in Bozeman, Montana. He may have settled down these days, but he felt the need to stake a claim to the impossible Meru in the Garhwal Himalayas. “Meru is the culmination of all I’ve done and all I’ve wanted to do is this peak and this climb.” The Kentucky Derby of mountain climbing, except this isn’t a race about speed. It’s a challenge of patience and fortitude.
Renan, credited as one of the two cinematographers (the other is co-director, co-producer Chin), gets car sick when he’s not climbing. That’ll be the least of his physical challenges as the film progresses. He’s a cutting edge climber with a worldwide digital audience – a climbing bum, and an artist, too – the new kid that Conrad recruited. Jimmy had been a companion of Conrad’s climbs for 7 years as the first Meru hike began.
Jimmy, whose parents fled China during the Communist revolution for the United States, was made tough by his dad, but remains a caring person when it comes to family. He’s a high-profile athlete, great photographer and, obviously, has an eye for a good widescreen landscape thousands of feet above sea level.
Skip ahead three years. Plans are afoot to make another Meru attempt, but on April 3, 2011, Renan is seriously injured doing a commercial snowboarding shoot with Jimmy in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, a real nasty spill. Four days later, Jimmy miraculously survives a tremendous avalanche. With two of the three climbers down – one physically, the other emotionally – the ability to bridge the Meru window seemed doubtful.
But there is plenty of crazy in this extreme sport.
Climber Chin directed Meru with his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (both also produced with Shannon Ethridge). Near death experiences aside, Jimmy started the film in 2008 on his first attempt to reach the summit, using small handycams and helmet cameras. After working on the project for several years, he met Chai (who apparently was more interested in the film than its star, at least at first viewing) and she helped reshape what is now the finished documentary, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year (winning an Audience Award). She was particularly adept at adding some incredible interview footage. They were married at some point. And now have a daughter. And a movie.
As the film ambles towards Expedition #2, the filmmakers create a marvelous flow back and forth between talking heads, the recovery of both Jimmy and Renan, and other family issues. This is just one segment in a film startlingly well edited by Bob Eisenhardt, a three-time Emmy Award winner and Oscar nominee for producing and directing the 1983 short Spaces: The Architecture of Paul Rudolph. The score by J. Ralph, founder and creative director of The Rumor Mill, provides heart-pounding moments that complement the rock solid visuals.
Meru doesn’t appear to feature any pesky re-enactments, just raw footage (occasionally popping in subtitles with locale and altitude information) that blends the danger of the climb with the intimate story of the three principals. Among the various talking heads, is Jon Krakauer, mountaineer and author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, who reinforces the urgency of being well prepared for this awesome climb, along with some archival stuff (sourced from three dozen people and institutions) of necessity.
Vasarhelyi did a yeowoman’s job reworking the footage, dabbling with the interview material, and refining the film’s already stunning hi-def focus and narrative, on both a structural and emotional level, however painful that might have been to the subjects, considering one is now her husband. Pushing yourself to the extreme is what Meru is all about. And that is especially so in its last half-hour, which covers the return and conquest of Meru. Up, up, and away, but with more than a few setbacks and some MacGyver ingenuity, and couscous, lots of it. Granite never looked so intimidating.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.