Why do people climb mountains that demand superhuman effort, endanger family relationships, take frightful tolls on the body, and threaten life and limb? For “the view,” answers Conrad Anker, tongue in grizzled cheek, in the gripping Meru, winner of the Sundance U.S. Documentary Audience Award. The film provides the real answer: they must. Something gets into their blood and makes the next great challenge impossible to resist.
In 2008 and again in 2011, Anker, along with Jimmy Chin, a younger elite climber and videographer, and Renan Ozturk, a less experienced climber and also a videographer, attempted to scale the unconquered “Shark’s Fin” route up Mount Meru in the Gharwal Himalayas of northern India. At 20,700 feet high, with impossible-looking faces of granite and ice, the climb had repulsed all previous attacks.
The trio aimed not only to reach the summit but to document their adventure on video themselves. The result footage, supplemented by interviews and related coverage, became Meru, directed and produced by Chin and documentarian Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love).
The film is all real, with no reenactments and very few video tricks. Plain and simple, it gives us the storm-plagued near-miss of the first attempt; an exploration of the climbers’ eventful (and terrifying) interim adventures; and their climactic reunion and second attack on the Shark’s Fin.
Meru is no Mount Everest. There are no sherpas to carry your things, no expensive licenses to purchase, no stream of fellow climbers to meet along the way. Also no promontories on which to pitch a tent. The team had to sleep in subzero temperatures in a kind of hanging tent suspended from the face of the mountain.
Meru delves into both the physicality and the psychology of extreme elite climbing. We learn a bit about the technical aspects, more about the importance of mentorship and teamwork. We learn of the deaths of Anker’s mentor and idol Mugs Stump, and then of his longtime climbing partner Alex Lowe. We learn of the extreme physical and mental challenges the Meru trio overcame. Ozturk suffered a severe spinal injury before the second expedition, which might have confined him to a wheelchair for life. Chin miraculously survived a mind-numbing avalanche while filming elite snowboarders. But through sheer strength of will, both recovered to join Anker for a second try at the Shark’s Fin.
Confidently paced and skillfully massaged into a moving and exciting narrative, the film incorporates the mountaineers’ Meru footage along with interviews of wives and family members and commentary from Jon Krakauer, author of the bestseller Into Thin Air. Not just a beautifully shot movie, it’s a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit, and to the exceptional skills and drive (and some might say foolhardiness) of a special few. Edge-of-your-seat sequences, natural humor, and scenes that could make you tear up add up to a thrilling, inspiring, and rewarding 90 minutes.