Film Review: Meru

High-Altitude Documentary Hits Viewers Like An Avalanche

Devin D. O'Leary
5 min read
An extreme sports enthusiast
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Frankly, I’ve never understood the appeal of extreme, high-altitude mountain climbing. Particularly when it comes to the Himalayas. Your odds of dying are dauntingly high. Avalanches, whiteout storms, hidden crevasses, lack of oxygen and frostbite can all take you out in a heartbeat. If it were in pursuit of something no human being had ever accomplished—like Edmund Hillary being the first to summit Mount Everest—there might be some justification for it. But risking the very real threat of death just to do something … that a lot of other people have also done seems kind of foolish. And yet, adrenaline junkies continue to schlep up Nepalese mountainsides dragging North Face-wrapped locals and poo bags with them. Why? “High-altitude Himalayan climbing is very risky. It is the most dangerous professional sport,” concedes Conrad Anker, one of the subjects of the jaw-dropping documentary Meru. But, he adds, “I think with Meru, that risk is worth it.”

Meru is a mountain on the knife-edge of the Himalayas in Northern India. It’s described as the anti-Everest, a non-tourist destination with no guides and no way stations. You’re on your own, humping hundreds of pounds of gear up the nearly seamless slope. It is hellish, unconquered and generally seen as unclimbable. “That, to a certain kind of mindset, is an irresistible appeal,” Jon Krakauer, mountaineer and author of
Into Thin Air, tells viewers early on by way of explanation. In October 2008 Mr. Anker and his alpinist pals Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk traveled to Northern India to tackle the Shark’s Fin, a near-vertical, 21,000-foot wall on Mount Meru. To that point no one had ever successfully climbed to the top. Chin, with his ever-present camera captured every hair-raising, nail-biting moment of it.

Meru we play silent witness as the seasoned trio’s planned seven-day excursion devolves into a 20-day ordeal in subzero temperatures. Running low on supplies and bedeviled by treacherous weather, the men get to within 100 meters of the summit. Then they give up and turn around. “I’m not coming back,” declares a defeated Chin directly into the camera, and we can hardly argue with his logic. After the climb, Chin spent two weeks in a wheelchair. That’s how tough it was. But that’s just the first act in this mad, “Holy shit!”-inducing documentary.

By September 2011, Anker somehow talked his friends into trying Meru again. That sounds, to a sane person, unfathomable. But amazingly, this film makes going back to Meru seem like a monumentally inspirational, life-affirming, damned-if-you-don’t, spit in the face of mortality, adversity and failure kind of quest.

Over the course of the first attack on the Shark’s Fin,
Meru introduces us to our three men of granite. Anker is the family man, a square-jawed leader-type with an incredible backstory. Chin is the levelheaded young enthusiast, eager to take his camera to new heights. Ozturk is the lone wolf “climbing bum.” He doesn’t even own a car. He just hitchhikes around the world, having random people drop him off in the middle of nowhere so he can climb up stuff. Interviews with our protagonists and talks with a handful of their friends and family give a certain insight into these crazy daredevils. Chin, for example, talks about a promise he made to his mother, a vow to not die on some mountaintop before she passed away. It served as a litmus test for how far he was willing to push himself in a dangerous climb. That’s an eerie confession. But it gets crazier. After her death, he admits, the vow was null and void, and all bets were off. The athleticism, stamina, tenacity and fearlessness of these men is impressive, but the conditions they’re facing are simply terrifying. Nature don’t give a fuck.

What Anker, Chin and Ozturk endure in the three years between climbs is mind-boggling to ordinary humans. It’s best not to give too much away, but there are several shocking incidents that fuel their desire to get back on the horse that bucked them off. I sure as hell wouldn’t do it. But I admire these insane dudes for trying to conquer the unconquerable.

The film itself is gorgeously shot. The high-def images pop off the screen as if they were in 3D. If you’re into wilderness porn, these beautiful, Spartan, frightening vertiginous views from up above will rock your socks off. It’s almost enough to make you believe one climber’s simple-minded explanation for why he does what he does: “For the view.” Combined with the philosophical life-and-death monologues of its subjects,
Meru has got that earthy, spiritual quality you get off surfing documentaries, ecological films and Terrence Malick movies. Can a film inspire you and terrify you at the same time, make you love and fear nature simultaneously? Meru sure as hell does.

getting high.

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