MERU, documentary, rated R, Violet Crown, 3.5 chiles
The allure of mountain-climbing films, documentaries fixated recently on death zones and vanity climbs of Everest, seems made up of equal parts suspense and adventure, but seen at a distance. Meru, photographed by two members of a three-man climbing party, gets inside the story of two attempts to make a first ascent of a difficult and impossible-appearing pitch at the headwaters of the Ganges River. The film by Jimmy Chin, one of the climbers, and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, is an authentic adventure film that gives an equally fascinating view into the climbing lifestyle, whether the climbers are devoted family men or homeless, wandering campers, as Chin’s mother described him. contains the obligatory falls, avalanches, and frozen digits of mountaineering films. But these mostly happen between the two attempts to gain Meru’s summit. The actual scenes taken on the mountain, like climbing itself, are tedious and not exactly thrilling. The men are seen huddling in a suspended shelter waiting out a storm or completely socked in by clouds, in a landscape that one describes as like the view from inside a ping-pong ball. Yet Meru gets us so involved with its three climbers that even long-held shots fixed on the lead climber catching his breath and pondering where to pound his next anchor carry a certain suspense. Everything in the men’s experience has taught them that even the most mundane moment can turn tragic.
Meru is a cluster of peaks in the Indian Himalaya. Its central, 20,700-foot peak, a fin-shaped spire too steep to hold snow, is the smallest of the cluster. But it’s the most difficult to summit because of its remoteness, along with treacherous, near-vertical snow fields and long, bare faces that require technical rock climbing and all its involved hardware. Unlike the relative luxury of having Sherpas carry one’s supplies on guided Everest expeditions and helicopter deliveries of well-heeled climbers to base camp, the Meru team, all three of them, hump their own supplies to the mountain, and then drag the 200 pounds of food, fuel, shelter, and climbing tools behind them up the mountain on their ascent. The threesome’s leader, Conrad Anker, is the closest thing to a celebrity the climbing community has. In 1999, he discovered the remains of George Mallory, lost on Everest since 1924. Anker and Chin are well-acquainted, having climbed together many times, including assaults on Everest. The third climber, Renan Ozturk, is a young climber, who, like Chin before him, was being mentored by Anker.
Chin and Ozturk, both experienced adventure photographers, deliver visual and narrative perspective of the sort seldom seen in Everest films. At times, the camera is only inches away from the lead climber as he attempts a difficult step up on a rock face seemingly barren of hand holds. The views of the suspended bivouac or the roped way up perilously steep snow and rock comes from a perspective that had to be equally perilous to attain. Go-Pro-style, body-mounted camera takes are kept to a minimum, capturing crampons kicking into ice, the rushing water far below a narrow log crossing, or cramped shots inside the “porta ledge,” a tent suspended cliff-side over nothing.
Chin and Vasarhelyi do an excellent job developing the back story, emphasizing the way climbers become a team based on trust developed in the mountains. Anker, once a young climbing partner of the late Alex Lowe, is now married to Lowe’s widow Jennifer LoweAnker, who offers comments several times during the film. Anker was there in 1999 when Lowe was lost in a Tibetan avalanche. What happens between the trio’s 2008 and 2011 attempts to summit Meru makes success doubtful. Ozturk survives cranial injury after going over a cliff while photographing extreme snowboarders in the Tetons. When Ozturk returns with Chin to the scene of his fall to ski away his fears, a massive avalanche sweeps Chin down the mountain. Somehow, he survives. But the experience leaves him withdrawn.
The most dramatic moment comes during the first assault. A four-day storm eats into their time and supplies, leaving them dangling halfway up the mountain in their port ledge. They spend the days listening to the roar of nearby avalanches. Once the storm clears, the three are back at it. At 4 p.m. on the day of the final assault, a day that started at midnight, they make the decision to turn back. Even though the climbers are “toast,” as Chin says while suspended on the mountainside, there’s never a question whether or not they could make the summit, just yards above them. The decision turns on the exposed, frozen overnight stay that would come after, with little remaining water and food, and without sleeping bags.
Jon Krakauer, the author of the Everest disaster account Into Thin Air, knows Anker and the other climbers well enough to give insight into their thinking as well as explain the fine points of hardware, technique, and the measurement of risk. Like all climbing films, Meru is a story of determination and courage, but one about more than just scaling rock. When it is on the climb, it feels authentic, thanks in large part to its immediate cinematography that has us seeking the cracks and hand holds ahead of the climbers. — Bill Kohlhaase
Don’t look down: a team member climbs Meru