MERU, doc­u­men­tary, rated R, Vi­o­let Crown, 3.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Meru

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

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