Meru… the Movie
Reviewed by Andy Dappen
Meru, the movie of climbing the unclimbed Himalayan peak of the same name, showed in Leavenworth at the Snowy Owl Theater to a sold-out audience. As a winner of the Sundance Film Festival, and as a climbing film that has received strong reviews from climbers and general audiences alike, the outdoor crowd that assembled Thursday night (September 17) had their expectations high. To be truthful, however, most of us have seen dozens of climbing films over the years, so many of us really wondered: Would the film deliver?To set the stage for just a minute, the Shark Fin, the route up Mount Meru offering the most promising (and survivable) line to the top, starts with 4,000 vertical feet of difficult fluted snow and mixed climbing. This leads to the shark fin, a 1,500-vertical-foot wall of nearly featureless Yosemite-styled rock. The big wall ends on a precipitous and corniced ridge leading to a pinpoint summit. It’s been the last-great unclimbed peak in the Himalayas for over 30 years and has repelled nearly as many parties composed of the world’s best mountaineers because it has required such a mixed bag of climbing skills – steep snow and ice, hard mixed climbing (M7), big-wall rock climbing (5.10), and hard aid climbing (A4).
Throw in elevation (the summit is 21,000 feet high), harsh Himalayan storms that can batter you with several feet of snow overnight, and night time temperatures dropping to minus 20 degrees F, and, logistically it simply seems impossible to transport the diverse climbing gear, food, fuel, and bivy equipment up a wall of such magnitude with such severe conditions.
The film moves quickly through the climber’s backgrounds, gives a bit of insight into their families and relationships and, in particular explores, the genesis of Conrad Anker’s obsession to summit this peak. It’s hard to explain quite how it happens but quickly you care about these three who are willing to go outside the envelope of acceptable risk for such an esoteric prize.
Then the film moves quickly along to the team’s 2008 attempt to fulfill Anker’s obsession. The climbing is gripping, insane really. What’s even more phenomenal is the filming. Two of the team members, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk, are not only top climbers but at the top of the game as outdoor photographers and filmmakers and they keep the cameras rolling when storms batter the porta-ledge they’re camped on, when the entire menu for the day is half a slice of cheese, and when avalanches thunder down around them.
The 2008 expedition loses many days of climbing, food, fuel (and therefore water) to storms that dump over 10 feet of snow while they are on the route. What they hoped to be an 8-day push for the summit, stretches into 20 days. Without food and, eventually, without water they eventually make a summit push that leaves them on the summit ridge with 300 vertical feet of technical climbing left but with nighttime closing in on them. They face either an exposed, unequipped night out, which they are too spent to handle , or a descent to their highest camp knowing they are too spent to return to this high point.
Even though we’ve only been on this journey with them for less than an hour – a journey that has consumed years of planning and months of execution – we feel what a heartbreak it is to pull the plug. So close. Here on the summit ridge with them, you better understand the effort it took to get here and the lure that makes climbers, or anyone in adventure sports, step over the line of what they can realistically expect to return from.
After watching the litany of heinous climbing, risk, and suffering it took to nearly make the summit of Meru, most people would be cured for life of ever wanting to return. But as Jimmy Chin says, a short memory is a vital character quality of a good alpine climber.
The threesome plan a 2011 rematch. Then, half a year before departure, Renan Ozturk is almost killed falling over a cliff while filming extreme snowboarding. His skull is fractured, half of his brain isn’t getting blood, his neck is broken, and both his future mobility as well as his cognitive skills are in serious question. Even closer to the departure date, Jimmy Chin is caught in a massive avalanche, also while filming. Miraculously he survives relatively uninjured. Knowing his survival was a bizarre fluke, his confidence is extremely shaken. Fate has given him a second chance so why would he jeopardize that taking on the risks that Meru requires?
These are the mental and physical states of Anker’s companions months before the 2011 expedition is slated to go.
I won’t spoil the remainder of how the film unfolds but to the audience’s question about whether the film could deliver I can only say, “Did it ever.”
It isn’t just that the film delivers adrenaline – it does that in heavy doses without even trying. It’s that it tells a story, and relentlessly sticks to three climbers obsessed about working out the keys (physical, mental, and emotional) of climbing an unclimbable peak. The film is thoughtful and it tells its story with no fake Hollywood drama and no corny narration attempting to build drama. Drama simply drips from the endeavor honestly, without being overstated.
Speaking of narration, most documentaries use a narrator to transition and carry the story between scenes. This has the effect of zooming you out of the story before you’re zoomed back in. In Meru, family members, experts who followed the endeavor, and the cast of climbers themselves carry on the narrative during and between scenes. It’s a different and extremely effective technique that always keep you ‘in’ the story.
I was so ‘in’ the story I kept reliving the film for days afterward. Ultimately I can’t remember seeing a climbing film that impressed me more – which is a slap to the face of this film because it is much more than a climbing film. Whether it’s this year, next year, or five years from now won’t really matter but, when you get a chance, see this film.
This article was originally posted on 09/21/2015.