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MERU (2015) review

September 7, 2015

meru

 

produced by: Jimmy Chin, Shannon Ethridge, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
directed by: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
rating: R (for language)
runtime: 87 min.
U.S. release date: September 4, 2015 (limited)

 

There’s a long list of mountain climbing movies out there, most of them documentaries, and whenever I watch them I find myself impressed and stressed out by these climbers, yet I also think they’re kind of crazy. It’s the kind of crazy I respect though, aware of the “it’s there to be climbed” attitude and the spirit of determination on display, but the more I know the more I’m glad I have no desire or skill to take on such an endeavor. Nevertheless, I find myself fascinated by these movies and the new documentary”Meru” reminded me of that. It follows three big-wall climbers who are physically and psychologically put to the test as they take on one of the most difficult mountains in the world – twice.

In October 2008, climbers Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk attempted to scale the Shark’s Fin located on Meru Peak, a 21,000-foot mountain in the Garhwal Himalayas in northern India above the sacred Ganges River. It’s an extremely treacherous alpine mountain with an almost complete vertical climb, leaving few plateaus to camp or rest. Meru has been an irresistible challenge in the climbing community for decades. Conrad and Jimmy had been climbing together for 10 years and added the resilient Renan with his had his own set of free-climbing skills. They embarked on a planned 7-day trek that turned into a precarious and exhausting 20-day journey during freezing temperatures and eventually dwindling provisions. With only a 100 meters left to complete their summit, the trio regretfully turned around, realizing there was no way they could continue.

 

merumountain

 

Then in September 2011, they reunited and decided to take on Meru once again. This time they had even more obstacles to overcome, most of them stemming from devastating events that occurred during their time away from Meru. Not only did this second expedition present itself with a new set of weather challenges, it would also draw Conrad, Jimmy and Renan closer together as their support and trust for each other strengthened while they overcame their own inner demons as they reached impossible new heights.

The multi-faceted stress we see in “Meru” is palpable and solidifies the more we learn about these three climbers. What happens to them in between the 2008 and 2011 expeditions is just as harrowing and impacting as what they went through each time on Meru. Conrad lost a mentor on a another expedition (friend and climbing partner, Alex Lowe, in a massive slab avalanche on Shishapangma), Jimmy miraculously survived an avalanche and Renan almost died after he sustained a fractured skull, two damaged vertebrae and a severed artery that cut off a good amount of blood flow to his brain after a tragic skiing accident in the Tetons. Conrad and Jimmy had to overcome understandable grief and trauma while Renan completed a grueling physical recovery in order for him to be able to climb again, despite doctor’s warnings. Conrad and Jimmy could’ve gone without Renan on their second try, but their camaraderie and dedication to each other is obvious. Plus, to exclude Renan wouldn’t really make for much of a documentary.

Because Conrad, Jimmy and Renan are also talking heads throughout “Meru”, recalling their two expeditions and experiences, viewers never get the sense that what we are seeing will lead to the death of one of these climbers. That doesn’t take away from the intensity at all. Since Jimmy co-directed the film with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, it’s a natural decision to give these climbers moments of both recollection and reflection with the audience, especially providing an opportunity to see emotional responses to certain aspects of their journeys. We also John Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air (its loose adaptation “Everest” opens in a few weeks), talk about this now famous trio as well as providing a knowledgeable perspective to the layman viewer of “Meru” and its challenges.

 

meruportaledge

 

These moments are helpful and are interspersed throughout the climbing footage nicely, but one question continued to gnaw at me as I watched “Meru”. The question, “how did they shoot this?” always comes to mind whenever I watch these kind of movies. There are times in “Meru” when it feels like there is another crew filming them, but that would be impossible since these three attempting the impossible. I knew that Jimmy Chin – a National Geographic photographer – was recording while they were climbing and we see footage inside their portaledge (that’s the tent that hangs perpendicular to the side of the mountain), but I still wondered how he was able to record and concentrate on climbing at the same time.

I did a little research and found out that NPR interviewer David Greene asked Jimmy the same question. Here’s his reply, “We shot with … very intentional shooting techniques. And, you know, there’s instances where it’s negative 20 degrees out and the wind is blowing and there’s snow falling on top of you. And you’ve got your gloves on, and you have to take out and switch out the cards. And, of course, if you drop anything it’s gone forever. So, there’s a lot of tense moments up there. There’s a lot of moments trying to move all the dials on your camera with your gloves on. You can’t do it; you have to take your gloves off. And your fingers only last for a minute or two before they’re completely frozen. So there were a lot of challenges.” Just imagine that. That’s what I meant when I said crazy, but the kind of crazy I can respect.

Jimmy filmed the climbing footage, while his wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi captured the three men in their lives away from Meru. There is also interview footage of Conrad’s wife and Renan’s girlfriend, who both show equal amounts support and concern. They add another important perspective to consider when admiring the determination and drive of Conrad, Jimmy and Renan.

It’s clear by simply reading the film’s synopsis that the three climbers successfully summit Shark’s Fin, but “Meru” is all about immersing the audience in the nerve-wracking  journey.  Indeed, following these three is quite an absorbing and dizzying viewing experience and it left me wondering what could possible be next for these guys. Earlier this year at Sundance, “Meru” won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award, but I can’t help but think that their reward is that moment at the end of the film, where the three determined friends rest at the top of the Shark’s Fin.

 

The North Face Meru Expedition, 2011

 

RATING: ***

 

 

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