During an exclusive interview with Chai Vasarhelyi earlier this summer talking about one of her latest films, “Incorruptible”, which focuses on the headline grabbing 2012 presidential elections in Senegal and a battle for democracy in an ever increasingly corrupt political machine, Vasarhelyi took the opportunity to enthusiastically talk about her next project, being released this week, which she made in conjunction with her husband, renowned elite mountaineer, filmmaker and National Geographic photographer Jimmy Chin – “Meru”. A documentary about the ascent of the “Shark’s Fin” on Mount Meru by Chin and fellow climbers Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk, a feat that had never been accomplished by anyone, just hearing Vasarhelyi talk about it was enthralling.
Only intending to document the climb with video footage and photographs, the footage shot by Chin and Ozturk became the documentary “Meru” only after a conversation between Chin and Vasarhelyi in 2012. Although having to wait a week or so after being infused with Vasarhelyi’s passion and enthusiasm, the wait was more than rewarded with breathtaking cinematography filled white knuckling tension that has one on the edge of your seat with every movement, every breath of these three men make as they attempt the climb not just once, but twice. “Meru” captures man at his most triumphant and his most defeated, but like the Phoenix, rises to soar to even greater heights.
As we learn through narrative voiceover exposition, there have been many attempts by big wall climbers to reach the summit of this 20,000-plus-foot behemoth known as the “Shark’s Fin” on Meru, high in the clouds above India. Requiring the climbers themselves to carry heavy gear as opposed to the luxury of having Sherpas as those ascending Everest, the climb is treacherous and for the most part, a sheer wall of rock, able to sliver with just the minutest miscalculation by a climber. As of 2008, no one had successfully reached the summit. For veteran Conrad Anker the allure of being the one to accomplish the feat was too great to pass over. So, recruiting Chin and Ozturk, the three embark on their journey.
As we see through footage shot by Chin and Ozturk on a small Panasonic, the emotional journey individually and collectively for each man is as difficult as the physical. With enough equipment and food for seven days, hardship awaits them at every turn, starting with a four-day snowstorm which precluded any climbing. With food and fuel almost exhausted, temperatures hovering at 20 below zero, and more tragedies besetting them, the trio are forced to check their egos at the door so to speak and turn back 100-meters before reaching the summit.
But Anker can’t walk away from the dream and in 2012, reunites with Chin and Ozturk for another push at the impossible. Unlike in 2008, however, near-fatal accidents have left two of the team fractured psychologically and physically. A trek of this nature is not an individual sport as each man must rely on the other, and each must ask himself and each other, can they even make the ascent? Answering a resounding “yes”, the trio set out yet again, this time not only armed with the knowledge gained from their last attempt, but better cinematographic equipment thanks to advances in DLSR technology, something that excited Chin as he could now shoot a 5D camera with 1080 HD along with his trusted old Panasonic.
Interspersed with interviews of family, friends and other climbers, not to mention, post climb interviews conducted by Vasarhelyi in 2012, we feel the pain and the joy of every inch of the journey. Unfortunately, some of the interviews conducted by Vasarhelyi feel “too rehearsed” and while giving respite from the tension laden climbs, take one out of the moment and the intensity we are feeling with the team on the ascent. Having said that, however, Vasarhelyi, a non-climber, astutely calls on climbing enthusiast and author Jon Krakauer to provide welcome storytelling commentary judicially interspersed throughout, providing the audience with not only a running “Dummies Guide to Mountain Climbing” but keen insight into the thought processes of the climbers beyond what the boys themselves are putting on film. Krakauer’s narration is superb as it not only provides a story through-line but gives exposition and information about the sport and the individuals at play, which allows for laypersons to learn and feel engaged with some level of knowledge.
Thanks to the editing talents of Bob Eisenhardt, Vasarhelyi develops a gripping three-part narrative structure. We see the confidence – and even some arrogance (Anker, in particular) – that man can try and conquer or defeat nature only to be dashed back to the realization that man is only mortal. We see the determination and resilience and fighting spirit that makes man, these men, want to push themselves and each other. And we see the indomitable spirit of each as individuals and even moreso as a collective unit of three.
The visuals of the climb shot by Chin and Ozturk dazzle with breathtaking cinematographic excellence. We can almost feel the crispness of the clean cold air and the warm of a brilliant yellow sun. Their lensing captures the beauty, the danger and the exhilaration of the entire venture. You will find yourself literally holding your breath and gripping the arms of the seat as you watch each ascent, not to mention when tragedies and challenges befall them. Insightful are the “quiet” moments of the three men inside a sling ledge tent (yes, it hangs into thin air off the side of the mountain) where there are moments of levity and the depth of friendships are witnessed.
A testament to all that precedes it, is the generosity of spirit that overwhelms one when the “Meru” summit is finally reached. Surprisingly, though, the feeling is almost anti-climactic given what we have witnessed leading up to that moment, giving rise to contemplation on the definition of triumph – Is it the laying of the hands on the previously unreachable rock, or is the triumph in the friendship and resilience of man?
Directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin