(2015) Documentary (Music Box) Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, Jon Krakauer, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, Grace Chin, Aimee Hinkley, Jeremy Jones. Directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
The limits of human endurance are hard to pin down. We can survive nearly anything, endure any environment and still triumph. While it is easy to get caught up in despair at our own pettiness, greed and selfishness, once in awhile we get to bask in the glow of our own resilience – the things that make us such an extraordinary species.
Meru is a mountain in Northern India near the headwaters of the sacred Ganges river. At 21,000 feet, it is nearly seven thousand feet less than Everest, but while the more famous mountain attracts thousands of climbers every year, the pinnacle of Meru had never been reached by human beings.
Meru, considered unimpeachable by many, requires two different disciplines to ascend; the first more typical of Himalayan mountaineering, but the second requires a different style. That’s because the final 1,500 feet is up a near vertical glass-smooth rock wall called the shark’s fin because of its distinctive appearance. However that distinctive feature has broken the hearts of climbers for generations.
Conrad Anker is, in the climbing community, a legend. He’s ascended nearly every peak of note that there is to climb. Meru became something of an obsession with him. He put together a crack climbing team – Jimmy Chin, one of the most respected climbers in America and athletic up-and-comer Renan Ozturk. In 2008, he and his cohorts made a daring attempt to scale Meru, but like all the other attempts before it met with defeat. Low on food and with Ozturk suffering from injuries, they had to go back down after making it within 100 meters of the summit.
That kind of near miss gnaws at a man. While Anker sat and stewed, Chin and Ozturk met with some harrowing incidents of their own before the Anker re-convened the men for another attempt a few years later, an assault which had to wait while Ozturk recovered. And the daunting task of climbing the unclimbable mountain loomed in front of them; all three knew that there was a good chance that not only could they fail again, they might not come back at all.
The three climbers brought GoPro cameras with them, among the nearly 200 pounds of gear they had to haul up the mountain themselves (on Everest, Sherpas do the heavy lifting; they won’t climb Meru however). The results are some spectacular scenery; we see the men bivouacking on the sheer rock face in tents lashed to the side of the rock with 19,000 feet of air below them – I couldn’t possibly sleep soundly in a tent like that, could you? Try adding being forced to wait out a storm for four days in such a tent. I can’t imagine it, but thanks to this film you don’t have to.
This isn’t like a Hollywood production; there is no dramatic moments where climbers dangle over crevices or a piton gives way. There is in fact little sound at all. The men are business-like in addressing the climb. In off hours, sure they are bro-tastic – in fact, a lot of climbing terminology creeps into their conversation which is irritating since some of the terms aren’t explained really at all.
The climbers in fact are a lot like surfers in a lot of ways. There’s a camaraderie among them that makes them brothers (and sisters) of the mountain, much like surfers are bros and sisters of the ocean. They have a kind of bravado about them, and a definite appetite for adrenaline although Chin’s mother extracted a promise from him that he wouldn’t die before she did. When she did finally pass, he found himself willing to take more chances than he had previously.
The interviews with the climbers are thoughtfully done for the most part and interspersed with spectacular climbing footage. Meru itself looms as a legitimate presence, brooding and menacing with a stark alien beauty that is both sleek and forbidding. The climbers themselves are fairly flippant about the danger and the will it takes to climb a mountain like Meru; more elegant still is their exhausted eyes and faces as they near the top.
This won the documentary feature audience award at this year’s Sundance and it’s easy to see why. The New Yorker‘s David Edelstein is pushing this film for Oscar consideration and it might well merit it. It’s truly hard to argue with him when you watch this movie, particularly on the big screen with the sound of the wind on a sound system. If ever a film was made for a VR system, this is the one.
This is not one of those movies where you watch someone do something extraordinary and find yourself exclaiming “I want to do that!” Believe me, you won’t want to do this when you watch what these men go through, but they are a singular breed and heaven knows they are certain that all of this is worth it. In all fairness I thought they were unhinged until the very end, when you finally understand why they do what they do. This is absolutely captivating and should be one you seek out first and foremost in a theater where it should be seen, or on VOD or streaming if it doesn’t manage to find a screen near you.
REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. Cathartic.
REASONS TO STAY: Too much climbing lingo, bro.
FAMILY VALUES: Quite a bit of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anker is best known to non-climbers as the man who discovered the preserved corpse of the legendary English mountain climber George Mallory on Mt. Everest.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into Thin Air
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Message From Hiroshima