The central peak of Meru, a mountain in the Gharwal Himalayas, towers more than 21,000 feet. One route to this summit, the so-called “Shark’s Fin,” is renowned by mountaineers as one of the most difficult ascents in the world. As author Jon Krakauer explains in the film, it’s a journey that mixes multiple, disparate skills — both ice and rock climbing, for instance — while requiring that hopefuls lug around over 400 pounds’ worth of equipment. The Shark’s Fin was not successfully climbed until 2011. The team that pulled it off brought video cameras along. Which means the lucky viewers of Meru get to tag along on a breathtaking, frequently terrifying adventure.
Jimmy Chin (who also co-directed the film with his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi), Conrad Anker, and Renan Ozturk come cross as paragons of human endurance and drive, even for mountain climbers. The story of Meru actually involves two of their attempts to conquer the namesake mountain. The team also filmed their first ascent in 2008, which had to be aborted just 100 meters below the summit. Thus, the film has a built-in arc revolving around Meru as a recurrent, Moby Dick-like obsession looming over the characters’ lives. With the two expeditions to Meru as bookends, it peels apart both the appeal and the supreme danger in mountain climbing.
As new technology makes cameras more and more compact and versatile, we’ll be seeing more documentaries like Meru. The in-the-moment first-person footage the team captured on their climbs, particularly the second, is astounding. It is imagery almost unprecedented in mountaineering docs. It does more than capture the sweep and majesty of the Himalayas; that the cameras are rolling even as a storm sets in lend a real-time effect to the events. At times, it seems impossible that Chin, Anker and Ozturk survived. It’s a fine addition to the ranks of memorable documentary adventures.
There’s an odd imbalance, though, in that the team’s first ascent is more compelling than the second. After all, that’s when a snowstorm turned what was supposed to be a seven-day expedition into a 20-day ordeal. The movie embodies its themes of perseverance and defying the odds in a pure way, as they play out within the mountaineer’s ideal. When they’re forced down just short of their goal, it makes for a resonant statement on knowing when to admit defeat — a significant action against the high-adrenaline backdrop of high-altitude climbing. Strangely, the eventual victory feels less emotional than the defeat. And the long section in the middle dealing with Chin, Anker and Ozturk’s home lives provides helpful background but is pedestrian compared to the sequences on the cliffs and slopes.
Despite the slowdown in the more conventional stretches, Meru comfortably fits within a lean 89-minute running time. At its best, it’s the kind of rush that demands big-screen viewing. Doc storytelling innovation still lags behind technical progress, but there are intriguing possibilities for the future on display here.
This review was originally published on August 14, 2015.