Climbing Documentary 'Meru' Is A Hair-Raising 'Peak Experience'

Aug 21, 2015
Originally published on September 9, 2015 4:09 pm

The documentary Meru charts the attempts of a trio of American climbers to be the first to scale Meru Peak, a 21,000-foot Himalayan mountain that begins near the headwaters of the Ganges River in India.

It's the sort of movie that's frequently called "inspiring" for its depiction of humans testing themselves physically, emotionally and perhaps even spiritually against the elements, and I get that. But I wasn't inspired. I was nearly out of my mind with terror.

Although no one in the film mentions the fact, two of the men are not only climbing but filming their climb, which accounts for the Blair Witch Project vibe. I thought there'd be a crawl at the end saying: This footage was discovered at the bottom of a crevasse. The men were never found.

What's the big deal? Meru Peak, after all, isn't as high as Everest, on which there are still the bodies of 100-plus climbers, among them the legendary Brit George Mallory. But getting to the top of Meru is even more of an ordeal.

Listening to the author of Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer, describe it while the camera roams the topography, I thought, "It's not meant to be climbed." Krakauer says that for 4,000 of its last 5,500 feet it's "gnarly," but then it gets really nuts, ending in a smooth, vertical, 1,500-foot wall — a "shark fin" — leading to a tip that barely accommodates a human body in the unlikely event one reaches it.

One of the climbers, Jimmy Chin, directed the film with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and it's a cunning piece of storytelling. The movie drifts back and forth between the hair-raising treks and the events that led each man to the slopes of Meru.

Rangy, chiseled Conrad Anker is the biggest celebrity of the trio, at least until now. He was actually the guy who, in 1999, working for National Geographic, located the body of Mallory where it had lain for 75 years.

But Anker had two mentors, one a longtime climbing partner, die on expeditions, and though he's as giddy as a child on beginning his ascent, he admits — when he's interviewed at home in Montana — to other feelings. The makers of Meru don't tell you the complicated story behind Anker's family until late in the film, but it adds to our anxiety about his well-being.

The anxieties of the other two are just as palpable: Chin was raised by hard-driving parents who fled repression in China, and he promised his mother when he embarked on a career of risk that he wouldn't die before she did. And Renan Ozturk, an awesomely agile rock-scaler who has the first doubts about their climb, later proceeds while still recovering from near-fatal injuries. He gets back on the horse. And he's one of the cinematographers, too.

That cinematography makes you think there's something supernatural at work. In the end, they're doing what's known as "Himalayan big wall climbing" — straight up a sheer face where every pickax strike can bring down sheets of rock, at temperatures as low as 20 below zero. At one point, the trio bivie (short for bivouack) on the side of Meru with 19,000 feet of air below them. In other words, their tent is vertically pitched — and then comes a four-day storm. I could have done without some of the fisheye lenses Chin selected — but talk about armchair criticism!

The movie is a packed 90 minutes and the familiar critical superlatives don't capture it. Just go to Meru. The movie, I mean, not the climb. It's a peak experience.

Copyright 2015 Fresh Air. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/.

Transcript

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new documentary "Meru" features three well-known climbers - Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk - who try to be the first to reach the top of an especially arduous mountain in the Himalayas. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Mount Meru is a 21,000-foot Himalayan mountain that begins near the headwaters of the Ganges River in India. And the documentary, "Meru," charts the attempts of a trio of American climbers to be the first to scale it. It's the sort of movie that's frequently called inspiring for its depiction of humans testing themselves physically, emotionally and perhaps even spiritually against the elements. And I get that. But I wasn't inspired. I was nearly out of my mind with terror. Although no one in the film mentions the fact, two of the men are not only climbing but filming their climb, which accounts for "The Blair Witch Project" vibe. I thought there'd be a crawl at the end saying, this footage was discovered at the bottom of a crevice. The men were never found.

What's the big deal? Mount Meru, after all, isn't as high as Everest, on which there are still the bodies of 100-plus climbers, among them the legendary Brit George Mallory. But getting to the top of Meru is even more of an ordeal. Listening to the author of "Into Thin Air," Jon Krakauer, describe it while the camera roams the topography, I thought, it's not meant to be climbed. Krakauer says that for 4,000 of its last 5,500 feet, it's, quote, "gnarly." But then it gets really nuts ending in a smooth, vertical 1,500-foot wall - a shark fin - leading to a tip that barely accommodates a human body in the unlikely event one reaches it.

One of the climbers, Jimmy Chin, directed the film with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. And it's a cunning piece of storytelling. The movie drifts back and forth between the hair-raising treks and the events that led each man to the slopes of Meru. Rangy, chiseled Conrad Anker is the biggest celebrity of the trio - at least until now. He was actually the guy who, in 1999, working for National Geographic, located the body of Mallory, where it had lain for 75 years. But Anker had two mentors - one a longtime climbing partner - die on expeditions. And though he's giddy as a child on beginning his ascent, he admits when he's interviewed at home in Montana to other feelings. We also hear Jon Krakauer.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MERU")

CONRAD ANKER: Two or three times I had these deep anxiety attacks. I mean, here it was at 2 in the morning and all of a sudden, it was just like this wave of anxiety came over me. And I'm up there. I'm, like, going [expletive]. I've got two kids sleeping upstairs. My wife's there. Another boy's off at college. I'm responsible for them. I'm going, you're going back?

JON KRAKAUER: You know, the rewards of climbing are huge if you survive it, if your family comes out of it OK. If everyone comes out, the climbing - climbing is so worth it. The problem is, as we know, you don't always come out of it OK. People die and then you can't justify it. That is the great dilemma.

EDELSTEIN: The makers of "Meru" don't tell you the complicated story behind Conrad Anker's family until late in the film. But it adds to our anxiety about his well-being. The anxieties of the other two are just as palpable. Chin was raised by hard-driving parents who fled repression in China. And his promised his mother when he embarked on a career of risk that he wouldn't die before she did. And Renan Ozturk, an awesomely agile rock-scaler, who has the first doubts about their climb, later proceeds while still recovering from near-fatal injuries. He gets back on the horse. And he's one of the cinematographers, too. That cinematography makes you think there's something supernatural at work.

In the end, they're doing what's known as Himalayan big wall climbing - straight up a sheer face where every pickax strike can bring down sheets of rock at temperatures as low as 20 below zero. At one point, the trio bivies - short for bivouacs - on the side of Meru with 19,000 feet of air below them. In other words, their tent is vertically pitched. And then comes a four-day storm. I could have done without some of the fisheye lenses Jimmy Chin selected - but talk about armchair criticism. The movie is a packed 90 minutes, and the familiar critical superlatives don't capture it. Just go to "Meru" - the movie I mean, not the climb - it's a peak experience.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

On Monday's FRESH AIR, we begin a week of our favorite interviews of the year by featuring one with Toni Morrison. Her latest novel, "God Help The Child," is about a dark-skinned girl born to light-skinned parents. Morrison will talk about her book, her life and getting older. She's now 84. Hope you can join us. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we refer to the mountain featured in this film as Mount Meru. In fact, it is called Meru Peak.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.