Documentary film “Meru” works best when it functions as a vivid, extraordinary record of one arduous quest for conquering one of the most challenging mountains in the Himalayas. Yes, those three mountaineers in the documentary really climbed up there with their cameras, and the documentary will give you some palpable glimpses into their cold, harsh, and exhausting experience on that mountain. While it is certainly not very sensible to put oneself into such an extreme condition like that, they were willing to take the risks because, well, they just could not resist the challenge as passionate and dedicated professionals, and many of their precarious moments in the documentary made me wonder about how they managed to shoot these footage clips as keeping focusing on the elusive goal waiting for them above.
They are Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk, and the early scenes in the documentary show their expedition to Meru Peak in the Indian Himalayas during 2008 September. They tried to climb up to the central peak of Meru Peak through a notorious climbing route called “the Shark’s Fin”, and the fact that nobody succeeded on this route yet was surely a major attraction for these guys.
Jon Krakauer, the author of “Into Thin Air”, gives us the basic information on why the Shark’s Fin is quite a difficult route even for well-experienced mountaineers. It is easy to start at the base of Meru Peak at 4,440 meters (14,500 feet) as climbing up along a mild snowy slope, but you have to carry at least 45 kg (200 pound) of luggage for yourself because this is not the case where you can be assisted by Sherpas. While this is physically demanding to say the least, you also have to deal with an ice wall after that part, and, finally, there is a 460-meter (1,500 ft) vertical rock wall at the top of the mountain. Although this is technically the only obstacle to overcome for reaching to the peak at 6,310 meters (20,700 feet), you will have to spend 6-7 days at least as carefully climbing up along this clean, smooth, featureless granite wall, and you will be definitely in deep trouble if anything goes wrong during this perilous last stage.
Chin, who made the documentary with his co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, shot the progress of their expedition with Ozturk, and we watch them and their leader Anker approaching to their goal step by step. Three days after they left their base camp, they were at 4,970 meter (16,300 ft) while being near to the rock wall in question. As they could climb up the wall only 60-meter (200 ft) per one day, they had to depend on a special tent called portaledge while spending days and nights on the wall, and I could not help but notice how they were merely protected by ropes, metal frames, and tent cover (can you sleep well while you are virtually within a hanging fabric cart hung up high on a steep rocky wall?)
Unfortunately, things did not go as well for them due to several problems including bad weather and supply shortage, and they became more exhausted as staying there far longer than planned. They eventually made a difficult decision, and it was a big disappointment for everyone because they were so close to their goal at that time. As a matter of fact, they were only 100 meter (30 ft) away from the peak as shown from one moment in the documentary, but the risk of spending another day on the wall was too much even for them.
During its middle act, the documentary shifts its focus to the trio’s personal sides, and Anker, Chin, and Ozturk have each own stories to tell during their interviews. Anker tells us several things about his life and career (he located Geroge Mallory’s body on Everest in 1999, by the way), and we see many of photographies taken by Chin during his expeditions around the world. Chin is actually a renowned professional photographer whose works were featured in numerous publications including National Geographic, and one photograph shows him being dangled high in the air for shooting his photographs. While being less experienced compared to his colleagues in some aspects, Ozturk has established well his own career and reputation as a skillful rock climber, and we also see him working on his paintings.
The documentary feels sagged during its middle part as spending a little too much time on admiring and respecting them, but it thankfully regains its initial level of interest later as showing us how they came to attempt their second expedition in 2011 despite a sudden problem which seriously jeopardized their plan even before they returned to the mountain. They did worry about what could happen because of that, but they went there anyway, and they soon hurled themselves into that grueling experience again.
This part is rather repetitive at times, but Meru Peak and its surrounding landscapes are still awesome to watch on the screen, and Chin and Ozturk deserve praises for capturing many wonderful sights on their cameras in spite of their limited shooting conditions. Their footage clips in the documentary feel raw and rough at times but look mostly clear and crisp, and we are gripped by the potential dangers as well as the pristine beauty of nature surrounding their slow but steady climbing process.
While it is understandably less harrowing and compelling than Kevin Macdonald’s unforgettable documentary “Touching the Void” (2003), “Meru”, which won the US Audience Documentary Award at the Sundance Film Festival early in last year, did a solid job of taking us to the place where most of us are not so willing to go. What it presents is certainly more real than what we saw from movies such as “Everest” (2015), and that is more than enough to compensate for its weak spots. I still don’t like mountain climbing, but the guys in the documentary indeed give us something we don’t see everyday.