Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Grace Chin, Renan Ozturk, Jenni Anker, Jon Krakauer
(Music Box Films)
US theatrical: 14 Aug 2015 (Limited release)
“I know that stuff can happen and that’s what I always say. ‘Yeah, yeah, but stuff can happen.” Describing her reaction to her husband Conrad’s mountain climbing, Jenni Anker appears at once serene and uneasy, her voice rising ever so slightly. A climber herself, Jenni understands the desire and the thrill, the commitment and the achievement. She also understands the “stuff” that can happen, the risks that become increasingly clear during the documentary Meru.
At the same time, the film—shot primarily by climber and photographer Jimmy Chin, and co-directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, his wife—makes clear the utter beauty and brilliance of climbing, the attraction and the compulsion. As Conrad, Jimmy, and a third climber, Renan Ozturk, determine to summit the “Shark’s Fin” on Mount Meru in northern India, the film underlines that the feat has never bee accomplished. Long reputed to be “this impossible climb,” as Jimmy puts it, Meru is one of the biggest of the big walls. On top of that, it features multiple challenges, including ice and altitude (20,000 feet. It’s “where heaven and earth come together, the test of a master climber,” says Jon Krakauer, ““it’s not just hard, it’s hard in this really complicated way.”
So agree the three climbers at the center of Meru, along with their life partners, each concerned in her own way. A climber’s widow as well as the mother of three sons, Jenni is especially articulate about what’s at stake in Conrad’s decisions to go to Meru, not once but twice. “I think Conrad was the driving force for the entire trip, wanting to fulfill that shared dream” she says of the second effort, organized after the team returns from their 2008 attempt without reaching the top.
It’s difficult to call this first run at Meru a failure, as the film documents both the abject difficulty and stunning splendor of each moment. As they approach the mountain, Renan, the team’s newest member, remembers, “I didn’t know what we were getting into because I’d never seen anything that complex before.” Even apart from the logistics of climbing, they contend with basic survival, tending to physical needs. Because Meru is “the anti-Everest,” observes Krakauer, “No one’s gonna carry your stuff,” the climbers plan meticulously, bringing only what they absolutely need, in this case, seven days worth of food. When a snowstorm keeps them in place for four days, Renan is surprised that they don’t turn back. “It’s too much for me,” he remembers thinking, “I’m in over my head. I’m glad to have the experience, also glad that we’re going down tomorrow.”
But they don’t go down. In fact, they persist for days, until they realize at last that they can’t make it. Deeply disappointed, they return to earth, that is, an existence about as removed from the climb as you can imagine. On the mountain, you see snow and ice and sky, and when the men are home, you see very little of their lives. Most of the interviews, of course, are set inside rooms, with chairs and windows and people looking into the camera. You also see the results of mishaps during other, non-Meru climbs, Renan recovering from a fractured skull and broken vertebrae, among other calamities, and then Jimmy surviving an avalanche (as Jimmy has his camera with him, this adventure a particularly gnarly: spilling and falling and crashing and suddenly, emerging, his hands stretched in front other lens as you share his disbelief, his new status as a miracle.
Though Renan’s return looks unlikely, he says again and again that he means to do—to his girlfriend’s understandable consternation. “He actually bought a plane ticket to Meru and didn’t tell me,” she recalls, “It was like a slap in the face.”
Her observation, along with Jenni’s regarding Conrad’s decision-making, remind you that such high level climbing, for all its excitement and allure, comes with assorted costs. And if the rewards are specific to the climbers, the costs are spread around, from frostbite and broken bones to trauma and loss. Tensions and gaps in experience exist by definition. Krakauer puts it this way: “Jenni has no idea she has no fucking idea what he’s really doing out there.” Here the camera pulls up on Conrad’s small figure against the mountain, then cuts to a close- up of his face, red in the wind and sun. And in that moment, you too can only guess what he’s “really doing,” what he’s thinking or how he’s feeling. Cut again to a close-up of jimmy, as he reports, “We’re all just kind of frayed.”
Climbing Meru might be represented in a film, but even as it’s shared here, among Conrad, Jimmy, and Renan, each has his own version of what happened. So too does Jenni, despite and because of what she knows and doesn’t know. Your version is another experience, to be shared and reconsidered, to raise questions and to expand understanding. What is the achievement? How might it be measured? Who feels it? Meru never pretends to explain or simplify the complexity of the mountain.