Mountain climbing is a pastime I’m happy to let the devoted thrill seekers indulge in without considering the possibility of taking part in it myself thanks to the now infamous 1996 Mount Everest disaster which claimed the lives of twelve people before becoming the most heavily documented climbing tragedy in world history. Having seen the IMAX documentary which emerged from the ill-fated expedition, Everest, as well as the 2015 feature film released in IMAX 3D, mountain climbing will always only be available to me on the movie or television screen. Numerous alternative documentaries and feature films concerning similarly death defying expeditions have come about over the years including but not limited to Touching the Void, The Summit, Beyond the Edge, Blindsight, The Dark Glow of the Mountains and countless others. So when I happened upon the 2015 documentary Meru at Chicago’s Music Box Theater during their 70mm Film Festival, I had to wonder just what was here I hadn’t seen previously with so much in the way of content concerning mountain climbing that was already available.
As it turns out in this feature co-directed by mountain climber Jimmy Chin alongside his wife and respected documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, I can’t remember a time where from beginning to end I felt more paralyzed with palpable terror. Even after the recently hot air balloon documentary cum nightmare Don’t Look Down, it’s been a long time since I had to shut a film off and walk away from it for a short time before being able to finish it due to the anxiety it was causing me. Simply put, whatever ‘inspiration’ the husband-wife filmmaking team aimed to convey by chronicling the end result of not one but two attempts at ascending the deadly Himalayan “Shark’s Fin” mountain peak was secondary to the very real fear I felt from watching this.
What’s so heart stopping about Meru as renowned climbers Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk tirelessly strive to penetrate the void despite running out of food while equipment and health give out from under them is that they shot it all themselves. When you see the opening image of a tent clipped to the side of the mountain as a blizzard rages against it, you know there aren’t any crews or technicians alongside them capturing all of this. You’re right there with these three on the tall edge of the Earth. Comparatively Mount Everest is a taller climb, but the legendary “Shark’s Fin” peak, as evidence shows in the footage, is a considerably more difficult climb with as much as hours or days spent only managing to ascend a few feet. The peak itself has little to no gripping room and watching the team inspect the barren rock for a spot to latch onto is as frustrating and arduous for them to engage as it is for us to try and imagine.
Running at a brisk 87 minutes and interspersed with retrospective interviews from the three climbers, family members and colleagues, Meru is undeniably beautiful to look at. At times the quality of footage shifts depending on the conditions it was shot in with the extreme cold bearing down on the camera. There are two truly horrific life threatening accidents which occur over the course of the movie which are captured in real time that are terrifying to witness. One member even battles with a near-catastrophic skiing accident which cuts off half of the blood flow to his brain and the sight of him near the mountain peak during the team’s second attempt slurring his speech after days of pushing himself to the brink is completely hair raising.
After all the endurance tests these men are put through and the very real brushes with death they encounter time and time again, you have to admire their fierce conviction in pressing on with the potentially suicidal mission in topping this elusive peak. While Meru hasn’t brought me any closer towards deciding to become a mountain climber, it has presented a different destination than just pointing to Mount Everest again and again. It also once again proves the unknown corners of our very real world are far more awe inspiring, intimidating and nerve wracking than any kind of monster lurking about in your standard horror fare. One thing is for sure, that opening image of the tent strapped thousands of feet in the air on the side of a mountain peak in below zero temperatures has been etched into my memory for all time for better or worse.
- Andrew Kotwicki