Scaling the highest mountain peaks in the world comes with inherent danger, as those who've climbed Mount Everest and lived to share their tales of triumph and tragedy will attest. But there's another Himalayan mountain, lesser known but even more perilous: Mount Meru, a 21,850-foot summit in northern India has thwarted more attempts than any other. It became the alpine holy grail for three intrepid climbers who failed once and three years later tried again, documenting their experience on film.
The result, at once breathtaking and heart stopping, is "Meru," which won the 2015 Documentary Audience Award for director/producers Jimmy Chin and his wife, E. Chai Vasarhelyi, at the Sundance Film Festival. The documentary opens Aug. 14 in New York and Los Angeles with a national release to follow.
Climbers Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk first attempted to scale Meru's "Shark Fin" sheer rock face in October 2008, but their planned seven-day expedition stretched to 20 days as storms and severe cold thwarted them, depleting food and fuel and forcing them to turn back only 100 meters shy of the summit.
Then, Chin, a photographer and cinematographer who films extreme athletes and explorers for a living, was nearly killed in an avalanche while on assignment in the Grand Tetons, and fellow cinematographer Ozturk suffered skull and vertebrae fractures in a skiing accident and barely survived. Nevertheless, in September 2011, they returned to Meru with Anker to document their second attempt. For Chin, it was about more than reaching a previously unattainable summit, as he explains.
MNN: Why did you want to climb Meru? And why did you go back after your failed attempt?
Chin: Climbing is a calling, a passion, much like painting or creating music is a calling for some. The stakes are different but the wonder, joy, satisfaction of the process, and life lessons attained from striving to be perfect or grow through a craft or pursuit are similar. As a photographer, I love to create images, tell stories. Photography is deeply satisfying, like climbing mountains is deeply satisfying; much is learned through the process, both give different perspectives of the world. So going back to shoot this incredible climb was also a motivation. First ascents are to climbing what a grand assignment is to photography. They both test us creatively, intellectually and, in my case, there is a physical element to it as well. Meru was one of the great challenges of Himalayan climbing. It was also an awe-inspiring mountain with a stunning line on it. Going back was also a matter of taking another look at an unresolved equation. We knew the route, we knew what we could do better, we refined our equipment choices, etc. We believed we had a chance of unlocking the puzzle. There is a draw towards resolving things.
Did people think you were crazy to try again?
People seem to either get it or not get it. I love climbing — the physical, intellectual and emotional elements of it. It's incredibly rewarding to me, and many of my greatest moments and greatest friendships have come out of it. Climbing is an incredible vehicle to see the world, to connect with yourself and with others. It's also a craft, a passion — more than it is a sport. The process of decision-making is highly calculated, risk assessment is honed over years of experience. It may be difficult for some to understand the draw of the mountains, and everyone has a different threshold for risk. Fortunately or unfortunately, climbing is my calling. To not embrace your calling, to not be true to yourself and to let life float by you without following your heart is what seems crazy to me.
Is the danger aspect compelling?
We don't seek the danger. We seek the climbing, the experience of a journey with close friends, and doing something incredible through the shared vision and perseverance of a strong team. If I sought the danger alone, there are much easier ways to find it: driving into oncoming traffic, uncalculated stunts, etc.
What about your families? Is it fair to put them through the anxiety and worry?
The film examines these questions. It's one of the great intractable decisions professional Himalayan alpinists face. I am a strong believer of people following their passions. It is what I would like to exemplify for my children, and I will want to support them in their passions if they are lucky enough to find one. So, do you sit quietly and safely at home your entire life, never taking risks? It's a tough question because everyone's threshold for risk is different. Some would say it is the greatest risk in life not to take risks. I don't think there are clear answers to these questions.
Was it your intent to make a documentary from the beginning?
I never initially planned to make a full-length documentary. Renan and I shot on our 2008 attempt just to capture some moments for posterity. It wasn't until after 2011 that I seriously considered making a feature length documentary. I looked at everything that had happened, the individual stories and the footage we had. I knew we had something special.
What did you want to convey?
We were as much focused on not letting the production get in the way of the climb as we were about the shooting. Ultimately, I wanted to share a different perspective on big mountain climbing, what aspects of it have been important to me based on my experience. Climbing is as much about the friendship, trust and mentorship as it is about the climbing for me and I hoped people would get that sense of climbing from the film. Of course, I also wanted to give the audience a visceral experience on a cutting edge big mountain climb.
What were your biggest challenges as a filmmaker?
There were a lot of logistical challenges. We couldn't charge batteries up there so we had to carry all of them. Little things like changing out cards with gloves on while hanging on a wall in minus 20 degree weather, howling winds and snowfall can be challenging. Obviously you can't drop anything. And, of course, we were pretty busy climbing, building camps, hauling gear, etc., so finding the bandwidth to shoot and think about compositions, sequences, narrative was tough.
How did you get the spectacular wide shots?
We didn't have any helicopters shooting on this project nor did we have any drones. This was an extremely low budget production. We didn't even have a PA [production assistant]. It was just Renan and I, and our friend/base camp manager, Chris Figenshau, shooting long shots from base camp. He also shot multiple images of the landscape that we stitched together for massive hi-res file that we made into a 3-D rendered animation to get that aerial effect.
Was the effort worth it?
I think so. I like to think the legacy of the climb and the film will outlive me. That's something I appreciate.
Is there another peak to conquer?
We honestly don't think of climbing mountains in terms of "conquering" peaks. It's the stereotype I tried to shed in the film. The shared experience of a beautiful climb is often much of the motivation. I don't have any major expeditions lined up in the immediate future, but I climb often and ski in the winter. There will always be mountains out there I want to see, be inspired by, and experience. Climbing is a lifelong pursuit, and I look forward to it everyday.
Do you think your daughter will share your interest?
My daughter Marina is almost 2 years old. She climbs all over the place, up furniture, into the car, onto the playground set. I often remind people that we don't necessarily learn how to climb; we relearn how to climb after forgetting how by being told not to climb this or that.
What do you want 'Meru' audiences to take away?
I like to think the film is a celebration of life and friendship. I hope audiences are inspired and come away with a new perspective about how people choose to live their lives. And of course, I hope they gain a new appreciation for cutting edge climbing and a deeper understanding of what drives climbers.