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Meru's technical feats equal its potent storytelling

Follow enough outdoor feeds on social media and you are bound to see a meme featuring this quote from Patagonia's founder and CEO, Yvon Chouinard: "The word 'adventure' has just gotten overused. For me, adventure is when everything goes wrong. That's when the adventure starts."

As "adventure" documentaries go, Meru is an exclamation point on Chouinard's quote.

The film, winner of the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is named for Mount Meru in Northern India. It stands 21,000 feet tall and is located at the sacred headwaters of the Ganges River. Logistics require more than 200 pounds of supplies be hauled up 4,000 feet of highly technical climbing just to make an attempt at the summit. That's the easy part. The final 1,500 feet, known as The Shark's Fin, had never been conquered in 30 years of effort from multiple teams of elite climbers.

Climbing legend and Bozeman resident Conrad Anker was one who'd tried and failed.The mountain, and getting to the top of it, haunted him ever since. He says in an interview early in the film, "Meru is the culmination of all I've done and all I've wanted to do."

In 2008 Anker assembled a new team, and that is where the film opens. Joined by frequent climbing partner and photographer/filmmaker Jimmy Chin (who codirects the film with his wife, filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) and hotshot younger climber/filmmaker Renan Ozturk, the three men came the closest yet to actually reaching the summit. Expecting to take a week in the ascent, the climbers were trapped in their portaledge for four days while a storm dumped 10 feet of snow on them. Ultimately they spent 19 days on the wall, rationing their week's worth of food, before giving up and turning back with the summit a mere 100 meters away.

click to enlarge Edward Climbing Hands. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JIMMY CHIN
  • photo courtesy of Jimmy Chin
  • Edward Climbing Hands.

Writer and accomplished climber Jon Krakauer, who is interviewed extensively throughout and provides some of the film's best quotes, relates an old saying among climbers: "The best alpinists are the ones with the worst memory." The men retreat down the mountain, and in the moment Chin tells the camera he has no plans to make another try. But we know otherwise.

The middle third of the film is most poignant. We learn the personal histories of the three men and of previous tragedies in their lives, Anker's in particular. Soon enough plans for another Shark's Fin attempt are being made, despite the hardships faced on their first. New tragedy strikes, though, and the expedition, scheduled for September 2011, is thrown into doubt. These events test the bonds of friendship, trust and, many will say, sanity between the three men. The climb proceeds as scheduled, and we know the men survive because we are seeing them interviewed, but that doesn't do anything to relieve the stress of watching events unfold.

The direction and editing of Meru has few flaws. All of the images shot on the mountain itself were captured by Chin and Ozturk. Not only were they testing the limits of human endurance, they were also making sure to secure movie-worthy footage. That blows my mind. There were even moments where I wondered how someone could even think to turn a camera on. I guess if that's what you do, it's probably almost second nature.

Meru is an outstanding documentary. Thrills rarely come from cheap shots of sheer drops into hazy distance. Instead, we are caught up in the relationships of these men and how much they needed to lean on one another to even get a whiff of success. Watching Meru is a thrilling and satisfying way to spend an evening, even if it doesn't inspire me to attempt much more than another assent of the M.

Meru opens at the Roxy Fri., Sept. 11.

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