At the Sundance Film Festival in January, audiences were abuzz over Meru, the first film directed by world-renowned climber and photographer Jimmy Chin (along with his producer/director wife, E. Chai Vasarhelyi). Featuring stunning cinematography, the film won the highly regarded U.S. Documentary Audience Award, masterfully translating the drama and physical prowess involved in big-wall climbing—along with the incredible personal challenges that the three-man elite climbing team of Chin, Conrad Anker, and Renan Ozturk faced along the way.
Even non-climbers will appreciate the spectacular physical feat that’s central to the film: The climbers’ collective attempt to summit Meru, the 21,000-foot Indian Himalayan peak that’s turned back more elite teams than any other Himalayan peak, considered to be the center of the universe in Hindu cosmology. In many ways, the mountain became the center of the climbers’ worlds, too, especially for Anker: After the group's failed attempt in 2008, he was the one to rally Chin and Ozturk to go for it again in 2011.
To make it, the trio would have to haul a whopping 200 pounds of gear by themselves—no Sherpas or other assistance—up 4,000 feet of mountaineering, ice climbing, and mixed climbing routes just to reach the infamous, 1,500-foot crux called the Shark’s Fin, a stretch of smooth, nearly featureless granite. And that’s just the physical part: Each of their emotional journeys is equally awe-inspiring. We won’t give too much else away, but the bottom line is that Meru, which hits theaters on Friday, August 14, is a must-see for any outdoor enthusiast.
RootsRated had the opportunity to speak with Chin, Anker, and Ozturk at Sundance in January (and yes, we were starstruck), soon after fellow climbers Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell made their historic Dawn Wall climb. Here, some excerpts from our conversation.
So far in 2015, climbing has experienced a real moment in the spotlight. How does that feel to professionals like you guys? Ozturk: We’re excited that it has brought more awareness to what climbing is. As a professional climber, usually the first thing people ask you is if you’ve climbed Everest, and Jimmy and Conrad have both climbed Everest and done all kinds of incredible things on it. But for us, the real climbing is often the obscure things that no one understands, and with both the Dawn Wall and Meru , now hopefully those are going to be things in the public consciousness. That’s good for our tribe.
Chin: In regards to the film, and the Dawn Wall, it has just raised that kind of general and mainstream understanding and awareness of what big wall climbing is. That awareness and understanding seems nicely timed. And it’s good for our friends.
It’s also fair to say that films like Meru and the media coverage of the Dawn Wall climb are helping non-climbers see the sport in a whole new light.
Anker: So often the news is about accidents and people dying, and every spring it’s Everest and who’s going to get hurt and what’s going to happen. Now it’s about success and triumph. There’s more appreciation of it now than there ever has been. The Dawn Wall expedition took seven years. They kept working on it and going back to it, so there’s that perseverance part of the story. And the Dawn Wall was climbing in Yosemite, in good weather, and the Meru film is about climbing a mountain in the snow, in the Himalayas in wintertime conditions. If you can imagine mountains as diamonds, and each facet has a different face to it, and you find all these beautiful faces and climb them. So it’s kind of a performance art thing, too.
The film covers a lot of ground, both on and off the mountain, physically and personally, over the course of these two summit attempts in 2008 and 2011. What was it like to watch that all put together in the film?
Chin: Watching the film now, in retrospect, it was interesting to see what [the summit quest] was for each person and what they were hoping to try and achieve. For me, part of it was supporting Conrad, who’s, like, brought me up as a photographer and climber, and being there with him for something that he’s tried and that’s meant so much to him for a long time. Of course, it became all of our personal obsessions.
Not surprisingly, the film features incredible cinematography. What was involved in creating such spectacular shots?
Chin: We had somebody at base camp, Chris Figenshau, who’s a climber, to be there if something went wrong. But he’s also a shooter, so he shot long lenses and came up with those long shots. I shot these multiple images of the landscape and stitched them together so they are very high resolution, and a friend used Google Earth to look at the space and do a 3D rendering of those images in order to create more of a dynamic movie and to show the scale of what we were climbing.
People are always curious about what kind of food adventurers eat on these hardcore trips. So what was it for you guys?
Anker: On previous trips, we always had a menu, so it was like, ‘Should we have filet mignon or salmon or duck?’ [laughs]. The first night we had black refried beans, but no one wanted them. So the second night it was the stuff you get in bulk sections at health food stories. Things like high-protein breakfast cereal, with soy powder, cream, and blueberries. We also ate a lot of salami, hard cheese, couscous, and olive oil.
When Meru hits theaters, it's sure to inspire a new cadre of climbers. What advice do you have for them?
Anker: Go to the climbing gym and learn the mechanics of belaying. That’s a great start. If you have a fear of heights, that’s all the more reason to go for it. These guys [on the Dawn Wall summit] didn’t fall off the mountain, because they were tied in. It’s a great way to get over your fear.
Ozturk: If it’s climbing or whatever, it’s about finding the heart of the culture and meeting the people involved in it. Find a mentor and create a deeper connection that way.
Chin: You can get great mentorship from hiring a guide in your local area. There are always guide services, and you almost get one-on-two or one-on-one instruction. Having that mentor or somebody that’s experienced share with you [the basics is key]. And it’s obviously safe.