There’s some breathtaking footage in “Meru,” the documentary by Jimmy Chin and his wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi about the efforts of Chin and his climbing partners Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk to scale one of the world’s most forbidding peaks, the so-called Shark’s Fin of Mount Meru, which towers more than 20,000 feet above the Ganges River in the Himalayas—while recording the ascent themselves on small but incredibly sophisticated digital cameras. And the film goes beyond the climb, offering details on the men’s private lives and personal travails as well as commentary about the difficulties of the effort from Jon Krakauer, an acknowledged master of adventure writing. Practitioners of climbing—and enthusiasts who prefer to experience such extreme activity from the comfort of their armchairs—will find the film a treat.
“Meru” actually covers a considerable period, from 2003 through 2011, though some of the events are told in first-person flashbacks. Anker first tried the climb early in the century, but didn’t reach the summit. In 2008 he returned with Chin and Ozturk, and it’s this attempt that receives the greatest attention on screen. After days of grueling ascent, the three were forced to give up the effort just short of success because of weather and insufficient supplies. Three years later—despite catastrophic events that make it seem impossible—the same trio decide to try again, and the picture reveals whether for Anker the third time will be the charm. Whatever happens, however, intervening circumstances insure that it will be a greater triumph for one of the others.
The great strength of “Meru” lies in the sometimes staggering film shot by Chin and Ozturk, both accomplished photographers working under the most difficult conditions. But in addition to Krakauer’s onscreen remarks, which are engagingly and crisply presented, the film intercuts excerpts of interviews with the climbers themselves, who talk movingly about the tragedies they’ve experienced during their careers as well as their motivation in attempting the Meru ascent not once but on multiple occasions. And their wives and other family members offer telling reflections on their drive to conquer a seemingly unconquerable mountain. All of this material is edited together skillfully by Bob Eisenhardt and backed by a suitably heroic-sounding score by J. Ralph.
It’s probably inevitable that this feat will eventually be turned into a big-budget spectacular by some Hollywood studio (just as Krakauer’s unhappy encounter with Mount Everest in 1996, which he wrote about in “Into Thin Air,” has been in the upcoming “Everest”). However well-crafted a fictionalized version might be, however, it will take some effort to improve upon the real thing.