Watching Meru is like watching a very long episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive. No one in this documentary should seriously be alive. No one is this doc should even have all their limbs. It’s the kind of movie you watch with your mouth agape at both the luck and strength of the film’s subjects. Of course, no one is ever as strong as they seem, and while this film highlights the insane passion and focus one must have to be a professional big-wall climber, it definitely does not shy away from how seriously insane it is to even want to be a big-wall climber.
Meru follows Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk as they attempt to climb the Shark’s Fin, on the mountain of Meru in northern India. It’s is a wickedly dangerous point jutting out of the mountain and no one has ever reached the summit. This makes it both a professional climbers dream and nightmare. Meru requires proficiency in a variety of climbing techniques including ice and big-wall climbing, which means it requires a lot of equipment. It also means you really need to take your time, which then means you have to pack way more food and water. By the time you have all of the gear you need to make the climb relatively possible (not even safe, just kind of possible), you’re carrying 200 pounds worth of supplies up a 21,000 foot mountain.
Despite all of the clear and present dangers that come along with climbing the Shark’s Fin, the climbers are still really hyped to climb Meru. Sure, they’re nervous, but they’re also some of the best climbers in the world. Surely they can do it? Spoiler alert: they don’t. They get 100 meters away from the summit and have to turn back. Chin ends up in a wheelchair for a couple of weeks, Ozturk almost loses his fingers and toes, and Anker is grossly emaciated. They may have gotten stupidly close to reaching the summit, but they also were stupidly close to dying. Meru had worn them out.
This means they have to go back and that, not the first climb, is the main focus of the film. Despite how terrible and risky it was the first time, they absolutely have to do it again. It’s when the doc reaches this point of the story, that you begin to get an incredibly dark look into the minds of these climbers. Ankar talks about the death of his both his longtime climbing partners, Alex Lowe and Mugs Stump, and how both deaths fundamentally changed him. Chin admits that he had promised his mother that he would not die before her, and that after her death, he felt like he could takes risks he hadn’t before. He had kept up his end of the bargain.
The fact is, doing this kind of climbing means you could die a horrific death at any moment. You could suddenly, out of the blue, be swept away in an avalanche. You could starve, you could lose fingers and toes and not be able to continue on or go back. And of course, you could fall. It’s a suicide mission in every sense of the word and Meru does an incredible job of capturing that darkness, that passion that’s so intense it teeters on the edge of insanity.
You also get this interesting balance of being apart of big open the wilderness and being incredibly claustrophobic. During the first climb, the group is trapped in their tent while a four day long storm rages all around them, and guess what, you’re stuck there too. Not only that, but there are so many shots of Ozturk trapped in tiny hospital rooms after he recuperates from a serious injury or talks of people getting stuck in piles of snow during an avalanche. It’s overwhelming.
It really is a film you kind of have to brace yourself for. The views as the team goes up the mountain are incredible. You swing from these breathtaking shots, to worrying deeply about whether they’ll all make it, to just worrying about their mental health. Meru is dangerously seductive. It’s the prettiest thing in the world until it kills you.