Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Meru’: Documentary: The Most Dangerous Himalayan Climb of All

Groundbreaking climber-filmmaker Jimmy Chin climbs the hardest mountain in the world, Meru, the Shark’s Fin, and films the whole experience.
Mark Jackson
3/8/2021
Updated:
5/31/2021

The most treacherous mountain on earth, deep in the hinterlands of India’s Garhwal Himalayas, soars 21,850 feet off the deck.

Mount Meru carves the sky with a massive, stone replica of a great white shark’s fin. Just like the smaller marine version, it’s a major warning signal.

The Shark's Fin route marked on Mount Meru in "Meru." (Jimmy Chin/Music Box Films)
The Shark's Fin route marked on Mount Meru in "Meru." (Jimmy Chin/Music Box Films)
No mountain has seen more climbing attempts or failures. Can any mountaineering team slay this gargantuan, granite Jaws? It calls for daunting levels of pain, sacrifice, and a sustained stare-down with the Grim Reaper.

Who’s got the right stuff? There’s a specific group of hard men who take this particular brand of hardship as joy. Joy! Who are these men and what motivates them?

One immediately thinks: cage-fighters, footballers, pilots, spec-ops military, and extreme sportsmen—men with stereotypically huge sternocleidomastoid neck muscles and ax-chopped cleft chins, right?

Not necessarily. Like football legend Jim Brown once said, “Tough guys come in all sizes; what the little guys lack in size and strength, they more than make up for in accuracy and meanness.” The expedition climbers on the Shark’s Fin assault team are mostly don’t-judge-a-book-by-its-cover types. These mountain warriors, much like their special-forces military warrior brothers, tend to be understated, humble guys.
(L–R) Director-climber Jimmy Chin, Author-climber Jon Krakauer, alpinist legend Conrad Anker, and solo-climbing specialist Renan Ozturk at a function for "Meru" at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
(L–R) Director-climber Jimmy Chin, Author-climber Jon Krakauer, alpinist legend Conrad Anker, and solo-climbing specialist Renan Ozturk at a function for "Meru" at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. (Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

But make no mistake—in the vernacular of the current Mytho-poetic men’s movement, this chill group of dudes who converse in climber-speak (a variant of surfer-speak), are outrageously warrior-quadrant dominant.

The outstanding climbing documentary “Meru,” winner of the 2015 Sundance audience award, (narrated by master alpinist Jon Krakauer), is a gut-check demonstration of this extreme grit, and it opens the door to a rare insight into what makes such men tick.

It’s also an education in the largely lost wisdom of how men archetypically relate to one another as men and in teams, and their brotherly forging into unknown territory to fulfill a mission.

Hard Men and the Right Stuff

In Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed book “The Right Stuff,” about astronauts, Navy carrier pilots, and Airforce test pilots, there was a desert bar where the screen door slammed, the whiskey flowed, and the test pilots who flew screaming jets past the sound barrier before it was “safe”—told high-danger aviator tales.

Yosemite Valley’s Camp 4, home to the world’s rock-climbing elite, was also such a place in the 1960s and ‘70s. It was a last outpost of America’s Wild West hard-man ethos—where big wall climbers told tales of desperate deeds up on high-crag routes with names like Lost Arrow Chimney, Pacific Ocean Wall, Mescalito, and Snake Dike.

Conrad Anker (L) belaying lead climber (belaying means pulling the slack in the rope attached to the lead climber tight, so if he falls, he won't fall far) in "Meru." (Jimmy Chin/Music Box Films)
Conrad Anker (L) belaying lead climber (belaying means pulling the slack in the rope attached to the lead climber tight, so if he falls, he won't fall far) in "Meru." (Jimmy Chin/Music Box Films)

There’s a tradition involved with groups of men who live on the cutting-edge of any endeavor, where legendary figures grow into myths, and the elders look with quiet satisfaction and excitement to the jaw-droppingly talented “young Turks,” the next up-and-coming heroes. Such talent hints to us of our ability to transcend the earthly.

And so, like cutting-edge musicians keeping an ear to the ground for the next Coltrane or Charlie Parker and football coaches looking for the next Tom Brady, mountaineers look for the next rock-and-ice warrior. In terms of climbers, the “right stuff” means a mind as impervious to distraction as a Brink’s truck is to bank robbery.

The Shark’s Fin Looms

Conrad Anker, legend-in-his-own-time mountaineer, is father to a family of four towheaded kids. Actually, they’re the kids of his former climbing partner, Alex Lowe, who fell to the Reaper in an avalanche in October 1999 on Tibet’s Mount Shisha Pangma.
But wife and kids cannot tie a man with this degree of mountain-warrior spirit (and addiction) down. It should—and the men know it should. But it can’t and it won’t; they won’t let it, ever. The women who marry this type of man know this. Ask any military wife.

“Meru” filmmaker and longtime climbing partner of Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, says: “The more nonchalantly Conrad asks me about something (climbing the Shark’s Fin), the more I should be worried. Meru had a reputation of being impossible.”

They went looking for a third on the rope. Speaking of “young Turks,” they'd heard of Renan Ozturk.

Cue electrifying footage of Ozturk’s desert free soloing (climbing without a rope) hundreds of feet up, quarter-inch ledges to step on, thin holds and cracks to grip—absolutely horrifying to civilians. Who better to have on your rope than someone who doesn’t need one?

As Jon Krakauer relates in one of his many talking-head interviews featured in the film, the Shark’s Fin is a test of master climbers. It’s considered the anti-Everest: There are no Sherpas to haul gear; you haul it all yourself.

It also requires a mixed bag of wide-ranging skill sets. You must rock climb, ice climb, mixed rock/ice climb, big-wall climb, have endurance for altitude and severe cold weather, and have deep muscle memory of the intricacies of advanced aid climbing (“aid climbing” involves standing on/pulling oneself up, via devices (jumars) attached to fixed/placed protection (pitons, “friends,” and so on), in order to make upward progress. This is opposed to “free climbing” where progress is made sans artificial aids, only holding on to and stepping on natural features of the rock, using rope and equipment to arrest falls).
The first 4,000 feet are doable for most climbers, but then it’s big-wall climbing out on the fin. Way up there, you might get 200 feet in a day, and you must haul a porta-ledge—a cot with a tent over it. To anchor the porta-ledge, you have to drill a bolt into the rock face, which means you’re also hauling a power-drill. Plus 50 pounds of other assorted big-wall gear, ice gear (axes, screws, crampons, and so on), plus food and water. Essentially you’re hauling 200 pounds for 16,000 feet, or until supplies run out. Climbers use the word “epic” a lot.

Jimmy

Jimmy Chin, director and climber, in "Meru" (Renan Ozturk/Music Box Films)
Jimmy Chin, director and climber, in "Meru" (Renan Ozturk/Music Box Films)

Jimmy Chin, in an interview with The Epoch Times, with classic rock-climber self-deprecation concerning his abilities, said that he’s a “utility man” when it comes to climbing. Actors Will Ferrell, Chevy Chase, and Phil Hartman on “Saturday Night Live” were “utility men” with a wide spectrum of abilities (as opposed to specialists) who could make just about any scene work. Chin professes to be the climbing version.

That’s of course a massive understatement. The prerequisite for this climb was that all parties involved had to be utility men, but not jack-of-all-trades-masters-of-none utility men. They needed to be masters of all—straight-up wizards in each category. Which is why this project is such a monolithic achievement.
However, when pressed, Chin says that if he had to pick a specialty, he feels solid in aid climbing, which calls for the ability to be laser-focused for mind-destroying periods of time. Aid also calls for the ability to continually manage one’s fear, which means defining what’s perceived fear, as opposed to actual risk, and being able to distinguish clearly between the two. This discernment is called for when, say, you’ve got your entire weight suspended off a few rurps (postage-stamp-sized “Realized Ultimate Reality Piton”), looking at a possible thousand-foot death fall, while drilling a bolt for 6 hours straight.

It Begins

Renan Ozturk makes his way back to the basecamp tent in "Meru," (Jimmy Chin/Music Box Films)
Renan Ozturk makes his way back to the basecamp tent in "Meru," (Jimmy Chin/Music Box Films)
These mountains are holy places, and many elaborately face-painted holy men line the path to the base of Meru, meditating on rocks along the holy Ganges River. It’s a surreal scene that Dr. Seuss would have had a field day with, before he got canceled: “Walking the path to great Mount Meru, they met many fellows who were all named Fu Tu.”

Says Conrad Anker: “5:30 in the evening, time to start—this is the best part. I know I’ve said that at various stages. But this really is it—night-time ops.”

Up on the stunning, gargantuan, snow-fluted walls. “Why do we do this stuff? For the view,” jokes Conrad. The climbers further joke about their “ghetto bivouac” (sub-satisfactory sleeping arrangement), and about how it could be worse. “You know it’s grim when your sleeping bag lies directly on the snow.”

Conrad Anker looking out of the porta-ledge in "Meru" (Jimmy Chin/Music Box Films)
Conrad Anker looking out of the porta-ledge in "Meru" (Jimmy Chin/Music Box Films)

Like “bivouac” and “ops,” other combat terms are used in climbing. Belaying in a steady stream of falling rock and ice is referred to as “taking shrapnel.” It might not be war, per se, but it’s just as deadly.

Every now and then the camera backs off, and we’re hit with absolutely magnificent views of the mountain and surrounding ranges. The only word that comes to mind trivializes it—beautiful.

A severe weather system encroaches, and the three climbers get caught in the porta-ledge for four days in cramped quarters. We get to hear the avalanches roaring down the side. It looks cozy to the viewer, in the tent there, and when they look out at the snow, Jimmy says the storm feels like Christmas. That’s deceptive. It is all very, very, very unsafe.

After seven days, they’ve eaten half the food. There are some comical food conversations regarding four-days-in-a-row of couscous-eating; the rationed, daily, one spoonful of granola, and roasting gnarly cheese rinds with a blowtorch. “Next week,” Jimmy jokes, “we'll be eating our boots.”

They speak of it all as “Samsara” (the Buddhist concept of the suffering inherent in the cycle of human/animal earthly incarnations). It is their “Bivouac of Suffering.”

Elder-Warrior Mentoring

Narrator Krakauer jumps back in to explain the role of the mentor in climbing. The now mythic Mugs Stump was Anker’s mentor. It’s the traditional Eastern martial arts teacher–student relationship. Young men need teaching, testing, challenging, and forging. And they especially need an older male’s 100-percent trust in their abilities.

Now, Anker is mentor to young Ozturk, who, albeit talented enough to free solo at heights that make the average mind freeze up, has no experience with climbing in minus 20-degree weather, and harbors, in his mind, a place of wanting to quit. But he also doesn’t want to let the team down. This is archetypal of all dangerous missions where men in teams develop the selflessness and willingness to die for each other.

Conrad Anker leading a pitch (one rope length's worth of progress) in "Meru." (Renan Ozturk/Music Box Films)
Conrad Anker leading a pitch (one rope length's worth of progress) in "Meru." (Renan Ozturk/Music Box Films)
Up on the fin, they run into totally blank sections of rock. Krakauer explains the extreme edge of dicey “A-4” aid climbing---of drilling bolts to hang ladders from. “It’s like being a cabinet maker,” he says. Jimmy is filmed gingerly tapping the big slabs of granite with a hammer: “tonk-tonk-tonk.“ Hollow. ”Those are the sounds you don’t like to hear,” Chin says.
It’s the “house of cards” pitch: 10,000-pound stone slabs, stacked haphazardly, that move under his weight, horrifyingly. “If a real cabinet maker splits the wood, he can get another piece. As a cabinet maker drilling bolts in extreme aid climbing, you split the wood—you die,” Krakauer says.

Not This Time

The trick is to keep the risk manageable. Seventeen days in, 100 yards short of the summit, they have to turn around. There’s relief and heartbreak. There’s no summit bid because it would mean an unsustainable, extra night sleeping on the cliff face. They'll take no such stupid risk.
This is the control all hard men (and women) seek. Author Tom Wolfe explains the unspoken creed among test pilots: “A man should have the ability to go up in a hurtling piece of machinery and put his hide on the line and have the moxie, the reflexes, the experience, the coolness, to pull it back at the last yawning moment.” So as to be able to, in this case, climb another day.

They all take time off; Chin goes to Chad and Borneo on filming jobs. Ozturk goes extreme skiing with pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones and busts his head wide open, coming within a miraculous millimeter of being a vegetable, and losing half the blood supply to his brain.

Yet another miracle: Jimmy, also skiing, gets caught in a massive avalanche, rolling and twirling amid huge, crushing blocks of ice and snow, only to get spit out, whole and alive, at the bottom of the mountain. “I survived what people don’t survive,” he says.

Round Two

Ozturk didn’t tell his girlfriend he was going back to Meru. And, busted skull and all—they’re back at it. Extreme adventure! The porta-ledge breaks! The team jury-rigs part of an ice ax and an ice screw using some athletic tape—back in business!
Renan Ozturk taking a quick rest during the long descent from the summit back to the porta-ledge camp after 17 hours on the move, in "Meru." (Jimmy Chin/Music Box Films)
Renan Ozturk taking a quick rest during the long descent from the summit back to the porta-ledge camp after 17 hours on the move, in "Meru." (Jimmy Chin/Music Box Films)

This second attempt is outrageous. The personal and group challenges they overcame must be witnessed. American climbers Anker, Chin, and Ozturk summit on Meru Central (20,702 feet) on Oct. 2, 2011, via the Shark’s Fin, in 12 days. That’s no spoiler. It’s a teaser, trust me.

Exhausted, Renan Ozturk contemplates the long descent after making the summit, in "Meru." The top is only half way. (Renan Ozturk/Music Box Films)
Exhausted, Renan Ozturk contemplates the long descent after making the summit, in "Meru." The top is only half way. (Renan Ozturk/Music Box Films)

Ultimately, Why They Do It

Post-climb, we see photos of frostbite and trench foot: feet so cold and so wet for so long they’ve begun rotting. This is the mega-pain. This is the addiction? We want to know why.

It’s said of some ultra-runners, who run 100 miles in one shot, that they have a fierce purity. The same is said of special operations military communities. These men who live with constant, daily pain burn off the trivialities of human existence. They have completely sweat out the small stuff.

John Long, a climber of Anker’s generation and a brilliant author of climbing literature, explains the severe addiction of extreme alpinism as going to a place where you know you’re already dead. And in the forbearing of that state, where you give up all hope and still beat all the odds, lies “a fearsome addiction.”

Jimmy Chin rappelling back down the Shark's Fin in "Meru." (Renan Ozturk/Music Box Films)
Jimmy Chin rappelling back down the Shark's Fin in "Meru." (Renan Ozturk/Music Box Films)

The sign above the entrance to Hades in Dante’s Inferno reads “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” One must go through hell to get to heaven. The classic Buddhist double-lotus position is said to burn off—by forbearing pain—one’s karma. Same with the hair shirts and self-flagellation of the medieval ascetics.

So men and women who live with pain in this fashion may be on a sporting version of a path to spiritual enlightenment. Rudolf Steiner, renowned Western mystic, scientist, philosopher, and founder of Waldorf schools and biodynamic agriculture, predicted sports would be the Western world’s segue to spirituality. See “Meru” and decide for  yourself.

Oh, and by the way—Chin filmed this whole thing himself (with assistance from Ozturk), while climbing the Shark’s Fin. And like they say—behind every great man, there’s a great woman. In Chin’s case, that would be his wife and partner-in-crime, the beautiful, Princeton-educated filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi.

Filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, wife of Jimmy Chin, and co-director of "Meru." (Renan Ozturk/Music Box Films)
Filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, wife of Jimmy Chin, and co-director of "Meru." (Renan Ozturk/Music Box Films)
This was 2015. They went on to make the award-winning “Free Solo“ in 2018. Both documentaries are immensely entertaining and uplifting. No pun intended.
‘Meru’ Directors:  Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi Documentary:  Conrad Anker, Jon Krakauer, Renan Ozturk, Jimmy Chin, Grace Chin Rated: R Running Time:  1 hour, 30 minutes Release Date: Aug. 14, 2015 Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years experience as a professional New York actor, a classical theater training, a BA in philosophy, and recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook, “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World”: https://www.thespecterofcommunism.com/en/audiobook/ Rotten Tomatoes author page: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/mark-jackson/movies
Mark Jackson is the chief film critic for The Epoch Times. In addition to movies, he enjoys martial arts, weightlifting, Harley-Davidsons, wilderness survival, vision questing, rock-climbing, qigong, oil painting, and human rights activism. Mr. Jackson earned a bacherlor's in philosophy from Williams College, followed by a classical theater training, and has 20 years’ experience as a New York professional actor, working in theater, commercials, and television daytime dramas. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” which is available on iTunes and Audible.
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