Conquering Meru, the “Anti-Everest”

Jimmy Chin’s documentary on scaling the Shark’s Fin may be the best climbing movie of the year—only it’s not really about the climb.

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The allure of Meru Peak and its Shark’s Fin climbing route is simple. The mountain, a 21,850-foot jagged monster in India’s Gharwal Himalayas, is believed by Hindus to be the center of the universe. The Shark’s Fin, a 1,500-foot vertical rock wall at the very top, is considered one of the hardest climbs in the world. With no Sherpa team to set ropes, no bustling base camp for support, and no international notoriety, Meru is, climbers say, the anti-Everest.

In 2008, Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, and Renan Ozturk set out to climb the nearly featureless granite wall of Shark’s Fin. At the time, no one had ever completed the ascent. After 20 days in extreme conditions, the group gave up just 100 meters from the summit.

Three years later, after Chin vowed to never set foot on the mountain again, the team regrouped and set out to tackle Shark’s Fin. Chin’s film about the ascent, Meru, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week and Outside caught up with him Monday to talk camaraderie, filmmaking four miles above sea level, and what pulled him back to the mountain.

OUTSIDE: Congratulations on the premiere at Sundance. How’s the reception been?
: It’s been incredible. We’ve had three standing ovations out of three screenings. I couldn’t ask for a better reception. I think people have a general idea of what the film is about, but they’re pleasantly surprised.

What does everyone expect the film to be about?
Oh, that it’s like a “climbing movie.” It’s been interesting here at Sundance. The response from middle-aged and older women—that is, the furthest demographic imaginable from what people might think of as a “climbing movie”—has been great. But that was the goal and the dream: to break through the genre.

What’s the movie really about?
Ultimately, you discover that the film is about loyalty and obsession and friendship. My goal from the beginning was to make a film that told a powerful story about universal ideas that people that could relate to. Climbing is an incredible vehicle to tell that story.

Right, on that topic: The leader of this expedition, Conrad Anker, seemed obsessed with tackling this dangerous climb. But he’s also your friend and mentor. Did that make trusting him to lead on a trip like this easier or harder?
Mentorship is an incredibly huge responsibility. And you need to choose your mentors carefully, just like mentors choose their apprentices carefully. There has to be trust there, on a very deep level. Now Conrad has done a lot of amazing things. And he has made hundreds of thousands of good decisions in order to be alive right now. I’m incredibly fortunate to have him as a mentor. Does it feel scary sometimes? Yes. But there’s deep devotion and a lot of attention to detail.

I think it’s lost on a lot of people how complex the decision-making is and how sophisticated it is when you’re making decisions with your life. The stakes are so high.

“My goal from the beginning was to make a film that told a powerful story about universal ideas that people that could relate to. Climbing is an incredible vehicle to tell that story.”

So, why do it?
As a professional climber, that’s the question you always get: Why, why, why. It’s an ineffable thing; you can’t describe it. So a film is a good way to do it without having to say it. If you can make it right, you don’t have to say anything. And people will gain that experience and kind of understand why we do it—even if intellectually it makes no sense.

If I asked you to try and put it into words for me—
I’d say watch the film.

OK. Jon Krakauer calls Meru the “anti-Everest” in the film. What does that mean?
It’s very different, on so many levels. As a professional climber, another classic question is, ‘Have you climbed Everest?’ It’s in the mainstream psyche. Everyone knows about Everest because it’s the highest mountain in the world.

Have you climbed Everest?
I’ve been there four times and climbed it twice.

Anyway, you were saying.
It’s interesting because Meru is one of the great challenges of alpine and big wall climbing—and nobody has ever even heard of it. Only a small community within our climbing community even really understands what that mountain is. And that itself makes it an anti-Everest, because nobody knows it.

But the climbing is also extremely difficult. It requires a high level of competency in every type of climbing: mixed climbing, ice climbing, snow climbing, rock climbing, aid climbing. It requires you to have a very solid quiver. And it’s not mountaineering. It’s high-altitude, big wall climbing. There are no places on Meru where you can put a tent down. You have to live in portaledges, hanging there. There’s a thousand feet of the route that are totally overhanging.

It’s a very different mentality. It was a small team. Our entire budget for the expedition was a third of what one person pays for a guided ascent of Everest.

So it’s less of a show than Everest? More “real?”
Listen, I’m not dissing Everest. I’ve been there. I understand what it is. I understand what the process of climbing Everest is. I hate it when snobby climbers are dissing on Everest but they’ve never been there.

But we didn’t have a giant Sherpa team putting the ropes up for us so that we could zoom up the rope. We’re carrying everything we need on our backs.

“Meru is one of the great challenges of alpine and big wall climbing—and nobody has ever even heard of it.”

Speaking of carrying everything, what’s it like to shoot something like this at 19,000 feet?
The joke is we had about thirty people there and a producer and catering. I’m kidding, obviously. The production was done by Renan and I. It’s an interesting dynamic on an expedition like this. There are two types of expeditions in my mind: The big production expedition, where the tail wags the dog and you are making moves based on what the production needs; and then there’s the other kind, where it’s light and fast and stripped down as much as you possibly can and you shoot to cover the story unfolding. The art of using a minimal amount of gear actually can help elevate your footage.

You’re already packing in all the stuff you need to survive on your back. How much shooting gear did you bring along?
We each had one camera on the climb. In 2008, we didn’t even have DSLRs. In 2011, we had a [Canon] 5D mark II—with two lenses, one zoom—and we brought a Panasonic TM900 [camcorder]. And we would just trade them off. There are obviously power constraints and storage constraints. We had to be really selective in our shots.

Did the team run into any problems?
No, we didn’t. The big problem would have been dropping—you can’t drop anything up there. You drop a glove, you’re done. You can’t go on.

You’re in front of the camera a lot in this doc. Was that a departure for you?
There have been a couple iterations of this film. And it’s never spoken to what I’ve wanted it to speak to. Docs are like that; it takes years to nail down what you want. But when I met my wife, Chai, she came in and she recognized immediately you have to be a character in the film. I’ve hidden behind the camera my whole life because I much, much, much prefer shooting. Being behind the camera is my safe space and it’s my creative space, too. It was my wife’s decision to really insert me into the film, kicking and screaming.

Did you treat yourself differently, as a character in the film, than you did the other climbers?
I was shielding myself, for sure. I didn’t want to go into stuff that was difficult for me. It was a good turn of the table—getting a taste of my own medicine. You know, ‘Alright, alright I’ll answer that question. Jeez.’ Its’ not like you’re trying to make people say something, you’re just trying to make people be honest. That’s the film. We didn’t try to over-dramatize anything.

In 2008, the three of you almost made it up the Shark’s Fin but had to turn back at the last minute. You said on camera that you’d never try Meru again. What made you change your mind?
Well, I guess I’m a climber. I don’t like to leave unfinished business. That’s the short answer.

But I was honestly really inspired by the mountain. Inspired by what it pushed me to do. I saw what we could do better.

Do you recall what made you not want to go back on top of that mountain in 2008?
You’ll have to see the film to discover that. But the reasons are pretty obvious. You know it’s going to be really, really hard. You don’t know if you’re going to survive it or come back from it.