If Mount Everest is the iconic goddess of mountains, then Meru in the Indian Himalayas is the unattainable, unknowable bad-ass rock star, beckoning to a chosen few from an impossibly remote place high in the sky. Unlike Everest, Meru isn’t famed for its legendary climbs and world records. New Zealand mountaineer Edmund Hillary never attempted to climb it (if he did, he kept it a secret) and the mountaineers who rise to the challenge are not the type seeking personal glory. In fact, most people aren’t aware of its existence.
Meru is the most forbidding mountain in the Himalayas and the ascent to the peak, known as Shark’s Fin, is deemed one of the most difficult in the world. There are no guides and no rest stations — and most crucially, there are no sherpas to help guide and carry water and food. Death is a constant threat while scaling the near 90-degree cliff face in the midst of screeching wind and relentless snow.
“Meru,” a documentary about a three-man expedition to Shark’s Fin, features the director and producer Jimmy Chin, producer Conrad Anker and cinematographer Renar Ozturk. The team’s first attempt was in 2008 and it was a mind-boggling 20-day ordeal (the original plan was to scale it in seven days) that involved turning back 100 meters before reaching the summit due to vile weather and a lack of supplies.
“I’m not coming back,” says Chin in the movie. When he finally gets off the mountain, he winds up spending two weeks in a wheelchair.
Yet, amazingly, three years later, the team tries again.
Mountain-climbing movies — documentaries and dramatizations, such as “Touching the Void” (2003), “Everest” (2015) and “Into Thin Air” (1997), based on the best-selling book by mountaineer Jon Krakauer (who is also one of the talking heads in “Meru”) — are growing by the year. In the case of “Meru,” the trio talk to the camera and relate their experiences from the inside of a tent precariously perched on a wall of solid granite, at an altitude of around 6,000 meters in the vortex of a howling snowstorm.
“High altitude Himalayan climbing is very risky. It is the most dangerous professional sport,” says Anker in the film before he swallows and adds, “but I think with Meru, that risk is worth it.”
Earlier this month, director Jimmy Chin was in Tokyo to promote the film, and though embarrassed by the triteness of the question, I find myself asking the obvious: Why do it?
Laughing in response, Chin doesn’t have an answer, but he says if he did, “it changes from day to day, week to week.”
“I grew up in Minnesota and I was always running around in the mountains around my house, getting neighborhood friends to sneak out at night and go on self-organized field trips,” says Chin, who says he was pushed to excel by his parents who emigrated from China.
“My dad was very strict, always pushing me to excel in everything, from academics to martial arts: I swam on the local swim team for 10 years, played the violin for 15, and, for discipline, I had to take martial arts classes. It went without saying that I had to have straight A’s , all the time, no exceptions.”
Despite the intense, achievement-centric upbringing, Chin was kicked out of his boarding school in his late teens.
“I had a problem with authority. I still do, I just can’t bring myself to cooperate,” he explains. “My father can control me, but no one else. I think I climbed Meru because I’m always driven by how far I can push myself. It’s a way of getting even with my father, I suppose. I’ve gone after things that were nearly impossible to accomplish, and I couldn’t have done that without a fair amount of defiance.”
In the film, he says that he made a promise to his mother that he wouldn’t die before she did, and it was that which kept him from going too far. But after she passed away, there were no more holds, which meant he could take on Meru.
Chin and Anker had already climbed Everest many times (it was Anker who found the corpse of George Mallory on the North Col) but Meru was an entirely different story.
“The Shark’s Fin really captures the imagination of the climber,” says Chin. “The appeal of a mountain comes from the aesthetic of a climb, which is at the heart of every climber.”
It’s not about conquering a mountain, he adds. “Mountains are unconquerable; they really don’t care whether you climb them or not. If you’re conquering anything, it’s yourself.
“I’m a pretty flawed human but my best self comes out during expeditions. And expeditions require me to be the best version of myself. It just works like that.”
“Meru” opens at cinemas nationwide on Dec. 31.