How often do we get to watch a documentary about a perilous man vs. nature adventure where one of the surviving conquerors directs it himself? Climbing legend Jimmy Chin and wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi co-helm this almost uncomfortably intimate and comprehensive look at three men who attempted the first ever ascent of the terrifying Shark’s Fin route of the Meru Peak in the Indian Himalayas.
Built up by the film’s subjects as the “anti-Everest”, Meru does not have Sherpas who can mark out a route for climbers or carry their provisions to a way-point; the climbers have to plan and execute everything themselves, leaving almost zero margin for error. As such, it’s not too surprising that Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk’s first attempt to climb the Shark’s Fin resulted in failure, because to press on in the face of inclement weather (even for the region) and dwindling rations would mean almost certain death, even for the hardiest mountaineers.
Chin does a terrific job delving into the personal stories of each man (himself included, with a level of detachment that ensures it never seems self-conscious) and, in the case of two of the men, unexpected set-backs which almost prevented the trio from trying to climb Meru a second time. With mind-bogglingly comprehensive coverage of the two climb attempts and some impressive B-roll footage, Chin captures both the natural beauty of the mountain and also its terrifyingly bleak primacy over man. Admittedly, however, some CGI snow added to archive photographs feels rather tacky, and some digitally-enhanced shots of the range itself feel jarringly slotted into the real footage.
Crucially, we get some welcome insight into the psychology of climbing, the paradox of doing something so dangerous with such little chance of success and high risk of death or serious injury. Some may argue that it denies the doc true power if we find the subjects too “stupid” to identify with, yet their passion and drive has an infectious quality to it, even if we’re not likely to start climbing giant peaks ourselves. This is their life’s work, and for them, the rewards are self-evident.
With an outstanding trio of subjects and an epic, mythic quality to it, Meru is a fascinatingly dense look at man’s attempt to defeat nature, and while the personal dramas often feel tacked on in documentaries like this, here it feels wholly connected to the central adventure itself.
Meru is available now on Blu-ray and VOD