This is not National Geographic. Don’t get me wrong, I love National Geographic, but this isn’t a nature doc. Meru aims to be bigger than its titular mountain. It’s about about what drives some of us, the very few, to pursue seemingly insurmountable, life-threatening feats in the shadow of greatness.
If you’re not a climber, you may never really understand why mountaineers like Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, and Renan Ozturk do what they do. Like many extreme sports, mountaineering seems like it’s a club with an inscrutable ethos that you can’t even touch if you’re not part of it.
Even if I can relate to Chin’s upbringing as a first generation Chinese-American–particularly his early rebelliousness and eschewing of traditionally-held Asian American models for success to pursue his passion–it’s in his desire to climb where we diverge. Or so I’d like to think. Unlike me, Chin was that rare kind of guy who was always very good, if not the best, at everything he ever did. Climbing is just what he decided to do.
Chin is also a world class photographer and cinematographer. Along with Ozturk, they have given Meru a lavish supply of incredible images, many of which have never been seen before by anyone. When you consider how difficult this climb was–something the doc does very well–and take into account the added difficulty of shooting it at the same time, the accomplishment is staggering.
In the U.S., we still venerate greatness, though perhaps just short of celebrity. Still, to be so close to it, and not push oneself to fulfill it, is a failing here. It may be harder then to understand not pursuing one’s greatness, whether real or perceived, than to try and climb a seemingly insurmountable peak. At least, that’s how I rationalize Chin, Anker, and Ozturk’s motivations having never been great at anything. So few of us will ever be so close to it as they have. How could they not make this climb?
It should not be overlooked, however, that these men are no thrill seekers. There was never any bravado. It was too cold. The whole thing seemed far less like conquering Meru as trying to make peace with it; each climber haunted by his own spectre of death. Ozturk severed his spine in a fall while on assignment with Chin just months before their second attempt on Meru. Chin, days later, was engulfed by an avalanche, but somehow survived without a scratch. Anker lost his best friend in an avalanche years before. These are men at the peak of their craft, making calculated risks every step of the way, while overcoming very personal challenges.
Today, Everest, a docudrama based on a tragic 1996 campaign to scale the titular peak will release in limited theaters. It’s not exactly fair to Meru to say the films are in competition, but Meru is also getting its widest nationwide theatrical release since premiering August 14.
If Everest is even a halfway decent movie, it may overshadow the accomplishments of Meru. But that’s not something Chin and his ilk aren’t accustomed to. There is little notoriety to be had for these men outside of the climbing world, despite their unprecedented feats. Climbing is no path to fame and fortune.
NBA champions get a parade. Chin, Anker, and Ozturk will have to settle for a view no one else had ever seen before. Is that enough to justify the climb? I’ll never know, but being able to see the very real process in Meru, pinned against scenes of their relatively ordinary lives on the ground, makes it all the more fascinating.