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Review: MERU

Sundance 2015 winner, Meru, shows some of the most visually striking climbing you will see this year

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Jimmy Chin in MERU. Courtesy of Music Box Films. - PHOTO BY RENAN OZTURK.
  • Photo by Renan Ozturk.
  • Jimmy Chin in MERU. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

 4 stars

In his book, Chancing It: Why We Take Risks, Ralph Keyes offers an explanation of why we do things like climbing mountains, jumping out of planes, and even shoplifting with a pocket full of money: It's about risk and reward. For example, when the light turns yellow and you choose to accelerate instead of stopping, you put yourself in a minor risk situation. Sure, the chances are slim, but you could get hit by another car or pulled over by a police officer. When you drive through the intersection without incident, you get a modest rush of adrenaline and sense of satisfaction for having successfully navigated the risk situation.

When you up the level of competence required to succeed, and the level of consequences if you fail, the payoff increases. A skydiver that navigates through the many steps required in jumping and landing without injury gets a big internal payoff. In other words, we do extreme, difficult and dangerous things – at least in part – because doing them right gets us high.

And, of course, a mountain climber also climbs a mountain because it's there.

Renan Ozturk in MERU. Courtesy of Music Box Films. - PHOTO BY JIMMY CHIN.
  • Photo by Jimmy Chin.
  • Renan Ozturk in MERU. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Meru, directed by the husband and wife team of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, is an excellent documentary about nice guy mountain climbers Chin, Conrad Aker and Renan Ozturk, and their attempts to scale a summit that had never been successfully scaled before.The men film themselves using ultra-light cameras and the visuals are stunning.

Their goal is in the Himalayas, above the Ganges River in Northern India: the Shark's Fin on Mount Meru rises roughly 20,700 feet above sea level and it looks like it's name, sleek and smooth, which makes the climbing tougher. Anker first attempted to scale the Shark's Fin in 2003. In 2008 he returned with Chin and Ozturk. Their planned 7-day trip stretched to 20 as heavy storms left them trapped until they were forced to turn back, despite being only 100 meters short of their goal. They came back three years later to try again.

Jimmy Chin in MERU. Courtesy of Music Box Films. - PHOTO BY RENAN OZTURK.
  • Photo by Renan Ozturk.
  • Jimmy Chin in MERU. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Even with an understanding of the whole risk/reward business, there are points in the film when you have to question whether these guys are crazy or stupid. I mean, Chin was nearly killed in an avalanche just a few months before the group's second attempt, and Ozturk fractured his skull a few days before that – the doctors' initial concern was whether he'd ever walk again.

When is enough? I get that Anker is a never say no kind of guy – his wife Jenny was previously married to his beloved climbing partner, who was killed in an avalanche. Chin seems a bit less driven, but the passing of his mother – who feared he would die before her – seems to have emboldened him. But Ozturk's injury cut the blood flow to his brain in half just five months earlier. How in the world did all three men decide that including him in the return expedition was a wise move?

Meru doesn't explain the climbers. It lets us get to know them a little, while presenting their gripping (sue me – it's the appropriate word) adventures. The film won the Audience Award in the documentary section at this year's Sundance Film Festival. You'll see why.

Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin in MERU. Courtesy of Music Box Films. - PHOTO BY RENAN OZTURK.
  • Photo by Renan Ozturk.
  • Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin in MERU. Courtesy of Music Box Films.

Showing: Keystone Art

Rated: R



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