Mountain climbing documentaries are straight up and down. The objectives are clear, the risks known, and the complications inevitable. Yet there's reason for the genre's cult appeal: It's the everything-yet-nothing mythology of struggle, kitted out in the very latest from the North Face. It's a simple, repeated plan—reach the top—fraught with a kaleidoscope of emotional scarring and altitude-depressed thinking.
Meru shares much with its hyperbolic brethren: Its climbers are casual badasses, and their foe, the peak they wish to worship and conquer, is undefeated. The "shark's fin" of Meru is part of the Gharwal Himalayan region in Northern India, is more than 20,000 feet high, and is a route so complex that it demands expertise in every subgenre of climbing technique. Team leader Conrad Anker is famous for his discovery of the 75-year-old remains of an English mountaineer on Mt. Everest, and is joined by pro-climber/director/photographer/People magazine-voted most eligible bachelor Jimmy Chin. Rounding out the cast is relative newcomer Renan Ozturk, a soft-spoken painter and climbing prodigy.
Chin and Ozturk are professional cinematographers and did their own filming—in addition to fielding crises like a portaledge detachment and a probable stroke. Thanks to the intimacy of the crew, both climbing and filmmaking, Meru distills the journey with very little clutter. There are no rogue Sherpas or loose-cannon egos to add a feeling of manufactured drama. Instead, the magnitude and terror of the ice and solitude are rendered crystalline, a Spartanism that co-directors Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi manage to carry into the inter-splicing interviews and between-climb footage.
It's no accident that Meru eschews the typical handwringing over what drives climbers to hazard so much, and its capture of the risk-calculation involved actually illuminates the psychology of climbing far better than most. For those who choose the vocation, it's simply straight up and down.