This might be the question asked most often of those predisposed to standing on top of very tall mountains. The most famous response to this timeless inquiry is, of course, Everest pioneer George Mallory’s somewhat contested and undeniably simple, “Because it’s there.”
For contemporary mountaineers Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk, the answer is a lot more complicated, especially when coupled with, “Is it worth it?” Both ruminations weave through the spectacular new documentary Meru, an adventure storytelling masterpiece that rightfully snagged the Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The narrative begins in 2008, when the trio set out to gnash their way up a first ascent of the notoriously difficult Shark’s Fin route on Mount Meru, a Himalayan behemoth that’s bested the most storied climbers in the world. Buried under a relentless storm, the team is eventually forced to turn back a heartbreaking 300-plus feet from the summit, a heavy disappointment that left all three questioning their motivations and whether they’d ever consider another opportunity to swing their ice axes up the infamous route.
After initially swearing off any chance of return, one by one, the climbers acknowledged their mutual obsession and decided to rack up for another attempt. However, before they had the chance to sink crampons into ice, the team was quickly dealt a series of crushing blows, and two of the men came nearly nose-to-nose with death. “Why?” became a very personal question.
Most people who don’t spend time inside the rock-strewn, snowbound belly of the beast won’t completely understand why they ultimately chose to go back to Meru on the heels of near-tragedy – and why they don’t turn around when things get dicey up high. It seems an almost supernatural compulsion, and it’s fascinating to watch each climber come to terms with the very real dangers and potential cost of victory during their journey.
While the Shark’s Fin climb – and the team’s stunning cinematography (both Chin and Ozturk took star turns behind the camera) – certainly vie for attention, it’s the deeper story of friendship, risk, and reward that grounds Meru. The exquisite natural beauty and exploration of emotional depth transform this from a niche climbing film into something more universal, a meditation on the unbreakable bonds formed in the mountains – and with the mountains themselves.
Photo: Renan Ozturk in MERU. Courtesy of Music Box Films. Photo by Jimmy Chin.