I’m about three months in to a climbing obsession. Thursday is my night at the bouldering gym, and it’s the part of my week that I find myself most looking forward to. I’ve adjusted my lifting schedule to accommodate an extra rest day on Wednesdays to eke out that extra 10 or 15% effort on the wall. I’ve modified my powerlifting regimen to include more pulling motions. I have a new goal of dropping some excess weight and focusing what muscle I have into my back and arms.
And I hate that my climbing transition is going so slowly. Elbow tendinosis still hits my left arm in a bad way after I’ve ignored technique and instead muscled my way through a route. My shoulders ache every Friday, and into Saturday… and usually Sunday. I’m still working on building the right kind of strength and library of finesse to work my way effortlessly through a problem. Or at least make it look effortless. There’s far too much banging and grunting for that now. Thus far, I’ve banged and grunted my way through a V1+ that my gym bros assure me would be a V3 or V4 anywhere else, but who’s counting?
So I’m not a good climber, or an experienced one, but I was excited to see Meru when a friend sent me a link to the trailer a few weeks ago. I love a vicarious adventure, though I’ve seen only a few films dedicated solely to climbing (Touching the Void and 180° South… and the beginning of Mission: Impossible 2). I finally managed to get ahold of the movie and blew through it last night.
I’ll say first that I thought it was a beautiful film set in a particularly beautiful bit of the Indian Himalayas. The wide angle shots of the Shark’s Fin, using what looked like layered 2.5D effects on photos, were particularly awe-inspiring even though the human eye will never see them in that particular way. It was used repeatedly throughout the film and I felt different about it seemingly every time it came on screen. At first, with the mountain moonlit, it seems an unconquerable beast. Against a canvas of stars, it seems a tiny problem in a sea of much larger trouble. Later, it’s a sleeping giant, waiting to wake again.
The typical jankiness of filming thousands of feet in the air while roped to an ice and rock wall was minimal, and many of the shots used gave a fantastic perspective of the angles and heights involved, both of which were vertigo-inducing. The shots from outside of the portaledge were a real “high”-light. Hah.
The film is interspersed with interviews and clips that allow the viewer to better get to know each climber – namely veteran Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk. Jimmy Chin had me the most impressed, and if I were more familiar with the sport, I have no doubt he’d be one of my heroes. A long-time contributor to National Geographic and Outside Magazines, Jimmy is sponsored by The North Face and pulls triple-duty here as co-star, co-director, and cinematographer. His Asian-American immigrant heritage is another drawing point for me, as his clashes with his family over his life decisions are fairly relatable.
Conrad gave me a sketchy vibe throughout the film and while never explicit, the film implies that his motivations for the Meru expedition had a lot to do with his deceased climbing partner/mentor’s passion for that particular route. I suppose that’s not an outright criticism, but it gives me some pause. Maybe I’ve yet to have such a close relationship with someone that it’s become important to me to accomplish something on their behalf. Maybe that’s a trait that’s reserved to the elite of the elite. Maybe I’m just not wired that way. Later, the film tells us that after the death of another of his partners, he marries his partner’s widow and adopts his children. Tragedy must play a role in these sorts of things.
And then there’s Renan. Goddamn, man. I’ll let the movie do its thing telling this story. I found myself waffling between thinking he’s a complete idiot and being overwhelmingly inspired by his journey. One thing I’d like to have seen more of is footage of him and particularly his personality from before as much of this is told secondhand through his girlfriend and climbing partners. Before what, you say? Fuck off, go watch the movie. It’s incredible what a defined goal and heaps of hard work and effort can do for a man.
Wordsmith and adventurer Jon Krakauer, of Into Thin Air and Into the Wild fame, is amongst the interviewees and I think it was a brilliant idea to include him in the film. Climbing is a technical sport with a long and storied history, but these aspects can make it inaccessible to the casual viewer. The climbers go so far as to call placing gear an intersection of tradecraft and art. Jon, in his own sublime way, moves deftly through the lingo and translates these facets of climbing into digestible pieces as well as providing some of his own perspective into the mindsets of the people willing to risk life and limb in pursuit of their goals.
I won’t spoil the ending. Wikipedia can do that for you if that’s what you need. There’s a wonderful contrast between their first and second attempts however, and it makes for a spectacular pay off. I’m left wondering how much of that is down to the editing. How many smiles from their first attempt were removed? Their second attempt has a huge moment of doubt and the adventurers talk about a long conversation that went un-filmed or ended up on the cutting room floor.
I’ve yet to watch Everest, but I’ve read Into Thin Air and trust Krakauer’s assessment that there’s some bullshit. I’ll get around to it when I have the time. On the list of things I’ll never do, there’s what these guys did. It’s early for me yet, but these big expeditions up mountains seem pretty out of reach for a guy who’s hoping for yet another transition to trad climbing sometime late next year. But as we wind down this season, I wholeheartedly recommend everyone check out Meru … and maybe hitting up your local climbing gym as well.