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New film ‘Meru’ explores climbing and the human experience of epic adventure

Broken dream, broken backs, and friendships that are tested on the high peaks of the Himalayas: That's the heart of Meru, a climbing film that’s about much more that just the sport. It just won this year's Audience Choice award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Renowned mountaineers Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk first attempted to climb Meru, a 21,000-foot mountain at the headwaters of the Ganges, in 2008, but they turned back 100 feet from the summit. Chin vowed never to go back, but three years later they tried it again. The film is about their attempts, the power a mountain can hold over you, and why climbers feel the need to keep going back. "As an alpinist, Meru is the culmination of everything I've ever done," Anker says in the trailer.

According to the filmmakers, Meru is the antithesis of Everest, which has earned a reputation as a mountain where the super wealthy can basically pay to be dragged to the top by Sherpas. Meru, on the other hand, is remote, tough, and takes a wide range of technical skills to climb — from ice climbing to living at high altitude. There are no Sherpas, and no base camp.

"In the high-stakes game of big-wall climbing, the Shark's Fin on Mt. Meru may be the ultimate prize. Sitting at the headwaters of the sacred Ganges River in northern India, the Shark's Fin has seen more failed attempts by elite climbing teams over the past 30 years than any other ascent in the Himalayas," they say.

According to Hindus, the mountain’s the center of the universe, and it had never been climbed before. It’s a powerful place. Over the course of the movie you see why it holds so much spiritual significance, why its technical face and grueling approach make it such a mountaineering challenge, and why it haunts the climbers. The crux of the movie is whether or not they’ll summit on their second attempt — and if their first ascent is worth it.

On the side of Meru. Photo: Jimmy Chin
On the side of Meru; photo courtesy Jimmy Chin

The film was produced by Chin (who, along with Ozturk, is part of the Camp Four Collective of filmmakers) and his wife, filmmaker Chai Vasarhelyi. The climbers shot all the footage of themselves on the mountain, and the film feels personal and honest.

Chin says they tried really hard to make the film about more than just the climb. It's about the struggles the team faced (Ozturk broke his back in an avalanche between the climbs), how the climb impacted their families and the people who love them, and why they needed to go back to Meru. Ultimately it's a film about friendship, and mentorship, and how you have to trust the people you're with in the mountains. He said that the people who seemed to respond to the film the most when they screened it at Sundance were 50- to 70-year-old women, not young and adrenaline-fueled climbers.

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