Climber, artist, and filmmaker Renan Ozturk has been held at knifepoint in the deserts of Chad, sustained a traumatic head injury while backcountry skiing in the Tetons, and suffered through hallucinations on Himalayan big walls. Through it all, the cameras have been rolling.
Over the course of the last two years, the 32-year-old’s athleticism, creativity, and storytelling have come together in accessible, inspirational tales consumed by hundreds of thousands of people online.
“The creativity and climbing go hand in hand,” says Ozturk, who calls Boulder, Colorado, home. “I developed them side by side. When I’m part of a team, I always pay attention to how much energy I’m putting into the creativity versus the brass tacks, the things in the mountains that could kill you.”
After graduating from Colorado College, Ozturk jettisoned most of his worldly possessions and decided to make his home in the deserts around Moab, Utah. His art flourished in pencil sketchbooks and then grew into large canvases laid out across the desert. Those visions became Internet videos from burly Himalayan and South American climbs. Ozturk preferred to shoot, edit, and publish the videos live, during the expedition. The stories he tells require only a lightweight, bare-bones team.
With his latest and most ambitious project, Meru, Ozturk has gone one step further—a feature-length documentary following Ozturk, Jimmy Chin, and Conrad Anker’s much heralded 2011 return to and first ascent of the Shark’s Fin on Meru in the Indian Himalaya. The climb itself required living on the wall for 12 days in temperatures that hovered around minus 20ºF. Ozturk was still recovering from cranial and spinal fractures sustained in a near-lethal skiing accident in Wyoming’s Tetons almost six months earlier.
“This climb nearly killed us,” says the soft-spoken Ozturk. “Making the film [was] even harder. Meru is the mountain that keeps on giving.”
Upon returning home, Ozturk realized he was sitting on the story of a lifetime and went to work. A feature-length film required collaborators, countless hours of editing, and a near-obsessive persistence to root out the deeper ideas behind the climb the three men consider to be their greatest climbing accomplishment. With themes of mentorship, obsession, and passion, the film is poised to reach a larger audience. Ozturk hopes to premiere it at the Sundance Film Festival.
Ozturk topped off 2012 with the first successful completion of the Tooth Traverse, a five-mile-long enchainment of peaks in Alaska’s Ruth Gorge, and traveling to Nepal’s Khumbu region to work on a time-lapse photography and art project with Sherpa Cinema. In late October, Ozturk went to Oman on a story with The North Face for National Geographic magazine.
“It was a big year with some very personal goals,” says Ozturk of the Tooth Traverse and Meru, which both required several attempts over the last few years. “I now feel a lot more free to explore other things.”
Adventure: You just returned from Nepal’s Khumbu region on a creative mission. What were you up to?
Renan Ozturk: Nepal is my favorite place. I lived there for a year in college and learned the language. This was a creative vision quest. We went to do time lapses, but the monsoons meant that we couldn’t see the mountains, so we went deep into the culture. We spent some time with Carma Tsering, an 80-year-old monk. He was so happy working with us. The Khumbu is one of the most documented parts of the Himalaya. I hope we came away with something unique. I was leveraging all the years I’ve spent there [and] my knowledge of the language.
A: Is that unflinching instinct to keep the camera rolling important?
RO: Even when I had my head injury I was asking Jimmy Chin [who was also on the trip] to point the camera at me. It’s so easy to not point the camera when it gets tough. It’s tough when someone might die, and in cultural situations, but they understand. If you have a pure heart, if your intentions are right, they understand. To be dedicated to storytelling you have to push that boundary. It’s hard to do it respectfully, but you have to try.
A: What do you look for in your stories?
RO: Good characters. Some sort of conflict. A narrative arc. It’s good to go in with a single sentence to describe the story and work toward that. The bare essence though is that adventure is unscripted. You have to keep your eyes and ears open to find the moments.
A: Do you always see the climbing and the creativity going hand in hand?
RO: I do see myself wanting to separate the climbing and the creativity, especially to explore filmmaking a little more. There is this Hollywood climbing horror film that they want me to be the director of photography for. It will be physically demanding, but it would definitely mean giving up climbing for a little bit.
A: You returned to Meru before you were fully recovered from your nearly deadly accident. You’ve been working almost nonstop. Your passion for your pursuits seems singular and consuming. Is that the case?
RO: You have to ask yourself, How do you draw the line between obsession and passion? You have to ask yourself, What am I willing to sacrifice? With Meru, I think I was obsessed. I pretty much sacrificed my relationship. I could have sacrificed my life. You have to have that conversation with yourself.