Climbing Film ‘Meru’ Wins Audience Choice at Sundance

Last night Meru, the new film sharing the story of Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk’s quest for one of alpinism’s great prizes, won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival.

Mount Meru is located in the Indian Himalaya at the sacred headwaters of the Ganges. The 21,000-foot peak, considered to be the center of the universe in Hindu cosmology, had denied more elite climbers over past 30 years than any other Himalayan peak. Anker, Chin, and Ozturk attempted it in October 2008 and then again in September 2011 to claim the first ascent.

The film’s incredible imagery shows daily life in the vertical realm—captured by the three climbers themselves and one base camp manager. Meru skillfully translates the human drama of a life in the mountains for a mainstream audience, whose exposure to climbing might span only as far as the 2014 Everest avalanche tragedy that killed 16 Nepali mountain workers and the world of Krakauer’s bestselling book Into Thin Air, which will be released as a Hollywood film in the fall of 2015. The film strikes such a personal chord with viewers because it dives deep under the surface of the relationships of Anker, Chin, Ozturk, and the trust that kept them alive on the complex alpine route involving hauling 200 pounds of gear—themselves, with no help—up 4,000 feet of mountaineering, ice climbing, and mixed climbing just to reach the crux, the 1,500-foot Shark’s Fin. And that’s just the external challenge.

The climbers also share their internal challenges, sacrifices, and tragedies. Between the 2008 and 2011 Meru expeditions, Ozturk nearly died in while skiing in the Tetons during a shoot. He pushed his recovery to return to Meru less than six months later. Just four days after Ozturk’s accident, Chin was swept 2,000+ feet in an avalanche in the Tetons. He survived, but his sense of judgement and purpose were rocked by both experiences. And finally Anker, best known for finding the body of George Mallory on Everest, shares the deeply personal story of losing his friend and climbing partner, Alex Lowe, in a massive slab avalanche on Shishapangma, and how his life changed after that.

Propelled by an excellent score and unflinching commentary from Krakauer, this film goes deep into a world of alpinism that is austere and alien to most people and breaks it down to celebrate the struggles and triumphs of the human spirit.

Chin and accomplished filmmaker Elizabeth Chi Vasarhelyi are co-directors of the film and partners in life. Vasarhelyi’s skill is felt in the raw honesty and accessibility of the studio interviews with the climbers. They have a daughter, Marina, who is thanked in the credits. (Read an interview with Chin on making the film.)

Here Ozturk tells us about his experiences on Meru, friendship and spirituality in the mountains, and his new Sanctity of Space film project.

Adventure: What has the Sundance crowd appreciated about the movie?

Renan Ozturk: It’s been so cool to see how each crowd has really diverse reactions to the film. The questions that come in during the question-and-answer sessions spanned all the themes we were trying to communicate—friendship, mentorship, and pushing the boundaries of the human spirit. Surprising in some ways, but a lot of women in their 50s, 60s, and 70s respond really deeply to the film and end up hanging around after to ask more questions, which is really cool and a break away from the traditional “adventure festival” response. The standing ovations definitely made us all feel pretty lucky and grateful to be here.

A: We saw in the film how after college you became a nomadic rock climber to climb and do art in the desert. Is you cinematography an extension of the pencils and paint you used to use?

RO: Yes, for sure, the art has transformed from painting to film, but also continues to evolve. Cinematography just became a more robust form of storytelling, and able to reach more people than landscape art. And in a more complex way, working with a bigger team of creative people. What I really love is the cinematography technology also continues to evolve almost daily, and so the mediums for storytelling are always changing. It’s like having an ever-growing palate of colors to work with, in film.

A: Did you feel a heighten sense of spirituality around Mount Meru, considered the center of the universe in Hindu cosmology?

RO: Although I’m not religious, I really tend to absorb the cultural elements of the places I climb in, including the spirituality and rituals of the locals. Spirituality for me is feeling connected, and so that happens quite intimately with the forces of nature while alpine climbing—but also with these incredible mountain communities. I certainly felt a heightened sense during the actual climb, and I think that’s why people are drawn to climbing … it takes your mind and body to a very alive and pure place.

A: Were there more pilgrims and monks drawn to Meru than other mountains?

RO: It’s one of the only places where there are actual Sadus on pilgrimages who are living as high as base camp. A silent baba had been living there for many years without speaking in a rock cave at 14,000 feet. Relative to other sacred mountainous regions I have been to, Meru certainly has more culture higher in the mountains than any other place. It’s only comparable to the Khumbu in Nepal, from my experience.

A: After barely surviving your ski accident in the Tetons, how were you confident that you were ready for Meru just five months later?

RO: I wasn’t confident, and neither were a lot of members of the climbing community about my ability to perform, given my injuries. But Jimmy trusted in me, and was able to inspire confidence in Conrad for my position on the team. It was their confidence in me that made the difference, not my own. I was terrified in a lot of ways, but driven more than I have ever been driven before.

A: How did your family deal with your decision to go?

RO: They were scared for me sure, but they also know that climbing and adventure was an important part of my life. They knew I had to go for it. I hope I never hurt them with my decisions, but you have to pursue your passion. My parents and my loved ones have always been pretty supportive, but likely they don’t exactly know what I get into out there. Maybe for the better?

A: How do you gauge risks that you are willing or not willing to take now?

RO: Each situation is different, there’s no golden rule. Depending on how my body is doing and how well trained I am, I have to always be honest with myself. The mountains force us to be honest with ourselves about where we are physically and mentally, and what terrain we are in. Overstepping the boundaries too often is when we get hurt. From experience, when I’m feeling strong and aware, I can take more risks and push a little closer to the edge. When the conditions are beyond my physical ability in that moment, I have to be smart enough to know when to turn around.

A: Clearly you, Anker, and Chin have an incredible bond of friendship and trust. Does that last after the expedition? For a lifetime?

RO: The Meru experience we shared will certainly be one of those wild ones that we can all look at each other across the room and smile about at any moment. The bond that’s created during challenging expeditions transcends any of the typical notions of “lifelong friendship” in a way. It’s different. It’s a deep knowing of an experience shared, where we kept each other alive and together achieved something rare and beautiful. Jimmy also first-responded on me during my accident, and we are bonded through that as well. Just like any relationship in our lives though, lifelong friendships are the result of continued experiences and trust building. An expedition isn’t permanent superglue for friendship, we always have to build them. I’m forever grateful and appreciative of Jimmy and Conrad.

A: Do you still have issues at altitude sometimes, like what happened on Meru?

RO: Not necessarily any serious stroke-like experiences since Meru. I have a had a full neurological work-up done over the last few years and my brain has apparently revascularized as good as one could hope. I still like to claim I have a serious and current Traumatic Brain Injury to get away with murder at home, but it’s medically up for debate. Lucky, I am grateful for how well things have healed. I do take extra precautions these days at altitude, knowing that some of it’s still a mystery.

A: How would you compare Meru to the Dawn Wall route on El Cap in Yosemite, for people who are not climbers?

RO: Both of these ascents are “anti-Everest” type of climbs, considering that every inch of climbing is technically difficult and self-supported, unlike Everest where the common route is a walk up with teams of Sherpa/Nepali support. The main difference between Meru and the Dawn Wall is that Meru is alpine climbing, taking place between 14,000 and 20,000 in -20 degree extreme weather. The Dawn Wall is a harder grade free climb (no aiding equipment) and took place during a cool dry Yosemite winter.

A: What was the high and low, personally, on the second attempt?

RO: Undoubtably, the summit was the literal high, emotionally and physically. The low point was during my mini-stroke, feeling the imminent weight of potentially being responsible for another failure.

A: Explain that condition that afflicted your fingers and toes on the climb. Ouch.

RO: Hmm… If I were to coin a term, I’d say “extreme trench bite nip,” the most frost bite you can get without actually going to full black tissue damage, while also having your feet soaking wet and rotting (trench foot). Fun times.

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A: How does it feel to have your personal story unfolded for the masses? Especially as you have a very public relationship with your girlfriend, Taylor?

RO: It is a little strange, since it might be confusing to people who know me now. The film takes place four-to-six years ago when I was in a very different relationship. In some ways the film doesn’t go too deep into that aspect of my life with Amee, so I don’t feel too vulnerable. Taylor felt uncomfortable at first knowing a story of me in a past relationship would be seen by potentially millions of people, but she’s been incredibly supportive of me and of the story overall. Taylor and I have told a number of stories together publicly on social media (like the recent @natgeo @thenorthface #myanmarclimb expedition), so things are understood by those close to us. It does feel vulnerable for me to expose how driven I was at the time, and the way I hurt those I loved for Meru.

A: How did Meru, as a mountain to climb, compare to your recent Nat Geo expedition to Myanmar’s Hkakabo Razi

RO: Meru is much more technical and sustained on the mountain itself, but the logistical approach in the jungle on Hkakabo Razi took something out of us in a different way that was a comparable level of suffering and fear of the unknown. Hkakabo was also a team of five climbers on the mountain instead of three, which made things even more complicated on top of the exhaustion and unknown. I’d say both are up there as the two most intense and challenging expeditions of my life.

A: What’s going on with your Bradford Washburn project?

RO: Writer Freddie Wilkinson and I have actually been cranking on this the last few months after I got back from Myanmar. All the pieces are in place and the edit is underway. It’s funny that this film is like Meru in terms of how much we are putting into it as a long form documentary, and that it all took place during the same time in my life surrounding the accident. Yet our film Sanctity of SpaceSanctity of Space has become so much more of a story about the joy of mountaineering, not just the suffering.

A: What’s the status of  the Everest film you worked on last season presenting the Sherpa perspective?

RO: I am really excited about how the film Sherpa turned out. The director Jennifer Peadom was incredible to work with, and her team has made something really special that should be premiering this Spring before the next Everest season with a potential theatrical release. The Everest avalanche forced us to reexamine and adapt the narrative we first set out to tell, but it gave us an opportunity to shift the focus right to the very roots of the Sherpa point of view in a way we never could have imagined.

A: You go to Nepal soon. Will you go back to Everest?

RO: Not Everest this time around. I head to Nepal in a week with Conrad and other friends, looking for something beautiful, and obscure. Stay tuned!

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