In the new feature documentary Meru, the 2015 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award-winning film in theaters August 14, climbers Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk share the story of making the coveted first ascent of the Shark’s Fin route on Mount Meru. The 21,000-foot peak in northern India, considered the center of the universe in Hindu cosmology, had seen more failed attempts by elite climbing teams over the past 30 years than any other Himalayan peak. Indeed this team, led by Anker, attempted the peak in 2008 before capturing the ascent in 2011 (Anker had attempted it once prior as well). The film pushes beyond the physical risks of the climb, which were many, to get the alpinists themselves to speak openly about the very personal losses and challenges they experienced over the years before making the summit.
So far each of the Meru screenings has seen cheers, tears, and standing ovations from the audience. The cinematography alone is an impressive feat—the three climbers did all their own shooting, while distance shots were captured by their 2011 base camp manager. There were no recreations.
Here Chin tells us about finally finishing the film after seven years and the role his talented co-director wife, Chai Vasarhelyi, played in transforming this tale of elite alpinism into a deeply personal story of friendship, loyalty, and life on the edge.
Adventure: What aspects of the film have resonated the most with film festival audiences?
Jimmy Chin: From the responses so far, I think people expected to see a climbing film and are walking away feeling moved by the characters’ stories and the universal themes of friendship and loyalty.
A: Can you put Meru as a climb into context with the Dawn Wall climb that just captured the attention of the world? How are the climbs different and similar?
JC: The Dawn Wall climb was similar to Meru in the sense that it was a big-wall climb. The Dawn Wall was different from Meru because Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson were free-climbing where you use only your hands and feet to climb. On Meru, we were free climbing, but also aid climbing where we used gear to help us move upward. I’m still blown away at the level of free climbing Tommy and Kevin were climbing at on the Dawn Wall. It was fairly futuristic in the free-climbing world. The challenge of Meru was we were big-wall climbing at 20,000 feet in the Himalayas and temps were probably a bit colder. You could say it was like climbing El Cap on Denali.
A: In the film, you, Conrad, and Renan all go deep into your experiences at the edge of risk and what that does to your relationships. Was it hard to share such personal feelings and emotions, particularly as climbers are stereotyped being stoic and even a little cold?
JC: It was easier to share and be objective about Renan and Conrad’s stories, but sharing my own personal story was much more difficult. In previous edits, I was a lot less present in the film. Having Chai, my wife and an incredible filmmaker, come on board really changed the dynamic of the film. It’s been an incredible collaboration. She has brought so much to the table and really showed me where the bar was set in this space. It was very clear to her what aspects of each of our stories would play well together and what aspects of each character was important to bring out. She did an amazing job at balancing all of these elements and weaving them together in a way that really elevated the narrative.
A: The trust and friendship you three share was incredible to see. Did Meru essentially give you those bonds? Will they last a lifetime?
JC: Conrad and I had been on multiple expeditions since 2001. We’d suffered and starved through some tough trips together and were already very close. I didn’t really know Renan very well when we first left for Meru in 2008. He was a natural fit for the team, and after surviving such an epic climb and having that shared experience together, we became very close. And yes, these are friendships that will last a lifetime.
A: I felt like the portaledge was sort of like 4th character. That was were you all felt safe and could joke around about life up high. Was it sort of a safe zone?
JC: Once the portaledge is built, well anchored, and we are all inside in our sleeping bags, it was a sort of safe zone. We were closed off to the elements and were able to eat and drink some tea, etc. The moments before we went to sleep on some of the calm nights, hanging out, and looking over the Himalayas through open doors, will be forever etched in my memory. It was truly unforgettable.
A: When did you decide to turn the camera on yourself while shooting?
JC: I like being behind the camera. I’ve been hiding behind it for years. Having Renan come on board in 2008 and subsequently afterwards, there was someone to point the camera at me. We often traded cameras and shot each other. I know if we each had it our way, we would both want to shoot more than we want to be the subjects.
A: You said the rules of shooting on an expedition are 1) shoot as much as possible; 2) don’t put the climb at risk by shooting; 3) don’t drop the camera. What tips can you give us for all three of these?
JC: For number 1, well you have to be selective for starters since you don’t have unlimited power or storage up there. So saying you should shoot as much as possible, doesn’t mean shooting all the time and whenever you wanted. We still had to be careful about using too much battery power especially down low. There were other factors that are the true limiting factors … like climbing, belaying, stacking ropes, organizing gear, melting water, etc that kept us pretty busy.
For number 2, we didn’t have the luxury of setting up shots or re-leading pitches for the camera. Everything had to be shot on the fly, and we never wanted to slow down the climb in order to shoot. I’ve been on plenty of higher production expeditions shoot where the tail wags the dog. This was the antithesis of that kind of expedition.
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And for number 3, we have tie-in points and cordage that have carabiners attached to them so we could clip them off for back up. Not dropping the cards when you were switching them out was the real trick. Definitely a gloves-off activity.
A: Jon Krakauer puts this climb into context throughout the film like only Krakauer can. He immortalized and perhaps fueled the Everest mess with Into Thin Air and is very picky about his projects. Why did he want to be involved with Meru?
JC: We kind of tricked him into it by telling him we just needed to do a quick interview one day about a few things, and he obliged. Once we had him, he kindly put up with multiple interviews over a couple years. He was great. He is also very close to Conrad, and I’ve hung out quite a bit with him in Nepal and on surfing trips to Mexico. So, in the end, he was just a good friend helping us out. I can’t begin to express my gratitude for his time and interest. He was such an incredible addition to the film, and I think he’s genuinely happy about the film. In a way, you do realize part way through the film, he is not just a narrator but more of a character in the film.
A: You and your wife share a co-director credit. Some couples would cringe at the thought. What was it like to work together?
JC: Having two directors in a marriage can be tough for sure. We’ve definitely had some serious creative battles around the film, and it hasn’t been easy. But was it worth it? Absolutely. I have so much respect for her approach, her thinking and capacity to really tell a story well. Now that the film is done, I can see what an amazing collaboration it has been. We both brought some very different strengths and perspectives to the film. She had a very clear idea of where she wanted to take the story and the film, and I didn’t have that clarity. She is also surgical about the editing. We worked with Bob Eisenhardt, one of the great doc editors today. He was amazing and I learned a ton from him as well. In the end, I don’t know if we would have gotten through the hardships to make the film what it is if we hadn’t been married!
A: You are now a dad. Is there something big on your list that you still need to do? Or is the need satisfied?
JC: I think being a good dad is on the list of things to do. But, I will always ski, climb, surf, and be out in the mountains and oceans. It’s who I am. My goal is to just keep doing it all and enjoying it. If a big objective captures my imagination, I’m sure I would be up to go check it out.