Mountain climbers, the real-deal ones, the ones who fearlessly risk life and limb to conquer peaks, arouse a natural human curiosity about how they can be so undaunted. Besides being mortal and being 60 percent water, these people’s programming seems to have absolutely no relation to how us normal folks function. You don’t know if they’re enlightened beings who have found something ethereal above the pettiness of people down below, or if they’re neanderthals who have no civilizational restraints. Meru, a documentary now showing at Cornell Cinema on Thursday and Saturday, chronicles a group of these climbers. Specifically, Meru focuses on Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk as they try to hike the “Shark’s Fin” route of Meru, a peak in the Indian Himalayas. The “Fin” has never successfully been climbed before, making it the white whale for this climbing community.
It is unclear why these guys do what they do. The documentary never really answers it beyond the cameraman asking Chin “Why he does it?” to which he evasively answers “the views from the peak.” Of course, there are times where there is no view because of a massive blizzard, or times when the view during the climb is the same as the view from the peak. But it is better off that these men leave the nature of their obsession unsaid. They probably themselves could not elaborate it. How could they possibly rationalize it, when everything on paper says they shouldn’t?
The highlights of this documentary are the visuals. The camera is with the climbers the entire way through, and captures the simultaneous intense beauty and danger around Anker, Shin, and Ozturk. And this isn’t some handheld camcorder stuff: the camera reveals everything with remarkable precision and scope. It’s as if you are watching a visually grand and gorgeous movie with the narrative frame of a documentary. As I watched it, I wondered how one person, let alone a film crew that presumably would be needed to get the footage they were getting, could possibly physically be accompanying the climbers. It only makes sense when you find out in the credits that Shin is one of the directors, along with his wife (an ethical issue I had with the film that I’ll address later). I almost felt a sense of gratitude to Chin for making this movie: I saw the view through virtual reality and now I don’t have to risk dying in order to see what they did.
While these men are certainly worthy of admiration for their skill and commitment to something so cool, I found the ethics of what they do problematic. Anker has a wife and kids, and Ozturk, a devoted fiancee. To risk their lives as they do because of their own obsession appeared to me as selfish. It would have been interesting if the documentary had acknowledged that and explored it. The climbers’ loved ones could have explained how they understand and come to terms with their husbands’ thought processes.
Instead we are told continually by the climbers that they exercise severe risk management and are completely trustworthy to climb with (the film takes these claims at face value). Yet we are shown cases where even a climbing ignoramus like me can tell they are being reckless. After their first failed attempt, Ozturk goes into a coma and almost becomes a paraplegic after getting into a snowboarding accident. Yet he insists on joining the second attempted ascent of Meru (it is already questionable that Anker and Chin let him come in the first place). During the second ascent, Ozturk is unable to speak and almost has a stroke. But the climbers decide they should make a summit push anyway. This is where the problems with Shin being the director come into play. Instead of either being a nonjudgmental piece of filmmaking, or a movie trying to understand these guys’ cavalier attitudes, its belief that these men exercise judgment when they clearly don’t makes the film come off as a piece of apologia.
Although the tenuous ethical premise is not up to snuff in this film, everything else is. The views are splendid. Watching people so good at what they do practicing their craft is, itself thrilling. Even though the movie doesn’t explain why these men love climbing so much, you get it. They’re alive in a way none of us are.
Jesse Weissman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].