‘Meru’: A breathtaking trip straight up a mountain

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When you get a climber’s eye view of “The Shark’s Fin” jutting skyward at the very top of the 21,000-foot Meru Peak in the Himalayas, you feel a rock sinking in your stomach, even though you’re ensconced in your comfortable chair, a world away from the madness of attempting to scale this natural and utterly forbidding wonder.

To the amateur’s eye, climbing Everest almost seems like a walk in the woods compared to ascending this mountain, which existed for thousands and thousands of years without a single human ever reaching the top.

Hyperbole, of course. More than a hundred bodies are scattered about Mt. Everest, which is higher and better known than Meru Peak. But as an observer points out in this breathtaking and spectacular documentary, at least when you attempt to climb Everest, there are sherpas who will carry the bulk of your equipment and assume the first risk.

Not so with Meru Peak. With this one, you’re on your own.

This is a nomination-worthy piece of filmmaking, co-directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the latter one of the three men who used GoPro cameras to chronicle their attempts to scale Meru. (There’s no way on God’s Earth any film crew would be able to accompany these maniacs on this journey.)

The photography, including some gorgeous long shots presumably shot with more sophisticated equipment, is remarkable. This is one of the most beautiful and one of the most frightening movies of any kind this year.

Front and center in the story is one Conrad Anker, one of the most famous climbers in the world for many a year. (It was Anker who discovered the body of George Mallory on Everest some 75 years after Mallory disappeared.) A commanding, charismatic presence, Anker is something of a legend in the climbing community — but along with his myriad triumphs, he has lost two friends to dangerous expeditions, and there’s a soap opera element to his personal life which we’ll leave to the film to explain.

Anker is obsessed with scaling Meru, all the way to the top of the Shark’s Fin, a 1,500-foot vertical wall as smooth as glass and seemingly impossible to conquer. His teammates: Jimmy Chin, a remarkably talented climber with a compelling backstory of his own, and Renan Ozturk, a gifted but relatively inexperienced hand.

Their first attempt to scale Meru is fraught with setbacks, but it appears the trio will be the first to make it to the top — until certain realities kick in and they have to give up, even though the tip of the Shark’s Fin is literally within sight.

If “Meru” had ended there it still would have been a remarkable story, but even after two of the three climbers suffer serious setbacks, they reunite for a SECOND attempt to make history.

Why? One of them says, “For the view.” There’s a lot of talk about the mindset of the climber, and the quest to achieve greatness, but the one small area where “Meru” falls short is in not fully addressing the selfishness and the ego of the climber. When you’re married with children, and you keep heading into life-threatening danger — not to save lives, not to fight for your country, not for anything beyond the thrill of the climb and, yes, personal glory — well, that’s a whole lot of ego right there. One admires the determination, the athleticism and the sheer poetry of these climbs, but one also thinks: These guys are a little bit nuts.

The climbing sequences, the storms, the drama of broken equipment and nearly broken men — all great stuff, made even more compelling because the film does a wonderful job of letting us get to know and like each of the three adventurers.

This is one of the most outstanding documentaries of the year.

Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi will discuss the making of “Meru” after the 7:20 p.m. screening Friday at the Music Box Theatre.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

Music Box Films presents a documentary directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. Running time: 90 minutes. Rated R (for language). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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