"Meru" will open your eyes, and more than once. Not just visually, as you might expect from a documentary on the obsessive quest to be the first to climb the most impossible peak in the Himalayas, but psychologically as well.
Each of the three men intent on climbing the Shark's Fin, the 1,500-foot vertical rock wall at the top of Meru, faced challenges not only on but also off this particular mountain, huge mental and physical barriers that beggar belief and had a direct impact on how they acted on their attempted ascents.
One of the three climbers, Jimmy Chin, co-directed the film (winner of the Sundance festival's U.S. documentary audience award) with E. Chai Vasarhelyi. Chin and fellow climber Renan Ozturk were also the cinematographers for the climbing footage (using a Panasonic TM900 camcorder and a Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera), sharing screen time with talking head studio interviews with the climbers and people like "Into Thin Air" author and mountaineering expert Jon Krakauer.
It is Krakauer, with his engaging combination of articulate enthusiasm and authority, who sets the scene, filling us in on exactly what Meru is and why "the best in the world have tried and failed" to climb this "test of the master climber."
For the Shark's Fin pinnacle of Meru is difficult in a complicated way. As you near the top, you have to manage 4,000 feet of "really gnarly climbing," Krakauer says, before you get to that 1,500-foot vertical wall, which demands a totally different kind of equipment and set of skills.
It's also the nature of the climb that, unlike Everest, there are no Sherpas to carry your gear. Each man is called upon to carry in himself the hundreds of pounds needed for that last push. And as you get close to the nearly 21,000-foot summit, the temperature can drop to 20 degrees below zero.
"Meru" opens not with an image but with the sound of an ominous whistling snowstorm. Then you see a portaledge tent attached not to the ground but to the side of the Shark's Fin in a way that the adjective "precarious" does no justice. Inside the tent are three men, looking exhausted and unnerved, trying to conserve strength for the next day.
The leader of the expedition is unquestionably Conrad Anker, one of the great American climbers, who considers Meru "the culmination of all I've done, all I've ever wanted to do."
Anker's climbing mentor, the wonderfully named Mugs Stump, had always wanted to climb Meru but died on another mountain before he could get it done, and you can feel that honoring his memory is one, but only one, of the things that drives Anker.
The younger Chin is Anker's current climbing partner, and some of the most interesting parts of "Meru" are discussions of what it means to be a good partner, the combination of pushing someone while still respecting the difference between acceptable and unacceptable risks.
The third person in the tent is Ozturk, a hot young climber with great natural skills but someone who is unused to having a mentor, unused to putting the level of trust in another person that great climbing partnerships require.
The trio's first attempt on Meru does not end the way the group would have wanted, and as they are in the process of considering another try, Chin and Ozturk have separate crises that force them to reexamine the core of their lives. And Anker, who faced a similar catastrophe a few years before, has to decide what price he is willing to pay to keep going.
Though the "Meru" climbing and outdoor footage is spectacular, it is the personal struggle of each of the climbers, and the candid way they talk about them on camera, that give this film its considerable impact.
When Ozturk says at one point that climbing the Shark's Fin is "something I had to do, something worth dying for," you not only realize that he means that literally, but also come to understand from the inside why he does.