On May 16, the rock climber and BASE jumper Dean Potter, along with his friend Graham Hunt, leapt off the edge of Taft Point in Yosemite Valley on what would be their final jump. Though it was a leap that both Potter and Hunt had taken before, something went wrong, and they veered off course, crashing into a rock face before their parachutes could deploy. Potter was a legend to many in the climbing community, and though he was a divisive figure who flouted rules laid out by the national parks, he was also a tremendous athlete who pushed the extreme side of climbing by combining free soloing (climbing without a rope) and BASE jumping (leaping from a fixed spot while wearing a wingsuit), and practicing highline slack-lining over deep canyons. He was sponsored by a number of well-known companies, but it was seemingly not until his death that the world took interest in him.
When news of the accident flooded the media, armchair commentators—many with little connection to the outdoors—came out in droves to criticize the risks Potter took, and to wag fingers at what they saw as his reckless and selfish behavior. In response, the climber Alex Honnold posted on his Facebook page that what struck him most in all of the vitriol was that the vast number of people commenting simply couldn’t relate to the idea of being so passionate about something that you would pursue it at all costs.
Athletes like Potter and Honnold live by the notion that the sum total of everything you are is only as large as the dream you set out for yourself. It’s one that’s difficult to translate to a general public. It’s the reason that most climbing and mountaineering films leave audiences of climbers on the edge of their chairs, palms sweating, but rarely break free of that particular niche.
An ambitious new documentary called Meru, directed by climber and photographer Jimmy Chin and filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, is one of the first films to bridge the gap between outdoor enthusiasts and other viewers. The doc, which won the audience award at Sundance and is now in theaters, follows Chin, along with fellow climbers Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk, on two harrowing journeys up one of the world’s most challenging peaks—the Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru, in the Himalayas.
Some of Meru’s most memorable moments are also its quietest.
The Shark’s Fin is a 1,500-foot sliver of granite on Mount Meru that, as writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer explains in the film, “is not just hard, it’s hard in this really complicated way.” The previously un-summited route combines ice climbing, rock climbing, mixed climbing, and big wall climbing, all at a culminating altitude of 20,700 feet. The documentary features live footage, shot on-site by Chin and Ozturk while climbing, setting it apart from most other outdoor blockbusters. In between shots of breathtaking scenery and stunning feats of athleticism are deeply thoughtful and moving interviews with the three climbers, their friends and family, and Krakauer. Meditating on this idea of intense passion, drive, and the all-in pursuit of dreams, the film not only follows the trio on both attempts up the route—including the first-ever ascent—but also speaks to what it means to be called by the mountains, to weigh risk, and to push oneself to the physical limit without pushing one inch more.
Meru opens with a whisper—footage that is silent save for the wind whipping outside and the cracking and rumbling of avalanches rolling past the climber’s tent, pitched on a portaledge on the side of the mountain. The drama is in the absence of action and in the tension of waiting, and from the outset we are made to understand that this isn’t just another action-packed adventure film. Lack of movement becomes as significant as movement itself, the goal of summiting as tied up in time spent waiting as in time spent moving upwards.
For Chin, capturing this liminal space was essential. “In the past it was very easy to get caught up in shooting the action,” he said, “trying to get the biggest, most epic shot you could get. But I did feel like so much of the tension you could get was not in the action.” Some of Meru’s most memorable moments are also its quietest—sitting in the tent while a storm rages for four days, rapidly diminishing the team’s hopes of summiting and their food supply, or sitting through the night as one of the climbers suffers through a major medical crisis.
The first third of the film focuses on the maiden attempt at Meru—a climb that leaves the group a heartbreaking 100 meters from the summit before they decide the risk of continuing on is too high. Sandwiched between the first and second attempts is a frank discussion of death, and the calculation of risk involved in tackling such a mountain. While most climbing films provide just enough narrative to frame the action, here the approach is reversed. Nearly as much footage is given over to the decision to abandon the first attempt as it is to the journey. In the interviews conducted by Vasarhelyi, the subjects delve deep into their backgrounds and the personal struggle of weighing dreams against commitments, family, and the cost of their own lives.
“My goal was to keep it emotionally grounded in a way you can understand,” said Vasarhelyi. “If you can get to the human relationships and understand the importance of friendship, and how that is even more important than summiting—if you could bring that to life, if you could illustrate that—you could allow a wider audience to access it.”
“Some of the best climbers I know are the most calculated people I know and are better at managing risk than anyone I know.”
“As a professional climber for fifteen years, there have been a number of people who make assumptions about who I am or what I do,” said Chin. “In a way, this was to say, ‘Hey, look, we’re not just diving off of something blindly.’ Some of the best climbers I know are the most calculated people I know and are better at managing risk than anyone I know.”
As Chin, Anker, and Ozturk prepare for and set off on their second attempt at Meru, the audience is privy to both the pain and excitement of the return, and the gravity with which the potential perils of returning are accepted.
In one of the more emotional moments of a highly charged film, Chin talks about how his mother’s one request when he decided to pursue climbing professionally was that he didn’t die before she did. “When I was on climbs and on expeditions I would get to a certain point and I would say, ‘Okay, how close am I willing to go to potentially break that promise?’” he says in the documentary. “So after my mom died, when the climbing started getting into that place, I remember a moment being like, well, ‘I can go for it right now.’”
The stark honesty of Chin and the others gives regular viewers a rare opportunity to come to terms with the depths of passion held by each of these men; Meru provides a window into the ways in which their sense of purpose is irrevocably intertwined with their sport. There is remarkably technical climbing up smooth granite faces at 19,000 feet and beyond, but there is also commentary on the realities of training, on life at home, on trust between humans.