Everything That Goes Up Must Converge
There exist two subsets within the “mountain film” embrace. Although their natural backdrop is spectacular and their directors highly regarded, fiction considerations are few and far between and flat, e.g., The Eiger Sanction and Five Days One Summer. Given that same scenery plus built-in drama (if not suspense), re-creations and/or more often pure documentaries have appeared somewhat more frequently and successfully.
The latest, and among the best stretching back to 1953 coronation present The Conquest of Everest, is Meru, titled from the north India peak whose Shark’s Fin spur is really the target and might have sounded a better title. At a Museum of Modern Art screening and Q&A with the three climbers, two of them with their wives -- one of whom, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Mrs. Jimmy Chin, co-directed and -produced with her husband -- and some crew, it was insisted that especially on the first, failed, 2008 attempt, “we were just shooting footage, . . . just climbing, that was it.” Lighter less bulky cameras, clothing and gear make that easier than sixty-two years ago and infinitely so compared to the 1909 Vittorio Sella camerawork incorporated into K2: Siren of the Himalayas. Since even on their second attempt, Chin and Renan Ozturk were primarily climbers who doubled as cinematographers, there was not all that much footage from which to cull. Rather, it needed to be intercalated with later interviews with the three, with painter-wife Jenni Lowe-Anker, a sister, a girlfriend, a skier-snowboarder, and Jon Krakauer as commentator, explainer and cheerleader.
It is not only sounds and visuals -- dizzying ninety degrees straight up or sheer down -- that raise this above the pack. There is as well, arguably even more important, a drama that Topsy-like just growed. When, near the end, a physical objective is surmounted -- signifying much more -- and soon the three are gleeful on an impossibly tiny table-top of rock, upraised fists of victory drew long applause from the theater audience.
Rock- and mountain-climber, ecology advocate and author though ironically publically known as the man who found George Mallory’s body, Conrad Anker is the leader and oldest of the three. In film and during the session afterwards, he emphasized, backed by the others, that the adrenalin rush of climbing does not mean that participants have any death wish; far from it, they need to know when the odds have grown so negative that the better part of valor is discretion over foolhardiness. Thus they had turned back within arm’s reach of their goal that first time, for dwindling daylight and supplies might have doomed a later descent.
Secondly, he, Chin and Ozturk underlined the trust in one another, the group unity that Saint Exupéry extols among courageous reconnaissance pilots in Flight to Arras. Chances are lost or taken. Risks and rewards are inseparable from one’s companions.
There are risks which even in the most favorable of circumstances may result in disaster. Following the far-away mountaineering death of personal mentor Mugs Stump and then the avalanche death literally at his side of blood brother Alex Lowe, Anker was emotionally lost, adrift in survivor’s guilt. Comforting one another and her children, he and Lowe’s widow Jenni fell in love and married. In the meantime, Chin’s mother Yen Yen died, she who had accepted his dangerous lifestyle only after he promised not to die before her. And filming mountain snow sports, he was alongside Ozturk when the latter suffered an accident that fractured two vertebrae, severed half the arterial blood flow to the brain, and left him this close to death. But this youngest of the three begs to be included on their return attempt to Meru and works like a dog to get himself into shape.
As Anker points out, one learns to climb, the techniques and instinct, from others, since tradition, experience and knowhow are passed down and not read about. One major problem with Shark’s Fin is that it is not precisely a mountain to be climbed but that and, more, perpendicular snow-ice walls that resemble rippled white curtains capped by great featureless blocks of friable white granite. A rare combination of various skills is required in conquering both outer nature and inner uncertainties. Regardless of the outcome, the attempt alone makes for exhilarating viewing.
(Released by Music Box Films and rated "R" for language.)