FEATURE: The Center of the Universe

By on August 25, 2015

Jimmy Chin’s directorial debut, ‘Meru,’ sends audiences to the precipice

Conrad Anker by Jimmy Chin.

Conrad Anker by Jimmy Chin.

In 2008, world-renowned mountaineers Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk were on the edge of glory. They had struggled for 17 days on Meru Peak – 21,000 feet of the most treacherous climbing in the Himalayas – only to find themselves 100 meters shy of the summit. With dwindling food and fuel, and while watching the sun dip toward the horizon, they made a decision that haunted them for the next few years. Directing a pleading gaze to the sky, Anker rappelled down the face of the mountain in utter defeat. Chin, meanwhile, looked at the camera. “I’m never coming back,” he said.

Chin’s first feature-length film – where he finds himself as both  a star, and as a co-director, along with his wife filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi – chronicles the trio’s first failed attempt at the mountain in 2008, and the passion that drove the three to return to Meru three years later. This time, they were victorious making first ascent of Meru’s Shark’s Fin, a razor sharp route of granite and ice  thought to be an impossible feat. At its surface, “Meru” appears a climbing film, but at its heart it’s a film about the human spirit and the deep bonds of friendship forged when everything is at stake.

Ahead of the Jackson Hole cinematic premiere of “Meru” on August 28 (Jimmy Chin will host a special Q&A after the 7 p.m. screenings Saturday and Sunday at Jackson Twin Cinema), The Planet sat down with Chin and his climbing partners to discuss the mountain, the film and the people who grace the silver screen.

The Shark’s Fin

A ridgeline with three peaks, Meru stands, literally, figuratively and spiritually at the center of this film, which takes place on Meru Central, or the Shark’s Fin.

Jon Krakauer, a master storyteller and trusted voice in the mountaineering community, helps narrate the film. His description of the Shark’s Fin sends chills down your spine – “The climbing covers the whole spectrum. The upper 1,500 feet of the Shark’s Fin is smooth, it’s clean, it’s nearly featureless. But below that is 4,000 feet of really gnarly climbing. There’s fluted snow – dangerous, exposed.”

According to The Alpinist magazine, the Shark’s Fin has rebuffed dozens of climbers, including Anker himself in 2003 when he attempted a “light and fast” approach and was turned back when he didn’t have the gear to climb the last 1,500 feet.

In Hinduism, Meru is the center of the universe, the cosmic intersection of heaven and hell. Meru is also the physical headwaters of the Ganges River, the holiest river in Hinduism. Many religious pilgrims travel throughout the Garhwal region in Northern India where Meru is located. On the trails, sadhus, or holy men, often join visitors and climbers like Chin, Anker and Ozturk. It is only fitting that this journey, a climb that turned into a trial and an exploration of physical, emotional and mental limits, would occur at this place of incredible spiritual meaning.

Not one to view cultural differences as stumbling blocks while on expedition in foreign countries, Chin embraces and celebrates the cultures he encounters: “One of the great appeals of these expeditions is the cultural experience and the travel,” he said. “You’re always highly attuned and sensitive to the culture and the people you are visiting. And you are a visitor. But there is so much to learn about perspective on life from people from different cultures. … [In the Garhwal] there are a lot of holy men and sadhus practicing up there and you want to have their blessings. We met with a lot of the sadhus and they are always very encouraging. They kind of get it, they get that you’re on a quest. And so that was really nice when we would get their blessings and they would share these mantras with us for safe passage. And they would say things like, ‘Tell us what you see up there.’ It’s the center of the universe – they’re curious. It’s a big part of why I do expeditions.”

Renan Ozturk by Jimmy Chin.

Renan Ozturk by Jimmy Chin.

Realizing a vision

Those who have followed Chin, Anker and Ozturk through various medias will notice that some of the footage was out there in the world prior to the film’s release. Chin admits that he did not envision this as a feature-length film until 2011. The realization came when, Chin explained, “there was this moment where Renan gives this incredible monologue, and I thought, ‘Wow, that would be a great ending to a movie.’”

Beyond the story of climbing Meru, Chin felt inspired to include the journeys of his fellow climbers in the film. Through the use of intimate interviews, Chin captures Anker’s struggle losing previous climbing partners, including his mentor Mugs, and his indomitable climbing partner Alex Lowe. Chin’s steady and seemingly omnipresent camera also brings the audience through Ozturk’s horrific ski accident here in the valley and his herculean efforts to recover. Chin chose to allow these stories to steer “Meru” toward universal human themes rather than simply a film about climbing. “The mainstream consciousness has a certain idea about climbing that is really far from what I find important and compelling about climbing,” Chin said. “And that’s the friendships and the relationships that are forged when you are having a very shared experience of climbing.” Chin hopes that viewers, both climbers and non-climbers, come away with a sense of the film’s universal themes, which Chin describes as “friendship and loyalty and about the sacrifices you make to pursue your passions and your dreams.”

Solace under the stars by Jimmy Chin.

Solace under the stars by Jimmy Chin.

Getting the shot

Film production, even before Chin envisioned this as a feature film, inherently had its challenges. As a professional outdoor photographer, Chin is not unfamiliar with the struggles of balancing production with climbing. “It’s really important for me, especially on an expedition like this, that production doesn’t impact the climbing,” he said. “There are expeditions I’ve been on that have been based around the production, and that to me has always felt like the tail wagging the dog. I like shooting on the fly and get it in the moment. So there are definitely shots that you miss.” Chin described a moment, for example, that would induce an anxiety attack in a meditation guru: “There could be some epic sunset with Conrad [Anker] on the horizon line but you are either belaying, or freezing, or the camera is not within reach and you are trying to stack ropes and organize gear and nightfall is coming but you have to get up two more pitches so you can build the portaledge.” And this is the type of scenario where Chin is very clear: “You are a climber first on a project like this, and you have responsibilities.”

But the struggle doesn’t end there. With two feet planted on the ground and technology at our fingertips every day, some might easily forget that expeditions come with not only risky challenges, but also mundane ones. Chin points out that on the climb they didn’t have endless power or endless storage. “It’s not like we were backing up our photos each day and clearing our [memory] cards. We had to shoot very carefully and thoughtfully and judiciously. So it wasn’t like we were just rolling and rolling and rolling.”

But even when the camera is within reach, and the memory card has space, and the batteries are charged, there is another, possibly even more important element that has to be present as well. The level of intimacy and candor “Meru” audiences experience is oftentimes startling. Instances where, for example, Anker gets choked up recounting the moments following the loss of his best friend and climbing partner, or the bloody close-ups of a dazed Ozturk after his devastating ski accident. Chin chalks it all up to the fact that he is filming to document and to share a story. “You’ve got to follow your gut,” he said. “Will it help enhance the story? We are very open and comfortable with each other, so we have a lot of access to the lives of our partners.”

Anker added that as a professional climber, “you have to be a storyteller, which means you often have to be in the public eye. Once we understand that and make that decision to do this line of work, then you want to do it the best you can. Working with Renan and Jimmy, who are now friends, was what made it special.” Acting natural in the presence of a camera during intimate moments is a technique a generation of reality TV watchers are familiar (and possibly even bored) with, but it takes only a few thrilling minutes of “Meru” before the audience will appreciate how deeply trusting these three men are of each other.

Jimmy Chin by Renan Ozturk.

Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin by Renan Ozturk.

The Anti-Everest

Early in the film, Jon Krakauer dubs the Shark’s Fin the “Anti-Everest.” Chin worries that Everest has become the default imagery of a mountain experience for people unfamiliar with climbing culture. “[Non-climbers] think mountain climbing is like Everest. I’ve spent a lot of time on Everest, and Everest climbing is the antithesis of why I go climbing – huge commercial expeditions, fixed lines, fixed cams, Sherpa teams carrying all of your weight, someone else making decisions for you.” The Shark’s Fin, in contrast, is the epitome of climbing for Chin – brutal decision-making, taking-it-to-the-edge risk, and the allure of a coveted first ascent.

Decision-making looms large in the film, from the heartbreaking turnaround just shy of the summit in 2008, to the moment-by-moment tension of each strike of the hammer on the “House of Cards” pitch, to the honest and personal revelations in the on-camera interviews. The tense and detailed perspective given to viewers was a deliberate move by Chin who describes “Meru” as “an examination of complex decision making, whether that’s around assessing risk or it’s around why people choose to live the lives that they live. “I really wanted to share that perspective of climbing,” he said.  And just in case viewers forget and try to compare it to that other mountain, Chin drives home that he wanted to give people a sense of what the cutting edge of high altitude alpine climbing is. “It’s very different than Everest,” he said.

It is exactly because of the decision-making process that Chin, Anker and Ozturk are able to do what they do. As professional athletes, they rely heavily on sponsorship to fund expeditions and get them out doing what they excel at and love. Recently, some sponsors have been shying away from what they perceive as risky activities. Clif Bar announced in 2014 that they would be dropping Alex Honnold and the late Dean Potter, citing risks inherent in their sports. The “Meru” audience is quickly versed on how dangerous the activities in the film are when Anker states early on: “high altitude Himalayan climbing is the most dangerous professional sport.” Chin believes that his sponsors’ trust in his judgment keeps him from going down the same path Honnold and Potter had to walk. “[Sponsors] hire you in the first place because they trust your judgment,” he said. “They don’t hire people they don’t trust. So there is a lot of trust in what we do and the decisions that we make. So they believe in and support you.”

Unbreakable bonds

In “Meru,” three men struggle and fight their way through unimaginable pain and emotional turmoil, but the gratitude and grace they display to each other is immense. And although this is obviously deeply rooted in respect and friendship, it’s also a learning experience.

Anker speaks about Mugs, his late mentor who first planted the seed of a first ascent on the Shark’s Fin. Anker believes deeply in the tradition of mentorship.

It’s “part of human nature,” he said. “It’s the most elemental level of being a teacher. So we are out there sharing what we’ve learned with the next generations. Our film touches on three generations, Mugs, myself and Renan’s generation.”

Anker met Chin in 2000 and says he has relished in watching Chin’s skills flourish. Ozturk, on the other hand, essentially got to know Chin clinging to the side of the Shark’s Fin, it being their first big expedition together. He remembers a lot of optimism from Chin, especially when they were eating the same boring food over and over. Ozturk describes the mentoring he receives from Chin and Anker as ongoing, and it is often just a practice in watching the two interact. Off the mountain, Ozturk says he learned a lot about how to treat other people. “That was one of the biggest things [I learned] beyond climbing,” he said. In particular, Anker has a saying Ozturk has taken to heart, “Be good. Be kind. Be happy.”

“I feel so fortunate for the mentors that I’ve had, and I can’t mention them all, but obviously Conrad has been an amazing mentor on the climbing side, and on the life side,” Chin said, “And shepherding me to become a professional climber. Just showing me how it’s done. Just his attitude and how he carries himself and how humble and caring he is toward people yet how tough he can be. He has just had an incredible impact on my life.”

Chin feels a responsibility to the next generation and wants to pass on his experiences, but he points out that hopeful mentees also need to bring something to the proverbial table.“I think you have to put in the time and pay your dues,” he said. “I don’t think you find a mentor, I think a mentor finds you. And I recognize that now as I get older. You see potential in the next generation and you need climbers, or filmmakers, or photographers who have just got a really great attitude and optimism and humility and drive, and you want to help. You want to share experiences with them. You want them to succeed.”

Renan Ozturk looks over the edge from one of the hanging portaledge camps. Photo by Jimmy Chin.

Renan Ozturk looks over the edge from one of the hanging portaledge camps. Photo by Jimmy Chin.

Descending toward home

Meru is decidedly not the only wild place with spiritual power and pull. Mountains all over the world mesmerize the people who see and visit them. Chin has never been immune. He moved from college into his car to be closer to mountains in Montana, California and, eventually, Jackson Hole. He recalls that it took “just that first tram lap” to convince him that this valley was special. But beyond unparalleled access to skiing, Chin recalls that just as he connected with climbers in Yosemite Valley, he had “found his tribe” here in Jackson. “Jackson draws a certain type of person,” he said. “It’s Wyoming, it’s out there, it’s not near any city. You are really committed to living in the mountains when you move to Jackson. And people push it, they’re really driven, they’re really passionate about the mountains. That’s what really drew me there.”

Chin admits that he also calls New York City home for the sake of his New York-based wife and young daughter “a couple days a month,” and even draws parallels between the two places. “[They] have a bit of the same energy because there are people who are really passionate and driven,” he said. “Many people are at the top of their game, which is really appealing in a way. And it’s eye opening as well. I think it gives me a nice perspective of my life in Jackson and my work. It makes you realize there is so much out there – architecture, theater, just so much going on.”

Of course, there also are stark differences between the two. Revealing a truly Jackson-esque drive for athleticism and the outdoor lifestyle, Chin laments, “the hardest thing about being [in New York City] is trying to stay in shape. I don’t get to run out the door and go mountain biking for three hours or go ski touring for a day. So, I do some running around [Central Park], I go surfing on Long Island or Montauk.”

But even in a place with skyscrapers instead of mountains, Chin has found at least one exciting thing. “Just eating here is an adventure,” he said.

Living a life filled with more than 200 days of travel per year due to jobs that take Chin all over the world, it’s not a surprise that it’s the stillest moments that he remembers most fondly from the Meru expedition. “There are these really quiet moments when it’s beautiful out, there isn’t a lick of wind, and you’re in the portaledge in your sleeping bag with a hot water bottle and all the gear is organized for the next day, and you’re exhausted so it doesn’t last very long, but you get to lay in the portaledge with the door open looking out over the Garhwal Himalayas hanging off a wall at 20,000 feet. It’s kind of an absurd setting, kind of like hanging out in outer space. You get to actually appreciate where you are, and that’s a very special experience.”

Meru premieres in Jackson Hole Friday at Twin Cinemas. Jimmy Chin will make a special appearance after the 7 p.m. screenings on Saturday and Sunday for a Q&A session.

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