Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Three elite mountain climbers sacrifice everything but their friendship as they struggle through heartbreaking loss and nature’s harshest elements to attempt the never-before-completed Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru, the most coveted first ascent in the dangerous game of Himalayan big wall climbing.
"Both Chin and Ozturk have professional filmmaking experience but even so, what they manage to capture is remarkable given the conditions." | Photo: Renan Ozturk

From the valleys of the Andes to the islands of Thailand, cliff climbing has become an increasingly popular sport in recent years, with climbers challenging one another over the steepest, smoothest rock faces. It's quite another thing, however, when the start of the cliff is already almost 20,000 feet above sea level. This is why, for many centuries, Mount Meru was considered unassailable: the 'shark's fin' at its summit had defeated numerous attempts. This documentary follows legendary climber Conrad Anker, the amazingly resilient Jimmy Chin and comparative rookie Renan Ozturk as they attempt to be the first to conquer it.

Climbing something as large and as challenging as Meru is complicated by the need to take a lot of equipment, including extensive supplies of food and fuel. There's also the portaledge, a suspendable platform covered by a tent which can provide a vital place to rest, eat and sleep - or wait out a storm - against the almost sheer rock. And then there's the camera gear, because at the same time as they climb, the men are filming their adventure.

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Both Chin and Ozturk have professional filmmaking experience but even so, what they manage to capture is remarkable given the conditions. It offers considerably more first person scares than the average found footage horror film, though it's best seen on a big screen so one can fully appreciate the scale of it. Going up is slow and painful, sometimes limited to 200 metres a day, but a single misstep would precipitate a very quick descent of many times that distance. What's more, there are other dangers en route. The weather at this altitude can be ferocious and avalanches can easily kill. Over the course of the film, the climbers experience several worst case scenarios, and we learn of the deaths of former partners and mentors - people whose skills they reckon were equal to, if not better than, there own.

Inevitably the mountain footage is limited and it's a bit of a disappointment when we come back into talking head territory, even though there's some intriguing material in the interviews. Brief snippets showing us other places where the men have climbed, however, help to provide perspective and to acquaint us with the beauty that is part of what inspires these endeavours. At its heart, this is an intensely romantic film. It gradually reveals the secret all serious mountaineers know - that getting to the top is the thing, even if one never gets back down again. Some of it is about being first, some of it is about testing one's skills, but more than anything it's about striving for the impossible. Glimpses of Meru at night, against a stunning backdrop of stars, remind us that this is something human beings have always done and will always do. It is perhaps the secret of our success, but as far as individual lives are concerned, it is utterly unforgiving.

The film achieves a good balance of the technical and the existential. We see pitons hammered into tiny cracks, broken equipment jury-rigged with tape and even broken human beings put back together. We also see something of why it all matters.

Reviewed on: 06 Jan 2016
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Meru packshot
A documentary about the ascent of an unconquered mountain.
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Director: Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Starring: Jon Krakauer, Renan Ozturk, Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, Grace Chin, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, Amee Hinkley

Year: 2014

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: US, India

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