Elite mountain climber Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi collaborated on a movie, “Meru” (Music Box, August 14) unlike any you’ve ever seen before. The difference between this survival doc and others like “Touching the Void” is that professional mountaineer Jimmy Chin, 41, one of a team of three Alpinists who first ascended the Shark’s fin route up the central peak of the Himalayan mountain (20,700ft) in October, 2011, is that he juggles three careers as climber, filmmaker and National Geographic photographer. (He’s so busy that when Hollywood came calling to get his help on “Everest” he was unavailable.)
For “Meru” he and fellow climber Renan Ozturk documented two difficult ascents led by climber legend Conrad Anker. On the first one in 2008, which Chin shot with a little Panasonic, the trio encountered blizzards which delayed their climb, reduced their rations, and forced them to turn back 100 yards from the summit. “It’s very clear,” Chin said of the decision to turn back in our video interview below. “The decision that you have to move on requires you to set aside your ego…and your attachment to the outcome of the trip… And sometimes I wish all decisions were as clear — it’s heartbreaking, because we were so close.”
So four years later the team reassembled to take what they had learned and do it right. By this time the DSLR revolution had happened, so they were able to shoot with the 5D in 1080 hi def along with the little Panasonic, “which gave it a much more cinematic quality,” says Chin.
While the videographer-climber has shot on Everest multiple times, he doesn’t like that kind of Sherpa-with-ropes climb, which “for a real climber (or a purist type of climber), isn’t exactly a style that I necessarily aspire to. I don’t want other people to climb the mountain for me, essentially. There’s a big difference between somebody carrying your own equipment for you, as well as making decisions for you…And I’m a professional climber, so I don’t get guided. I like making decisions for myself, assessing the risk for myself, and not relying on other people except for me and my teammates.”
On Meru, the trio carried their own packs and equipment up the peak–and Chin ported 15 pounds of camera gear–in a situation where the climbers cut off the handles of their toothbrushes and their jacket tags to save weight. “Every ounce counts,” he says. “Fifteen pounds is three days of food, potentially.”
For Chin, “filming and climbing (and shooting as a photographer), documenting and being a documentarian, go hand in hand,” he says. “And I’ve been filming and shooting expeditions and these world class extreme adventure athletes for almost 20 years… And not to say “Meru” wasn’t, probably, the most challenging project I’ve ever had to shoot. I really feel like it was a combination of all my experiences as a climber, as well as a filmmaker. But I have to admit in 2008, we weren’t thinking about a feature doc, we were filming it and documenting it more for posterity, and it wasn’t until after 2011 [that] I started thinking seriously about a feature doc.”
That was because in 2012, after meeting New York filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (“Incorruptible”) at an ideas conference, Chin shared with a rough assembly of the film. The Princeton grad convinced him that he should make a feature out of the stunning footage. She supplied interviews with the climbers and their families and with “Everest” chronicler Jon Krakauer (“Into Thin Air”), who helped to explain the challenges, stakes and techniques of the climb–and offer insights into these particular star climbers.
“As a filmmaker I had never seen footage likes this,” said Vasarhelyi. “There’s been mountain climbing before but a lot of it is reenactment — I couldn’t get my head around how these guys climbed this incredibly difficult objective while filming themselves in the process — at that level. You know, the footage is just so special, and then also as a filmmaker you look for the story-points, the obstacles and the challenges… and then the characters.”
Because the the climbing culture is quite understated —these are not people who toot their own horn —Vasarhelyi as the interviewer (shooting with a Red Epic) could “ask questions that hadn’t been asked about their emotional journeys, trying to contextualize it for lay people, like I’m a non-climber, and they had to explain it to me.” She also worked on the structure: “At the core of this film was the friendship, because the decisions to honor that friendship really highlight how the objective of the mountain may not necessarily be the endgame…Mentorship was always at the core of the film. And trying to bring to life what the stakes are, for these climbers. As well as the sophistication of the decision-making.”
The charismatic star of the movie is less Chin, who Vasarhelyi had to convince to put himself more front and center than his fearless leader, legendary mountaineer Conrad Anker, who Chin grew up seeing in films, posters and magazines. Even at age 50, “he’s incredibly strong,” says Chin. “But he’s also a master of the craft. Everything he does is done in the most efficient and cleanest manner possible. And the way he thinks, and the logistics of every decision, is so hyper-calculated and based on 30, 40 years of experience. It just brings something incredible to the table. Beyond him being a great climber, he’s been an incredible friend and mentor over the years. I really owe my career to him. Any day I get with Conrad is a special day for me. And as I get older I appreciate it more and more.”
The big difference between this film and others is that there are no reenactments. And the filmmakers are “pointing towards some of the difficult choices and decisions we have to make as climbers,” says Chin, “and people who are just passionate about what they do. The decisions we’re making are focused more on things that I thought were important from my experience in climbing. Which is in a way, about loyalty and friendship. But it’s also about having the nerve to follow your dreams. Which is a lot harder than you might think it is. People always say that, but it’s fraught with a lot of gray areas. And difficult decisions which might not seem as obvious when you’re actually faced with following something you believe in.”
Several moments were challenging for Chin to put on film. When Renan Ozturk suffers a terrible accident between the two climbs and is hospitalized was one. The film shows him getting back into shape and readying himself for the return to the mountain–more at risk than he was before. And Chin emerging from an avalanche is another. He didn’t want to include the scene at all, “because I’m the filmmaker and I wanted to make other people feel vulnerable, I didn’t want to be vulnerable. That’s not my job. I’m here to make a film (laughs). But that’s part of the process that was really good.”
Taking Ozturk on the second climb was a tough decision for all of them; going in they agreed it was the right choice. But it had dramatic consequences.
The film was accepted at Sundance 2015. “We started screening the film and the reaction to it was incredibly gratifying,” says Chin. “We won the Audience Award, and that was beyond anything I had imagined. We sold the film, have distribution, and now it’s coming out in theaters. In August!”
The other happy ending: Chin and Vasarhelyi fell in love, got married and had a child (with another on the way). And now Jackson, Wyoming-based Chin spends much of his non-climbing time with his family on New York’s East Side.