In 2008, Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk attempted to summit Meru, a 21,000-foot mountain in the Garhwal Himalayas in northern India. Some of the greatest climbers in the world have tried and failed to reach its peak — a sheer granite wall known as the Shark’s Fin.
“The Shark’s Fin to a climber is really irresistible,” Chin explains to NPR’s David Greene. “What really makes it challenging is that you have this kind of big wall on top of basically 4,000 feet of alpine climbing.”
The mountain defeated the climbers in 2008. Battling subzero temperatures and more than 10 feet of snow, they were forced to turn around just 100 meters shy of the summit.
Against all odds, the trio returned to Meru in 2011. Chin filmed both ascents and co-directed a documentary about the two expeditions.
On their first climb in 2008, which brought them within 100 meters of the peak
We had been climbing for 17 or 18 days at that point. And we had only brought seven days of food. … Conrad … my very good friend and mentor, he knew that the next pitch to get to the top was going to take three, four, five hours, and we had already been out for 15, 16 hours. So it would mean that we would have to spend the night out, at over 20,000 feet.
The stakes were too high and the risks were too high. And there was this one moment where Conrad dropped an ice ax. I’d never seen him make a mistake like that before. And we just watched it bounce down and off into the void. And it was the sign. And we were like, “OK. It’s done. We’re out.” …
It’s heartbreaking, but, you know, you have to set aside your emotional kind of side. But you learn to do that, and you turn around so that you can come back another day.
On returning to Meru years after his first attempt — after he was nearly killed in an avalanche in the U.S., and after Ozturk was severely injured while skiing
You know, climbing and being in the mountains, it’s how I feel alive. And I know that it’s the same for Renan … and I did consider hanging it up for a while. I was really traumatized by that event, you know: total loss of control.
On how Ozturk, not fully recovered from his accident, had a heightened risk of stroke when they attempted Meru for a second time
It was a difficult decision. I think Conrad and I, we understood that [Ozturk’s injury] … jeopardized our chances of climbing the mountain. And essentially by accepting to bring Renan, we had decided that that was OK. And that this was really about going back into the mountains together and having a shared experience.
On the opening scene of the film in which they are in a tent hanging off the side of a vertical granite cliff
We’d been on the wall for over 10 days, it’s probably negative 20 degrees out, and we’re kind of huddled together inside this portaledge, which is essentially a glorified cot. Because the Shark’s Fin — it’s so steep that there are no ledges that you could even put a tent on. So you have to live in these hanging tents that we call portaledges.
On how he got the shots
We shot with … very intentional shooting techniques. And, you know, there’s instances where it’s negative 20 degrees out and the wind is blowing and there’s snow falling on top of you. And you’ve got your gloves on, and you have to take out and switch out the cards. And, of course, if you drop anything it’s gone forever. So, there’s a lot of tense moments up there. There’s a lot of moments trying to move all the dials on your camera with your gloves on. You can’t do it; you have to take your gloves off. And your fingers only last for a minute or two before they’re completely frozen. So there were a lot of challenges.
On whether focusing on filming took his attention away from climbing
You know, I’m always a climber first. I’m always thinking about the safety of myself and the team. And I make that evaluation before I take the camera out.
On his response to people who accuse climbers of being reckless
Mountain climbing — it’s not just daredevils trying to pull off a stunt. You know — close our eyes, jump and hope for the best, you know? It’s highly calculated. That’s why certain people are drawn to climbing. It’s very cerebral. There’s a lot of elements people are thinking about all the time.