The Shark Fin at Meru isn’t the tallest peak in the world. It isn’t even in the top five, unless years of Jeopardy have totally failed me. And, at least from an outside perspective, it isn’t the most beautiful or obviously daunting — hell, the peak in question is the shortest of three. What it is is technically difficult, extremely dangerous, and as of five years ago, unclimbed. Watching the trailer for this documentary, I couldn’t shake the question: why would anyone risk his life for the (literally) Sisyphean challenge of going up and down a mountain? Why throw yourself at the solution when the problem is only meaningful by virtue of being hard? Why climb this?
I doubt a satisfying answer exists, and Meru certainly doesn’t offer one. Instead, it answers a related question: what sort of person would climb this? Or maybe, what does it look like to need this? While the film was billed as an epic quest, where it really thrives is as an intimate character study. You get to know Conrad, Jimmy, and Renan in the same way they might have met each other: on the mountain. Like any friendship, at first it’s all about a shared goal. They’re staring at route maps, muttering jargon you don’t quite understand; you might learn something in passing, but the peak is the point. Then it moves to shared experience: it’s been raining for days, prospects look bleak, and you’re cooped up in a tiny portaledge, commiserating. Bonding via immersion, even when no one says a thing. The camera is everything here, and it’s amazing how much exhilaration — and bored claustrophobia — it manages to express. Like always, though, things eventually get personal. Conrad opens up about love and loss, Jimmy and Renan share perspective-defining moments. They look you in the eye and try to tell you what it all means. And even if they can’t quite verbalize it, you start to feel a whiff of it too. You can’t put your finger on why; all you know is you want to share in that moment at the top, to see the world from their (irrational?) point of view.
Say what you will, but that view is really something.