By Tyler Allen EBS Senior Editor
BOZEMAN – The opening scene in “Meru” pans over a windswept, snowy expanse of granite where a portaledge is tethered in a milky abyss. The first sounds that fill the theater are tortured exhalations from the three-man team inside, looking drained and defeated.
The Bozeman Film Society on Aug. 29 hosted two sold out showings of the feature film, screened at the historic Ellen Theatre on Main Street. Expedition leader and Bozeman resident Conrad Anker introduced the film with his wife Jennifer Lowe-Anker, who told the crowd before the 7:30 p.m. showing that they raised $10,000 that evening for the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation.
The ALCF has supported numerous nonprofits in the Himalayas since its founding in memory of Alex Lowe – the renowned Bozeman alpinist, Anker’s former climbing partner, and Lowe-Anker’s late husband.
“Meru” documents Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk during their 2008 and 2011 attempts to conquer the Shark’s Fin on India’s Mount Meru. The 21,850-foot peak is crowned by a 1,500-foot granite wall that’s considered one of the hardest climbs in the world and hadn’t been previously summited.
“Meru is the anti-Everest,” says Jon Krakauer, author of the book “Into Thin Air,” which documents the 1996 mountaineering disaster on Mount Everest. “There’s no one to carry your stuff.”
During the film, the team spends 20 days on the mountain during their 2008 attempt, marooned four days in the portaledge waiting out a punishing storm. They began the trip with seven days worth of food. Ozturk describes his relief that they’re turning back as the bad weather relents. Anker and Chin have other ideas.
“There was some confusion from Renan that we were going up,” Chin says.
The team pushes on, roasting tiny morsels of cheese over a propane stove for dinner each night. “Next week we’ll be eating our boots,” Chin tells the camera.
Nearly out of food and fuel, the team stops 100 meters from the summit. Chin returns to the U.S. in a wheelchair, unable to walk for weeks due to frostbite and trench foot – a painful condition that can afflict climbers after long immersion in cold, sweaty climbing boots. “Maybe this thing just wasn’t meant to be climbed,” he says before their retreat. “But I’m not coming back.”
The world’s best alpinists have short memories, however, and Anker convinces Chin to return in 2011. In the meantime the film documents Anker’s loss of his best friend and climbing partner Alex Lowe; the solace – and eventual romance – he finds in Jennifer; and a catastrophic injury to Ozturk, who may not walk again.
Ozturk not only gets back on his feet, he trains like a man possessed. Despite the risk of him having a stroke at altitude because of damage to his vertebral artery, and protests from friends and family, Anker decides to take him back.
The remainder of the film is a stirring account of three climbers’ fortitude, friendship and obsession as they once again confront the mountain that “wasn’t meant to be climbed.”