Making 'Meru': How the Crew Documented Their Perilous Climbs

“Filming these kinds of trips and climbs is just part of my process,” explains climber and cinematographer Jimmy Chin.
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Mount Meru in northern India rises 21,000 feet above the Ganges River, nowhere near as high as Mount Everest, the peak that gets all the expeditions and the IMAX films. But among climbers, Meru—with its Shark’s Fin, a 1,500-foot-high prow of granite that leads to the mountain’s central summit—is legendary, mainly for having thwarted more expeditions in the last 30 years than any other Himalayan peak.

As Jon Krakauer, author of Into Thin Air and himself a climber, explains, “Meru isn’t Everest. On Everest, you can hire Sherpas to take most of the risks. This is a whole different kind of climbing.”

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Jimmy Chin leading an ice pitch during the 2008 Meru attempt.

The 21,000-foot ascent up Meru’s central summit includes 4,000 feet of technical, snowy, mixed ice and rock climbing environments. Meru is known for being stacked against alpinists, since the most technical climbing, which requires the heaviest gear, is near the top. The base of the overhanging headwall of the Shark’s Fin starts at about 19,350 feet. The Shark’s Fin itself is a 1,500 foot vertical granite wall, with few fissures, cracks or footwalls.

World-class climbers Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk attempted to summit Meru via the Shark’s Fin in 2008, but a large storm slowed them down and eventually forced them to turn back within 100 meters of the goal. They returned in 2011 to try again. Both times, in addition to 200 pounds of gear, they carried cameras to document the experience. Chin, a 14-year veteran of the North Face Global Athlete Team, is an experienced cinematographer and photographer who shoots for a variety of commercial and editorial clients. Ozturk, too, has shot numerous video projects related to mountain climbing. Chin and Ozturk served as Meru’s cinematographers, while Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi, his wife, were the film’s directors.

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From left, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk and Conrad Anker

“Filming these kinds of trips and climbs is just part of my process,” explains Chin. “I can’t even really imagine going on an expedition and not shooting it in some way. The creative process is very linked to the physical and athletic aspect of these trips.”

The aim of shooting, whether it’s climbing Everest or surfing, is to capture footage “as beautifully as possible,” Chin continues. But he notes that the demands of climbing Meru kept the production “minimalist, down and dirty.”

How he decides what kit to bring with him depends on the type of expedition. There are expeditions built around productions, which usually involves a big team, big cameras and lots of gear. “Almost like the tail wagging the dog,” jokes Chin. Then there are productions like Meru on which the objective is to “climb something hard and difficult,” with the production being secondary.

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Conrad Anker belaying Jimmy Chin during their summit push in 2011. The team turned around at this pitch during their attempt in 2008.

“In the first kind of expedition, you can bring the kitchen sink,” he says. “In the Meru type of production, you are carrying all your equipment. But it’s the kind of production I prefer. It’s more journalistic, more run-and-gun.”

For the 2008 expedition, Chin and Ozturk brought a three-chip Sony Handycam camera.

By 2011, the digital SLR revolution expanded his choices; Chin bought a Canon EOS 5D Mark I. “All of a sudden I had this tool to shoot really great video and stills,” says Chin, who shoots photos for National Geographic and other magazines. “It has a more cinematic feel, with depth of field and different lenses.” They brought two lenses on the climb: a 24-105mm zoom with image stabilization and a 24mm prime.

They also had a Panasonic HDC-TM900 HD camcorder. “Renan and I would hand off the camera, so we each always had a camera on us,” says Chin. “We even had a Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot camera that was standard def.” The movie also features 10 to 15 seconds of GoPro footage, shot with a lens adapter.

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One last look before bed. Renan Ozturk checking out the stars above base camp the night before the approach to the base of the route.

In the spirit of a lean and mean production, they brought only 12 batteries. “We had to shoot very judiciously,” says Chin. “We also set aside one battery and one card for summit day … if there was going to be one. We rationed our batteries like we did food.”

There’s always a risk of losing a camera, a lens or a card while shooting in remote locations, but losing any of their gear on the mountain would have been disastrous—to the movie, at least. At the same time, the philosophy of shooting on an expedition as grueling and dangerous as Meru, says Chin, is “never let shooting get in the way of the climb.”

He continues, “Shoot as much as you can without slowing down the climb. And don’t drop the camera.”

Every time Chin or Ozturk had to swap out a card was a stressful moment. “It’s dumping snow, it’s -20 degrees and you have big mitts on,” says Chin. “But you can’t drop the card. Everything counts.”

To carry the camera equipment up the mountain with the rest of their climbing gear, Chin had North Face make a custom haul bag to hold it all. He and Ozturk didn’t lose a camera or a single card. But the horrendously cold, snowy weather did lead to some creative fixes. Chin says he occasionally had to hold a camera over a fire after shooting in the blinding snow. “It gets tons of condensation, usually between the lens elements,” he says. “I had to try to melt it all out.”

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Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk celebrating the summit and their ascent of the Shark's Fin after 11 days of climbing.

In the 2008 expedition, the shoot was “more organic,” and “more of an art project,” says Chin. “At the time, Renan was a novice in shooting,” he says. “I had just finished four major feature productions. I was explaining to him how to shoot sequences. There wasn’t much pressure.” Between 2008 and 2011, says Chin, Ozturk’s cinematography skills “really accelerated. He’s hyper-talented as a cinematographer.”

In the years between the first and second climb, Chin and Ozturk also talked quite a bit about what they wanted to shoot when they approached Meru again. “As a photojournalist, I wanted to shoot around the climbing, those quiet moments in between,” he says. “It couldn’t just be big action shots. That’s how you build tension. And you’ve got to have the story.”

A crucial part of the story—Ozturk’s evacuation to a hospital—almost didn’t get shot. “The last thing I wanted to do was shoot Renan in the hospital,” says Chin. “I thought he was going to die. But he actually looked at me and said, ‘I want you to film this.’ I wasn’t really into it, but I thought, this is his dying wish, so I grabbed my camera and started filming it.”

Given that climbing—and staying alive—took precedence over shooting, it was inevitable that Ozturk and Chin would miss some shots that would have been nice to have. “Definitely certain shots on the climb would have been mind-blowing,” says Chin. “One called the Crystal Pitch is at the apex of the Shark’s Fin. I was leading so I couldn’t shoot and I think Renan was taking a rest day. But I feel fortunate that we did capture a few moments that were unlikely.”

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Renan Ozturk looking good during the long descent descent from the summit back to the portaledge camp after 17 hours on the move.

Chin says he never worried about not having enough B-roll—a fear that’s always in the back of the documentarian’s mind. “We only had so much bandwidth for worry,” he says. “Not enough B-roll? That’s OK. I kind of missed that shot, but that’s OK. Of course, it was way more stressful in post.”

With limited gear and limited time to shoot, the production made very good use of all the footage shot. “We used 90 percent of what we shot on the mountain in the film,” says Chin. “The usage ratio was very high.” Although they had shot some interviews after the 2008 expedition, Chin wanted to redo them, including interviews with Ozturk, Krakauer, Conrad Anker, Anker’s wife Jenny, and Chin himself.

Chin says his “climbing mind” and “shooting mind” are inextricably intertwined, but balancing the two, particularly under such harsh conditions, can push him to his limits.

“It’s a love-hate relationship when I’m on an expedition and shooting,” says Chin. “There are a lot of moments on an expedition that I wished I’d never discovered a camera. Some days it’s a curse, the last thing I want to be doing.” On most of the days, however, climbing and shooting work together, giving viewers a chance to experience the hardships and beauty of challenging Meru.