Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s solid sports documentary Meru takes its name from India’s Mount Meru, which features a fin-shaped granite peak that has thwarted many of the world’s best climbers. It also thwarted the three-man team of famed veteran Conrad Anker, his protégé Jimmy Chin, and relative newcomer Renan Ozturk. But Anker’s desire to conquer the rock that his own mentor never could was only inflamed by the defeat, and despite some frightening setbacks, the trio set out on a second attempt. I was fortunate enough to speak with Mr. Anker.
Matthew Lickona: Congratulations on the film.
Conrad Anker: Thank you. I’m 52 and I’m a professional mountain climber, so this is sort of my life’s work. To have my friends Jimmy and Renan, who are great cinematographers, film it on the mountain, and then have Chai and Bob [Eisenhardt] edit it to where it is, is pretty special. I’m greatly indebted to my friends for doing that. It’s sort of my life story in a big way, kind of out there.
ML: Yeah, climbing Meru is the action here, but the film is very much about the climbers, and you in particular. It gets pretty personal. Very early in the film, your wife Jennifer says, “He promised me when we married he wasn’t going to do any more big climbs, but, I kind of knew better,” and it wasn’t long before you were talking about Meru. I was wondering if you would talk about why you made the promise, and what made it worth saying, “I have to go back on that.”
CA: Well...yeah. I guess [that promise] was [more about] the type of climbs that we do. So, that was sort of the snowy Himalayan peaks. Wall climbing [like Meru] was — I guess, in some ways, the risk is a little more controllable. It’s not as debilitating as raw altitude, which is what you get on the higher peaks. But yeah, she was like, “Oh, if we’re going to get together, no more climbing.” But then, I think she knew that I was always driven to get out there, so... But she’s accepting. I think that’s the main thing.
ML: And that comes across. She’s clearly not bitter. Sort of following on that, it touches on a larger question about men being out the world, doing the thing that drives them, and then also being devoted to their families. Could you talk about how you balance the kind of thing you do, which you admit is very dangerous, versus your feeling of responsibility toward wife and kids?
Official trailer for the Meru documentary (2015).
CA: Yeah, this question never gets leveled at football players or motor car racers, which, from my point of view, are as dangerous if not more dangerous, in certain ways. People look at mountain climbing, and they’re like, “It’s a selfish pursuit. They’re feeding their ego,” or, “They’re doing something that’s not, by the norms of society, something that most people look at as something that one would regularly do.” But with our family, we know what climbing is. With [my friend] Alex’s death, we know the potential for things to go wrong, and what it requires of the participants. And with Jenni, she’s probably like, “Well, climbing is what you do. You wouldn’t be the same person if you didn’t do it.” I think there’s some knowledge that comes from her being a climber and knowing from the inside what it’s like to climb. She can understand that.
ML: For you, what is the good that makes it worth the risk?
CA: There’s an intrinsic reward that we get from doing it, the challenge of it. The camaraderie and the teamwork that climbing has, that is between two people, is a pretty unique and special thing. If you and I were to be climbing, we would be a team. The adversary would be gravity, the rocks, the weather, the elements, things like that. We’d have to be really working together. If you and I were playing tennis, I would want to beat you within the human construct of time and space that we put into our games that we play. Whereas, with mountain climbing, there’s this elemental fascination with being outdoors, this drive of humans to explore.
ML: How did you and Jimmy return to the idea of a second ascent?
CA: Well, I was just driven by it, obsessed. I try mountains three times. If I make it on the third time, it’s “third time’s lucky.” If I don’t make it, it’s “third strike and I’m out.” That’s always my internal metric. The mountains win if we don’t make it.
ML: Was it important to have Jimmy again as opposed to someone new?
CA: Yeah, going back with someone with whom you’ve already put that much effort into it together, that was really the key part of it. There’s just that partnership. I could have found another team, but especially when we kept Renan in the program [following his injury], that was that moment...
ML: That leads to another question. Jon Krakauer says that for climbers, they know what they’re doing is risky, but they don’t want to be seen as taking stupid risks. An outside observer might say that you took a big risk with leaving it to Renan to decide whether or not he was in shape to attempt the re-ascent.
CA: It was definitely a tough decision. It wasn’t one that my wife Jenni was really psyched about. But part of that was that we would bring in another climber, Chris Figenshau, who was at base camp and who helped out by doing the distance shots. So that was part of it, having him there. But yeah, I didn’t fully understand the scope of the injury Renan had sustained until afterwards, so it was more like him saying, “Hey, I’m fine. My physical fitness is at this level.” But yeah, it was one of those things. Had it gone wrong, the whole world would have thought we were idiots, justifiably. You can’t really explain it, I guess.
ML: What’s it like to come back after attempting something like that, trying to settle into everyday life after attempting some superhuman thing?
CA: There’s always the first week or two weeks after I get off of a big climb, you’re emotionally let down. I know going into that that I’m grumpy, and I can’t come home to my family that way. I have to work through it before I get home. The first three days that we were in the mountain, it was static. But then we had to pack up camp, and it was a week coming home. And you come home and it’s like, “Oh yeah, I climbed this mountain and fulfilled my dream, but I’ve got to pay my credit card bill and I have to go to work.”
ML: Do you have a way of getting through?
CA: Get out and exercise if I feel that I’m getting into a bad space. And sharing it with my wife, looking over the journals, things like that. But it’s interesting; you put so much effort into making it happen, and then when you’re done, you’re sort of at a loss.
ML: I don’t want to give too much away, but at a key moment, you send Jimmy ahead. Why?
CA: It wasn’t really thought out. I had led the pitches getting up to that point, so part of it was, I was tired. I thought, “Okay, Jimmy’s got the strength for this next pitch.” But also, there’s something meaningful for us, because we knew that time was moving on, and it was going to be the next generation’s turn.