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film review

Shot by two members of the climbing trio with small cameras affixed to their head gear, Meru documents an attempt to ascend an icy big wall considered more unclimbable than Mount Everest.

Meru sounds like an exotic, ominous and insurmountable monster.

Meru is an exotic, ominous and insurmountable monster. Specifically it's the name of a mountain in Northern India, and the setting for an almost surreal documentary involving three American climbers, two expeditions and one unhealthy but unyielding obsession.

Meru, the breathtakingly uncomfortable movie, was shot by two members of the climbing trio (Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk), each with small cameras affixed to their head gear. What they captured on film is compelling drama at sub-zero-fierce high altitude. What they were attempting to do, with team leader and rock-star mountain scaler Conrad Anker, was to ascend an icy big wall considered more unclimbable than Everest, and with no grunt work from risk-taking sherpas.

Perhaps because it had defeated so many, Mount Meru held an "irresistible appeal to a certain mindset," we are told by Jon Krakauer, the film's narrator and bestselling author of Into Thin Air. To be the first to reach the Shark's Fin peak would require "a whole different kind of climbing." And that's if everything was working well.

But not everything worked well or as planned when Anker, Chin and Ozturk took on the ungodly challenge – not even close. If these rare-air junkies didn't know physical and/or emotional rock bottom going in, they'd find it by the time it was over.

Do we care about these guys? We do. A triumph of editing and narrative beyond "Are you kidding me?" visuals, Meru is a climbing story with context; biographies are woven in incrementally. Early on, an initial so-close-but-yet-so-far attempt at beating the mountain is presented. The experience is excruciating; the failure, crushing. Then things get gnarly.

The wildest of the three backstories involves Ozturk, the youngest of the three. Between the two attempts at beating Meru, Ozturk suffers a catastrophic mishap, with injuries so ruinous it's hard to believe he could walk again, let alone climb outrageously high.

It's almost a joke to watch these guys – draining a jumbo soft drink (light on the ice, please) in a movie-theatre seat, while high-stake adventurers wait out a storm hanging in a tent on a sheer wall near the top of the world, rations dwindling. Myself, I left the multiplex with my oxygen tank empty and my vertigo frost-bitten.

Krakauer rather nails it when he describes this particular patch of the Himalayas as "the point where heaven and Earth and hell all come together." In a "don't even go there" world, three men push an ultimate, unreasonable extremity. The effort is electric, and the film of it is, too.