RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And now we're about to take you 20,000 feet up a mountain. It's called Meru. Some of the greatest climbers in the world have tried and failed to reach its peak, a shear granite wall known as the Shark's Fin.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MERU")
JIMMY CHIN: Meru is a mountain in northern India in the Garhwal Himalayas.
CONRAD ANKER: As an alpinist, Meru is the culmination of all I've done, and all I've wanted to do is this peak and this climb.
RENAN OZTURK: When we actually got there and I looked up at the mountain, I didn't know what we were getting into 'cause I'd never seen something that complex before.
MONTAGNE: Those are mountaineers Renan Ozturk, Conrad Anker, and Jimmy Chin. They've climbed Meru together twice, trying to reach the summit of the Shark's Fin, and they filmed both ascents. Our colleague, David Greene, spoke to Jimmy Chin about their new documentary.
CHIN: The Shark's Fin, to a climber, is really irresistible because it's this kind of granite blade up high at, like, 20,000 feet. And that's really what makes it challenging is that, you know, you have this kind of big wall on top of basically 4,000 feet of alpine climbing.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The opening scene of the film, I mean, is riveting. And I want to let you describe it, but I mean, to me, it looked like you were in a tent that was basically just hanging off the side of this vertical granite cliff. And you're inside. It's dark. It's snowing. I mean, can you just take me there? What was going on?
CHIN: We'd been on the wall for over 10 days. It's probably negative 20 degrees out. And we're kind of huddled together inside this portaledge, which is essentially a glorified cot because the Shark's Fin - it's so steep that there are no ledges that you can even put a tent on. So you have to live in these hanging tents that we call portaledges.
GREENE: Jimmy, how are you getting these shots?
CHIN: We shot with cameras with very intentional shooting techniques. And, you know, there's instances where it's negative 20 degrees out, and the wind is blowing, and there's snow, you know, falling on top of you. And you've got your gloves on, and you have to take up and switch out the cards, you know. And of course, if you drop anything, it's gone forever. So there's a lot of tense moments up there. There's a lot of moments trying to move, you know, all the dials on your camera with gloves on. You can't do it. You have to take your gloves off. And, you know, your fingers only last for a minute or two before they're completely frozen. And so there were a lot of challenges.
GREENE: Aren't you putting yourself at more risk by doing things like that, exposing your hands? But also sort of just in general, some of your thinking is taken up by focusing on filmmaking instead of surviving.
CHIN: You know, I'm always a climber first. And I'm always thinking about the safety of myself and the team. And, you know, I make that evaluation before I take the camera out.
GREENE: Well, let me just ask you about the first climb. You got so close, within a 100 meters of the top. You were out of food. It seemed like you guys were almost getting to the point of delirium in some ways. What happened?
CHIN: Well, we had been climbing for 17 or 18 days at that point, and we had only brought seven days of food, and we just knew. We looked up. Conrad was leading up.
GREENE: Conrad's your mentor and your third climbing partner.
CHIN: Yeah, my very good friend and mentor. And he knew that the next pitch to get to the top was going to take three, four, five hours, and we'd already been out for 15, 16 hours. So it would mean that we would have to spend the night out at over 20,000 feet. The stakes were too high, and the risks were too high. And there was this one moment where Conrad dropped an ice ax. I'd never seen him make a mistake like that before. And we just watched it bounce down and off into the void, and it was the sign. And we were like, OK, it's done. We're out.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "MERU")
ANKER: It's just so...
CHIN: Fitting? The center of the universe is...
CHIN: It's heartbreaking, but you know, you have to set aside your emotional kind of side. But you learn to do that, and you turn around so that you can come back another day.
GREENE: So you come back, and while you're back in the United States, you are nearly killed in an avalanche. One of your two climbing partners, Renan, is almost paralyzed skiing. And yet you guys decide to go back to try Meru again. Why?
CHIN: You know, climbing and being in the mountains, it's how I feel alive. And I know that it's the same for Renan and to - you know, and I did consider hanging it up for a while. You know, I was really traumatized by that event, you know, total loss of control. And then it's a total loss...
GREENE: Of his near death, your near death?
CHIN: Both of ours, you know?
GREENE: Both. And you pointed out that trust among, you know, in a team of climbers is so, so important. And here's Renan who is still not fully recovered from this accident. I mean, he has a heightened risk of having a stroke. I mean, weren't you sort of violating that rule by going with someone who was not nearly a hundred percent?
CHIN: Yeah, that's a difficult - it was a very difficult decision. I think Connor and I - we understood that that jeopardized our chances of climbing the mountain. And essentially by accepting to bring Renan, we had decided that that was OK and that this was really about, you know, going back into the mountains together and having a shared experience.
GREENE: What do you tell people who watch this movie and say, you were just reckless, like, you just have a too casual a view of, you know, the fragility of life?
CHIN: You know, for mountain climbing, it's not just daredevils trying to pull off a stunt - you know, close our eyes and jump and hope for the best. You know, it's highly calculated. That's why, you know, certain people are drawn to climbing. It's very cerebral. There's a lot of, you know, elements that people are thinking about all the time. You buy that? (Laughter).
GREENE: It's a - I guess we'll let our listeners decide.
MONTAGNE: That's my colleague, David Greene, speaking to Jimmy Chin, a mountain climber and co-director and producer of the new documentary, "Meru."
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