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Movie review: 'Meru' takes you up the Shark's Fin in the Himalayas

Conrad Anker is one of three men attempting to climb the Himalayan peak called Meru via a daunting 20,000-foot wall of rock called the Shark's Fin. Meru documents their efforts.
Conrad Anker is one of three men attempting to climb the Himalayan peak called Meru via a daunting 20,000-foot wall of rock called the Shark's Fin. Meru documents their efforts.

Mount Everest is nothing compared to the Shark's Fin.

While Everest is the tallest mountain in the world (29,029 feet), Meru, also in the Himalayas, is the most difficult to climb. As the extreme sports documentary Meru opens, no one has successfully made the ascent up its Shark's Fin, a sheer wall of rock ascending 20,000 feet that would dwarf El Capitan.

Three men — Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk — vow to do it, and the film is the story of their attempts, first in 2008 (they were forced to abandon the attempt 100 meters from the top) and in 2011. This is the rare documentary that demands to be seen on the big screen — Chin, who co-directed the movie with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi (who is not on the expedition), totes along a high-def camera to provide stunning views of a high-rising rugged landscape few humans will ever see with their own eyes.

But the most dramatic footage isn't of the view, but of the men themselves and their challenges. This a tough climb, all right. On their first attempt, they're caught in a snowstorm in 20-below-zero temperatures. And although Everest climbers employ sherpas as guides and to lug supplies, sherpas won't touch the Shark's Fin. The climb is often straight up, and in the early scenes of preparation the men try to find the right balance between enough supplies to survive the climb but not enough to cripple a vertical ascent.

Anker's last documentary, "The Wildest Dream: Conquest of Everest" (2010) had him recreating George Mallory's fatal attempt to summit Mount Everest in 1924 (Anker discovered Mallory's ice-preserved corpse in 1999). Part of the dramatic tension of that film was the angst of Anker's wife, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, whose first husband, climber Alex Lowe, was killed while climbing with Anker.

In "Meru," Anker's obsession with the Shark's Fin breaks a promise that he made to Lowe-Anker -- that his days of high-risk-taking were over. There are times in "Meru" when Anker, as well as Chin and Ozturk, seem destined to the same fate as Mallory and Lowe.

Extreme sports, indeed.

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