MntnReview: 'Meru'

Meru_PosterwebThere isn’t a “wrong” time to watch Meru. But, the best time may be after a trip that didn’t quite go as planned.

Maybe you were a half-mile shy of the summit when a massive storm rolled in and turned you around, and torrential rains made the descent a little spicier than you’re used to. Maybe your day at the crag got cut short after a whipper left you too shaken to get a good grip on even the juggiest holds. Or, maybe you had to call it quits and head into the lodge while your friends kept skiing because you tried to make a jump and ended up snapping one of your skis (but thankfully not your leg) in two.

These kinds of days are best for a film like Meru. You and I both know that, even though your luck didn’t hold this time, it’s not going to stop you from trying again another day. And, that’s exactly the point Meru so beautifully proves.

This mesmerizing 2015 documentary, recently released for streaming on Netflix, tells the story of one of the toughest first ascents in climbing history. In 2008, Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin—two of the world’s most notable expedition climbers—attempted to summit the Shark’s Fin route of the Himalayas’ Meru Peak with up-and-comer Renan Ozturk. However, the trio ended up stranded in their portaledge for four days. Snow pummeled down on them, and their rations became low.

When the weather finally broke, they set out, determined to summit before depleting their remaining food supply. Yet, they bailed 100 meters from the top, because each of the men were totally spent. It’s funny how that happens when you try to make seven days’ worth of food last for more than two weeks. And, completing the route would have also required bivvying at 20,000 feet—a risk they were unwilling to take.

When the weather finally broke, they set out, determined to summit before depleting their remaining food supply.

Three years and several less-ambitious-but-still-badass trips later, the team agreed to try summiting Meru again. However, on a video shoot in the Tetons with snowboard legend Jeremy Jones five months out from the trip, Ozturk suffered near-fatal injuries in a skiing accident, while Chin watched helplessly. Four days later, once Ozturk was stable in the hospital, Chin returned to finish the project, only to get swept away in a 2,000-foot avalanche. Miraculously unscathed (physically, at least), Chin took some time off from adventuring before ultimately concluding that “the idea of not skiing and not climbing and not being in the mountains was too much to imagine.”

Somehow, despite two-thirds of the team coming face-to-face with mortality mere months earlier, Anker, Chin, and Ozturk managed to return to Meru in September of 2011. While team members had not fully recovered and may have suffered a stroke halfway through the expedition, they successfully summited the Shark’s Fin this time around.

“It’s hard in this really complicated way. [It’s] defeated so many good climbers.”

During the 90-minute film, Jon Krakauer describes Meru as, “Not just hard. It’s hard in this really complicated way. [It’s] defeated so many good climbers. It will probably defeat you and me. It will defeat everybody for all time. That, to a certain kind of mindset, is an irresistible appeal.”

Meru is an extreme example, of course, and is out of the question for most of us. But, those of us who routinely heed the mountains’ siren song indeed possess Krakauer’s mindset, even if it is on a smaller scale. Whether you’re a weekend warrior tackling a 4,000-footer or a team of professionals scaling a previously unsummitable 21,000-foot peak, adversity is part of the game. And, it just so happens that it’s the part that appeals to us most. Specifically for us, there’s nothing more satisfying than defeating the obstacles that try so hard to defeat us first.


MntnReview: 'Where You'll Find Me' by Ty Gagne

“Do you own a PLB?” my mom asked out of nowhere one afternoon this summer.

Embarrassingly, despite spending a decade of my life working in outdoor retail, I had to Google it to know what she was talking about. It’s a personal locator beacon, duh.

“Like, for skiing?” I asked, trying to put off telling her that I do not, in fact, have one.

“Like for any of the crazy stuff you and your husband do!”

[*eyeroll emoji*]

Eventually, I learned why she was suddenly so curious. She had attended a presentation given by Ty Gagne, author of Where You’ll Find Me: Risk, Decisions, and the Last Climb of Kate Matrosova, and had convinced herself that I would die on top of a mountain without one.

I remembered being equal parts sad and annoyed when the stories about Matrosova and her ill-fated hike of the Presidential Traverse first came to light in February 2015.

When Gagne’s book was finally released about two months later, I came home from work to find a copy sitting on my front porch—courtesy of my mom. I held off on reading it for a few weeks, however. I was in the middle of a different book at the time, and I remembered being equal parts sad and annoyed when the stories about Matrosova and her ill-fated hike of the Presidential Traverse first came to light in February 2015. And, I wasn’t in a hurry to revisit those feelings.

Kate Matrosova
Kate Matrosova

But, once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.

Roughly the first half consists of Gagne meticulously piecing together what happened as Matrosova attempted to complete the northern section of the Presidential Traverse (from Madison to Washington) in one day, by herself. Throughout, Gagne tells Matrosova’s story in incredible detail—and without judgment. Data gleaned from her Suunto watch and Garmin GPS, in addition to Gagne’s own exhaustive research, puts her journey together. While he factors in the broader psychology of risk analysis and decision making, he further makes it clear how easy it would be for any confident, hyper-motivated hiker to make the same mistakes.

It further reminds you that, no matter how prepared you may be, how much experience you have, or how detailed a game plan you’ve created for yourself, when you head into the mountains, you are at their mercy.

The book’s second half reconstructs the search and rescue (SAR) effort. Specifically, this pertains to the timeline from the minute NH Fish and Game received the call about Matrosova activating her PLB to the moment the rescue teams returned to the trailhead with her body. Among my personal knowledge of the area, recognizing some of the rescue crew (shout out to Charlie Townsend, a former EMS Climbing School Guide), and Gagne’s ability to explain the entire SAR process in such great-yet-easy-to-comprehend detail, the story gets especially compelling.

As winter approaches and hikers begin to think about their seasonal objectives, reading Where You’ll Find Me should be at the top of your to-do list. Not only is the book a quick and easy read, but it further reminds you that, no matter how prepared you may be, how much experience you have, or how detailed a game plan you’ve created, when you head into the mountains, you are at their mercy. Oh, and if you happen to have a super-motivated but PLB-less hiker in your life, don’t be afraid to “mom” them and give them a copy of Where You’ll Find Me as a hint gift!