Conquering Shark's Fin: Q&A with Jimmy Chin
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 13: Filmmaker and mountaineer Jimmy Chin attends AOL Build Presents: "MERU"at AOL Studios In New York on August 13, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Gary Gershoff/WireImage)
Take what you know and what you think you snow about the sport of mountain climbing. It is dangerous, extremely treacherous, complex and the ultimate test of your wits, endurance and strength. There are the famed seven summits, places like Mont Blanc, Mount Everest and the peaks of the Himalayas.
Then there is Mount Meru.
Meru is best described as a vertical obstacle course. On Meru is the Shark's Fin peak, which skies over 21,000 feet high, and is regarded as one of the most difficult and perilous climbs in the world.
To climb it, takes world-class skill and a world-class team. In 2008, the trio of Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozurk assembled as one of the world's most qualified unit to take on Shark's Fin. After a twenty grueling days left them one hundred meters from the summit, the three could not reach the peak despite coming so close.
The disappointment fueled a second attempt.
In 2011, motivated each by their personal challenges and collective desire to conquer Meru, Chin, Anker and Ozurk set out again.
Chin, a noted adventure documentarian, shot the expedition, creating an astonishing perspective of climbing and what the men went through at every phase of the mission. He talks now about what it took to go back up the mountain, what it takes to climb at the elite level and what we find out in Meru, just why they do what they do.
Describe where you guys were at mentally, approaching the climb the second time, in 2011.
In 2011, we were at a pretty challenge situation because of Renan's accident, me with the avalanche and Conrad at his own personal space. We were all questioning going back.
Conrad, he was the expedition leader and really the mentor to both of us. But he was carrying more of the weight. More than Renan and I.
I think we all had different reasons for going back as well. There was a lot going on I guess.
What did you feel you had to prove at that point?
Big climbs like that (Meru) the decisions around them, why you go and the motivations are deeply personal. And then, there are parts of it that are connected with your teammates. They're intertwined.
So it's not just to prove something for ourselves, but you want to be there for your partners. We'd all been climbing enough to know that something extraordinary can happen when you have the right team together. There was hope that we were going to find that kind of synergy together again. There were things we had to prove to ourselves, but we were also motivated to help our partners achieve what they needed to prove to themselves.
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 27: (L-R) Author Jon Krakauer, climber Renan Ozturk, climber Conrad Anker and director Jimmy Chin of "Meru" pose for a portrait at the Village at the Lift Presented by McDonald's McCafe during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 27, 2015 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
What does it take for a team to work successfully in a climb?
Obviously, a lot of trust. Trust on a lot of levels. You need to trust that they're technically capable, that they're physically capable, but also that they've got what it takes to push through extreme hardship.
Your team is only as strong as its weakest link. You need to trust that everybody is going to step up when you need them -- that commitment and devotion to each other, to make something extraordinary happen and to share the same dream. Those are essential in the film.
Really from the beginning, those were the ideas that I felt were really important in climbing, from my personal experience. I've always wanted a film to speak to the things that I felt were important from my experience in climbing.
Hopefully we achieved that and hopefully that's something unexpected for the audience. I think the audience will probably think it's a climbing film, and hopefully they can find something unexpected. It's something we're trying to share and give them access to a world they wouldn't normally have access to.
Obviously this was a film that is probably the most difficult to shoot and capture the events of the action. What kind of challenges came up in filming?
What happens is it becomes two main threads when you're up there. You're climbing and you're filming.
You're a climber on one hand. You're leading, you're moving loads, assessing risk and managing risk...trying to figure out which way to go.
Then there's the other thread, of filming. Trying to shoot sequences and trying to be judicious about what moments are really important and what moments you can let go by.
Where there times when it would compromise the climb and you would have to forget about shooting for a bit?
That's like our number one rule. The production should never interfere with the climb. I'm very familiar with different types of expedition shoots where the expedition is based around the production, and that's just a different thing.
I've been on multiple shoots on Everest that where production based. Every move is coordinated with production. That's like the tail wagging the dog. I'd much prefer an expedition where the objective is the climb.
If you are a great documentarian in this field, then what you are shooting is lined with the climb. That's the great challenge, that's mastering the craft.
What is about a climber that's engrained in them to go to a height in conditions when most people would say 'you're crazy?'
Hopefully you'll get to a point in film when you realize we're not crazy. It's all very hyper calculated. Climbing is obviously something we're really passionate about and it's what we do. It's our calling.
I thing at the heart of it, it's the same draw and urge that a musician feels to make music, a race car driver feels towards racing cars, that an artist feels towards painting. It's an insatiable experience and process that is your calling, you can't help but do it.
It's not daredevil. It's not uncalculated stunt work. There are thousands of decisions around risk, weather, food, equipment, conditioning...all of these different things.
We see that in the 2008 climb when you're 100 meters from the top. When you got so close. What did you take from that to eventually reach the summit in the 2011 climb?
It's interesting because you have to kind of give yourself up to things to a certain degree. You have to be willing to give up control and you have to accept that outcome is unknown, especially when it comes to weather.
So there's a certain amount of luck involved as well. When you are facing a low percentage objective, where there's a low percentage chance that you can pull it off. Everything has to be executed perfectly, and then you need to have the conditions work for you. All of those variables fall into place, on top of executing things perfectly at a very high level. That's the cutting edge of mountain climbing.
That's the other thing. We wanted to kind of break the mold of that the mainstream audience has created in terms of what they think mountain climbing is. Climbing Mount Everest with a lot of people trotting up a well-worn path that hundreds of people are trotting up at the same time. I don't really consider that the cutting edge of climbing.
To give people a view of what the progressive, modern climbing looks like. Give them a visual experience of that. That's something else we hope to show people that's unexpected.