“For the view,” says Jimmy Chin, when asked why he climbs mountains. Chin is the co-director, with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, of “Meru.” He’s also a participant in this visually sublime and dramatically loaded documentary.
His answer is as good as any. As with base-jumping in “Sunshine Superman” or Formula One racing in “Senna” (2010), the participants in these extreme sports don’t know why they do it. They only know that they must. It seems a drive that only they dare embrace — hubris, maybe, or Thanatos, or a compulsion to transcend all limitations.
And the view is pretty good, too. With pristine clarity, Chin and fellow cinematographer/participant Renan Ozturk capture the Shark’s Fin of Mount Meru in the Himalayas of northern India. Like a pruning hook, it pierces a sky, which at various times is indigo or burning red or clustered with stars. Extreme longshots of towering white inclines nearly conceal the pinpricks of people in red or yellow parkas trudging to the top.
Chin, longtime climbing partner Conrad Anker, and cameraman/climber Ozturk tried to experience the view from the yet unconquered Shark’s Fin in 2008. They almost made it.
Trauma followed their failure. On a project filming snowboarders with Chin, Ozturk fell off a cliff and fractured his skull and neck. He survived, but no one thought he would ever climb again. Resuming the same project, Chin miraculously survived an avalanche. For a time he withdrew from the world, contemplating these disasters.
But like Sisyphus, they were compelled to try again. Much of “Meru” is about that second attempt, filmed with such grandeur and intimacy that sometimes attempting to figure out how they made the incredible shots almost spoils them.
As climbers quickly learn, the key to success or failure is the ability to improvise when plans run afoul. The film could use some of that spontaneity. The studio-set retrospective interviews are helpful, but the commentary by adventure author Jon Krakauer (“Into Thin Air”) combines the intrusions of a sports color commentator and the pretensions of an omniscient narrator. And not even he can truly answer the question — why do they do it?Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.