There has often been an uneasy relationship between Hollywood and the mountaineering community. On the one hand, both share a penchant for drama and breathtaking scenery, but more often than not film producers end up dumbing down their content in order to sell it to a mainstream crowd. That's something that doesn't sit well with climbers, who would rather see an accurate depiction of their sport, rather than one that adds undue drama when it isn't necessary. As a result, we've ended up with more films with the quality of Vertical Limit or Cliffhanger, rather than Touching the Void.
But now, there are two new mountaineering films gaining wide-scale attention, and both promise to provide a better, more realistic picture of what it is like on a major expedition into the Himalaya.
The first of those films is called Meru. It went into limited release last week, and will continue opening in more theaters across the U.S. in the days ahead. It is a documentary about a team of elite climbers that traveled to northern India back in 2008 to attempt a climb up a rock face known as the Shark Fin. This massive wall is part of Mount Meru – a 6660 meter (21,850 ft) peak that is considered to be one of the hardest climbs in the world. They failed in that attempt, but returned three years later to give it another go, even though the mountain had pushed them to their physical and mental limits the first time around.
The three men featured in the film – Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk – are legendary mountaineers who have climbed all over the world. But the climb up the Shark Fin may have been the toughest of their lives as they spent 20 days overcoming their own fears and doubts, on their way to the top. What started out as a determined effort on the part of this three-man team turned into an obsession to overcome one of the biggest challenges in all of mountaineering. And since they documented the ascent meticulously, viewers get a great sense of what the climb was all about at nearly every stage of the journey.
One of the best things about Meru is that there was no need to add any artificial drama to the story. In fact, there was plenty of that to go around as the team faced subzero temperatures, shifting weather conditions, avalanches, and incredibly technical climbing on their way up the mountain. This is mountaineering in its purest form, as man goes head-to-head with nature in the most hostile environment imaginable.
To watch the trailer for Meru, and to see where it is playing near you, visit the film's official website.
The other major mountaineering film to be released this fall is Everest. It is scheduled to hit theaters on September 17, and features an all-star cast that includes Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Robin Wright, and Kiera Knightly, amongst other notables.
Unlike Meru, this film is a dramatization of what it is like to climb the tallest mountain on Earth, with actors traveling to locations to film their scenes, including some portions of the movie being shot in Nepal.
This movie is based on the best selling book Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. It tells the true story of the 1996 season on Everest, which up until that time was the deadliest year the mountain had ever seen. On May 10 of that year, just as climbers were in the middle of a summit push, a massive storm descended on the mountain, claiming the lives of eight individuals. At the time, the story transfixed and shocked many people, as non-climbers read Krakauer's account of the events with only the vaguest idea of what climbing Everest was all about.
Into Thin Air has gone on to become a classic of adventure literature, and it was even made into a television film back when it was first released. That adaptation was horrible however, and it seems that we have been long overdue for someone to take another crack at telling this story more faithfully. Hopefully thats what we'll get when the movie is released in September.
The official Everest website has more information about the film and its cast. It also has the most recent trailer, which features some overly-dramatic dialog, but also some fantastic images of climbing. I have yet to see this film of course, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it will live up to expectations and deliver a modern-day classic for the big screen.
Whether you're a climber yourself, a movie buff, or someone who just happens to be in desperate need of an adrenaline rush, you'll want to put both of these films on your "must see" list. They should prove to be entertaining, enlightening, and educational all at the same time. Being a documentary, Meru will certainly offer the more true to life experience, while Everest will tell a gripping tale in a different – but no less insightful – way.
Perhaps these films will also open the doors for more mountaineering movies in the years ahead.