One look at the Shark’s Fin on India’s Mount Meru and it’s not hard to see how the arrowhead feature could dig into a climber’s mind. But that one look would be only a part of the story of why that particular piece of rock has haunted mountaineer Conrad Anker for two decades, and what compelled him and his teammates Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk to return to the mountain three years after an attempt at its northeast face sent them limping home.
During their 2008 push to climb a mixed rock and ice route up a 3,000-foot granite buttress — which had turned back 20 previous attempts in half as many years — a storm trapped the three climbers on a portaledge at 17,500 feet on the side of the rock. When the weather broke, Anker looked up at a face the wind was still brushing snow from, and called it not that bad. They set off in -25 F temperatures, only to have to turn away “within shouting distance of the summit” or face spending a night above 20,000 feet, risking severe frostbite.
“We spent 19 days on the climb the first time and we only had eight days of food,” Ozturk says. “People came back in wheelchairs and couldn’t walk for weeks, so it was pretty traumatic.”
But the story of that attempt provides just the opening of the 23-minute short film The Shark’s Fin, which will screen in the Reel Rock Tour that opens in Boulder on Sept. 13. Ozturk joined the team to film and learn from fellow North Face athletes Anker and Chin, Anker legendary for his mountaineering accomplishments on seven continents and Chin known for his photographic and film feats — in addition to being an accomplished climber. Chin and Anker have been climbing together for a decade. Ozturk and Anker got to know each other while working together at the Khumbu Climbing School in Nepal — discovering that they shared a similar ethic of low-impact climbing, a love of adventure and telling stories of adventure and unexplored places.
“I looked up to both of them a lot going into this trip, then having a trip that turned out to be the hardest expedition for those guys and obviously for myself, too — that was a pretty big deal for all of us to go through something that hard,” Ozturk says. “It was a huge failure, and to pick ourselves back up and try again was really hard to commit to.”
After their brutal attempt, Chin swore he’d never go back.
But Anker had Meru in mind for 23 years. His climbing mentor discussed doing the route when Anker was an up-and-coming expedition climber, but that mentor, Mugs Stump, died on Denali before he was able to climb the peak.
Conrad Anker on the Shark's Fin | Photo by Jimmy Chin
Two years after their initial summit push, Anker called to reassemble the team. Then, just six months before they were to make a second attempt at the Shark’s Fin, a skiing accident in the Grand Tetons sent Ozturk to the hospital with a depressed skull fracture and a broken neck. When Anker visited him in the hospital, Ozturk said he still wanted to go to Meru. No one had the heart to tell him he probably wouldn’t be able to make the trip.
He was immobilized for weeks after the March 2011 accident, and in May crawled on to a stationary bike and started pedaling. Early shots of him exercising show him lifting weights and working out in stiff and tender movements, his neck held still. When he returned to rock climb on the Flatirons, the Boulder resident wore his neckbrace up the trail to the rock.
The allure of the mountain was what drew him back, Ozturk says. The Ganges, the sacred river that cuts through India and that millions of Indians visit each year determined to cleanse their sins, has its headwaters at Mount Meru, and Indians consider the peak the center of the universe.
“The place was really special,” Ozturk says of his motivation to return. “And the mountain is so iconic and beautiful, and the friendship of wanting to finish what we had started together — all those things combined.”
Ozturk suited up and headed back to the peak six months after his injury.
“I second-guessed my decision the entire time,” Ozturk says. “I made the decision but there was no way of knowing what was going to happen, so there was a lot of fear and doubt the entire time.”
On top of climbing, Ozturk would also be filming the trip.
“It’s a huge extra burden,” Ozturk says. “You have to carry extra weight and you have to be multitasking, thinking about being safe but then also capturing key parts of the story, and then my condition, I wasn’t really as strong as I normally am, so it beat me down to try to film. But it’s also something that I love to do, so there was no way I wasn’t going to at least try.”
Ozturk says he’s glad to see the story in this year’s offerings at Reel Rock, which screened in more than 290 places last year to 65,000 audience members and raised $15,000 for non-profits.
But he’s also got a bigger picture in mind — namely, Meru, a feature-length documentary that will tell the whole story of the Shark’s Fin and the men who tackled it. The Shark’s Fin is a nuanced, character-driven story that dips into Anker’s personal history as a climber and how his ongoing projects occasionally put tension on his family, and his relationship with his wife, whose first husband, Alex Lowe, was Anker’s partner until his death in an avalanche while the two were on an expedition together. But Chin, one of the leading founding figures from the Camp 4 Collective, is given the haiku version of a character in the cut. Meru will fill in greater, deeper back stories for all the characters and work to make a climb like that look less insane and more understandable.
“We’ve gotten feedback from a lot of Academy Award-winning directors and different people who think that it has legs beyond the outdoor world, and that’s something we’re excited about because it will portray climbing in a light that we’re proud of,” Ozturk says. “We think we have a film that could go into the mainstream that shows climbing for what we see it as.”
But while the work on Meru continues, Reel Rock gives a taste of what’s to come — with a beer garden to boot. This year’s tour debuts at the Chautauqua Auditorium, a jump up in size from the usual location for Reel Rock, the Boulder Theater, a move that is designed to let more people see the premier. The film line-up also includes The Dura Dura, about 19-year-old Adam Ondra challenging Chris Sharma to set up the first 5.15c; Wide Boys, on the Brits who come to American soil solely to tackle off-width cracks, including a first ascent of the horizontal off-width Century Crack; and Honnold 3.0, about free soloist Alex Honnold’s preparation, mental and otherwise, for the Yosemite Triple, climbing Mt. Watkins, El Cap and Half Dome in 19 hours.
Reel Rock 7 starts at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 13 and 14. Beer garden and sponsor booths open at 5:30 p.m. Chautauqua Auditorium, 900 Baseline Road, Boulder. See www.reelrocktour.com.
UPDATE: Below is a video trailer for the films playing at Reel Rock 7.