If you haven’t yet seen the film Meru, which opened nationwide in theaters earlier this month, you should. It’s a story of friendship, loyalty, and survival as alpinists Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk overcome their personal struggles to achieve the first ascent of Meru’s Shark’s Fin, one of alpinism’s greatest prizes, in the Indian Himalaya. Ozturk’s struggle was particularly epic. After turning around just short of Meru’s summit with Anker and Chin on their first expedition in 2008, Oztruk returned with the team to the peak in 2011 just five months after a near-fatal ski accident in the Tetons left him with a severed vertebral artery and shattered vertebrae. His obsession to return to Meru helped fuel his recovery. (Watch a bonus video scene from Meru.)
The film, which won the Audience Choice Award for U.S. Documentary at Sundance, has no recreations, but the footage is so vivid and personal that you’d never guess that from watching it. Fortunately camera technology greatly improved in the years between their expeditions.
Here Ozturk tells us about how they managed to shoot and stay alive, his ongoing recovery, and his latest story with National Geographic about another epic climb, Hkakabo Razi in Myanmar, featured in the September 2015 edition of National Geographic magazine. (Watch a video from the expedition.)
There were no recreations in Meru. How did you manage the challenging climbing and filmming? How much can you push one for the other?
Yeah, during climbs we didn’t have the opportunity to set up and “pose” any climbing. Normally the most dramatic shots are “top-down” where the camera-man climbs up first and then pulls the rope up out of the frame to get the top-shoot dramatic shots looking down with all the exposure as the climber comes up the wall. During the Meru climb, it was first ascent territory so we had to get creative with what we jokingly call “butt-shots” and then just focus more on the personal moments. Even then it was hard to juggle for filming during this particular climb. If there was ever a question, climbing would take precedence. That is readily apparent looking through the footage, since most of the clips end with us fully dropping the camera at the belay to do something essential like feed out slack to Conrad. It would just fall in mid-air until the safely leash caught it.
Were you haunted by “FOMAS,” as sometimes you probably really could not get the shot due to risk?
Oh yeah, FOMAS AKA “fear of missing a shot.” It’s the condition I learned about from the Sherpas Cinema boys for people—like myself, apparently—who are plagued by the love of shooting but not always being able to actually get the shot. On Meru, it was pretty bad because the place is so beautiful, and there are so many angles and positions I would have loved to shoot but they were impossible to get because you are strapped to the wall at a belay and can’t move. Given the risk but also just the overall physical exertion to get into any other spots to shoot during the climb, it was out of the question.
How did you get the distance shots of you all on the route?
That a great question that a lot of people ask after the screening. With all that FOMAS, we had to do something to get some different angles that gave people a sense of scale.
There are two different kinds of the distance shots. The first is the one like this that didn’t make the final cut, which is just a straight-up timelapse shot by Chris Figenshau (@jxnfigs), who hiked four hours and posted up for a cold night, shivering on a ridge with a 600mm equivalent lens.
The other ones that look more like actual aerials shots were made by the talented Marty Blumen (@visualgoat) using a crazy technique that took our photos of the mountain and projected them onto a 3-D Google Maps #GoogleEarth terrain map. Then he studied how Cineflex cameras behaved and flew the camera around the mountain, higher than a heli could actually fly. Although a lot of people do it now, at the time it was new and it took over a year of back and forth with Marty to develop it and get all the elements as realistic as possible.
How many hours of footage did you have from each year? Were you strict about keeping the footage accurate with each climb?
The footage was pretty minimal on both attempts. Bob Eisenhardt, the incredible New York City-based doc editor who did the final edit, kept emailing me asking if there was footage missing because every clip was so short and seemed cut off. I had to break it to him that there wasn’t anything hiding that he hadn’t seen, we had just been very conservative with our limited batteries on the wall!
How was shooting on the mountain different for you the second time around?
Shooting on the mountain the second time around was a lot different because we had a Canon 5D DSLR which allowed for a much more cinematic look and feel. Also during the time between the climbs, I had learned a lot about shooting story and composition. I was a completely different filmmaker, and we had a new wave of technology that really elevated what we could capture from the 2008 expedition. That being said, I still cherish some of those raw “point and shoot” moments from 2008. During that first expedition, we were always intending to make a film—we brought the technology available at the time. Our timelapses from 2008 were just letting the video camera run in real time. All in all, that first year of footage contains some of the most real and telling moments of the film.
I love your comment on the summit of really being part of the team. What did that mean to you?
That was certainly an emotional moment and a lot of the major themes in the film are expressed in it. For Conrad, Meru was his 20-year dream climb engrained in him by his mentor, but for me it was all about being part of the team of guys I looked up to and yearned to have the shared experience with. The 2008 attempt was the hardest expedition of our lives (which says a lot for Jimmy and Conrad), and it really brought us together in a way nothing else could have done.
Do you feel like you have fully recovered from that ski accident? How has it changed your approach to life?
Honestly, it’s not the kind of accident that I think I will every “fully” recover from. I still have a missing vertebral artery (half the blood supply to my brain) and some chunks of vertebrae in my neck that will alway just be floating around in there—sorry, its graphic I know! All in all though I had a less than one percent chance of surviving that accident so am grateful to still be able to be out climbing and making films to this day. In life in general I think I still have the same “carpe diem” approach, but with a bigger frame of reference that also includes the little simple pleasures in life, not just the big crazy expeditions.
How often are you reminded of that accident? Have you had any more high-altitude scares like the one in Meru?
Every time I look up while I’m belaying, I’m reminded of it by some funny crinkles of pain in my neck! I’ve been back to altitude a few times since Meru but no major scares. I do get special check up before heading to altitude and sometimes sleep in the Hypoxico altitude tents at home just to make sure nothing catastrophic is going to happen. That scare on Meru, in addition to being right after my accident, was also the case of a very rapid ascent. We had gained a lot of altitude that day and had been on the move for nearly 24 hours!
We just published a new story about a Nat Geo expedition to Myanmar that you were part of. It also involved a big, daunting mountain. How were these goals and teams similar or different?
Yeah, the Myanmar expedition was also a full-on epic! Some of the goals and team were very similar: Mark Jenkins, the senior climber and writer, also had a vendetta with the mountain to honor dead friends, and Hilaree O’Neill, the team leader, also had dreamed of climbing our objective for years. However, the team was bigger (we had six), and everyone had different experience levels which set us up for some really hard decisions high on the mountain that we didn’t have with Meru. I’m looking forward to sharing the full story in a longer form film soon…
How did Hkakabo Razi compare to Meru, in terms of mountain climbs?
I thought Hkakabo Razi was surprisingly on par with Meru for difficulty, but for different reasons. The cruxes had more to do with how remote and hard to get to the mountain was with a 150-mile grueling approach just to get the base. Meru was straight up and down. Hkakabo was a sideways ridge climb, so even though each section wasn’t as difficult you also had to save enough energy to re-climb features going back the other way!
You spent a lot of time solo when you were just starting out, living not even in a van but just camping in the desert. Do you miss that simplicity sometimes?
Yeah, after college I spent six years just living on the road hitch hiking with climbing friends from national park to national park, practicing art, and climbing without cameras or even a cell phone. Those “dirtbag” days I certainly miss and romanticize in the context of life these days that is chocked full of airplane travel, events, emails, and social media. It is nice to know that it is always still there to fall back on if everything else goes awry.
What upcoming projects of yours should we keep an eye out for?
Besides the Myanmar expedition story that is on newsstands for National Geographic magazine and the supporting video content with The North Face online, I’ve also been working on a few personal projects. One is the Sanctity Of Space film with Freddie Wilkinson, which is a look at the joy of exploration and the legacy of the the legendary Brad Washburn. Another film which will be out soon is a film called Sherpa directed by Jen Peedom which I shot a lot of on Everest in 2014, the year of the big avalanche. It shows the Sherpa perspective on Everest, and like Meru, will hopefully help redefine what climbing is for the more general audiences. Also speaking of Nepal, Camp 4 Collective has a short film coming out in a few months called Nepal, I LOVE YOU to help drum up some more support for Nepal as they continue to rebuild after the tragic earthquake. Thanks for keeping an eye out!