They tried, and failed, to scale Meru. After 20 days, a mere 150 meters from the summit, Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk turned around. The weather didn't suit the final ascent. They didn't have the supplies. They weren't stupid. That was 2008. In the years to come, a near-death skiing accident would leave Ozturk with cranial and spinal fractures. A roaring avalanche would nearly swallow Chin 2,000 feet into another climb. And though he'd go unscathed, ghosts haunted Anker's dream of Meru. His mentor Terrence "Mugs" Stump wanted to best the impossible mountain, too. He died in 1992, while descending Mount McKinley.
But there was never a question: They would return to Meru. And in 2011, they did.
The title character of Chin's new documentary documenting the return trip, Meru, isn't a villain. There are mountains that want to be feared: the Eiger (or "ogre" in Swiss); the Kala Patthar ("black rock") in Nepal; and Norway's "Troll Wall," looming dark and sinister—even in photographs. But Meru is sacred. It lives at the center of Hindu mythology. And in Chin's eyes, it is a pacifist rock, remaining steady and silent as elements swirl around its face. "Sometimes you do attribute certain characteristics to it, but they're your own," Chin admits. "The way we approached Meru, and the way we approach a lot of these mountains, is with humility. A sense of, 'Is it going to give us passage?' Your mental attitude can affect the outcome."
Getting to Meru's 6,310-meter central peak involves every discipline of climbing. Mountaineers call it the "anti-Everest" because it's a rigorous, almost spiritual journey. There aren't sherpas to hold anyone's hand. Instead, there is ice, there are boulders, and there are crags jutting out at every angle. Even the easiest moves require maximum strength and endurance. And then there's the Shark's Fin: 1,500 feet of smooth granite. Pitching into its smooth surface is like finding a stud in wall. Miss, and the soft rock cracks and falls. The climber does, too. Meru isn't for amateurs and is barely for veterans. Its terrain can't be underestimated. And that's what went wrong for the trio during their 2003 ascent. "We went lightweight thinking we could climb it anywhere from two nights out—a three-day climb—to five nights out, which would be like a six- or seven-day climb," Anker recalls. "For five days you can basically get that amount of food in your pack and punch it and endure and then be done with it. But you've got to carry up all the gear. And a big part of this is being able to endure in difficult climates and being able to stay warm. And be on the side of the cliff where you drop something and it's gone and you can't make any mistakes. The whole systems are pretty complex."
A day on Meru lasts 18 hours. One person leads a pitch, climbing up the weaknesses—ice, snow, or rock—and placing protection. He places the pitons, clips his rope through them, and secures his line. The team climbs higher. Then there's more pitching. Then rappelling down to secure camp. Then hauling the gear up with human counterweight. And then more climbing. More pitching. More hauling. Ice on the body. Snow in the face. More pitching. Freeze. Cold. Climbing. Wind. Hauling. Snow. Ice. Cold. Music amplifies willpower (Eddie Vedder's Into the Wild soundtrack for Anker, Pretty Lights for Chin), and more snow works to counter. More ice. More pitching. More wind. More climbing. More snow. More hauling. The coldest cold. "When I haul, and you're into that every two or three feet, you have to move your clamps up the rope," Anker says. "In my head, I go through the names of my family. 'Jenny, Max, Sam, Isaac, my mother, and then my siblings and then my cousins,' and then I'll loop back around to it." Pitching. Ice. Hauling. Snow. Climbing. Cold.
This is the team's portaledge, the hanging tent that gives Anker, Chin, and Oturk a chance to reboot. Each morning on Meru, they dined in the confines of their canopy, soaking up every ounce of energy in the ether. "Once we got up higher on the wall," Ankers says, "we only had about an hour-and-a-half of sunlight in the morning because the wall faces northeast. We kind of accepted the best use of that sunlight was to have it warm up our tents and to have breakfast in it. We tried to absorb that warmth and take it with us."
They needed the warmth, but Anker feeds on the tundra (the wind, the snow, the cold). The type of mountainside snowstorms that burrow their freeze down to a person's core remind Anker of a Jack London story. He's part of the wild. He is man. "When I was a kid, we would build pillow forts. My pillow fort was always like Ice Station 9 in Antarctica. The other kids would come by and be like, 'Oh! The wind and snow is blowing.' From a young age I wanted to be out there and surviving. I'm a high-strung, hyperactive guy."
Chin, now sitting comfortably across from Anker in the comfort of a Chelsea office space, laughs. "It can also be kind of awful," he says. "But it's so much about how you think about it. I think you're really fighting the cold. You're fighting the cold on a number of levels because it's cold out, but you're also in caloric debt so you don't have the fuel to keep your extremities warm essentially. There's a sense—this primal satisfaction—when things are blowing hard and there's a lot of snow but you feel strong and you feel like you're in control. But you also feel a certain sense of—it's very gratifying to be in that situation and feel like, 'I'm in it and I'm fine.'"
Existence begged them to stay off Meru, but they went anyway. And when Anker finally made it to the top of the central peak, he thought it was humbling. "We were thankful to the mountain. We were thankful to our friends who had created this dream with us. To our teammates. We chopped a little platform out and we brewed coffee." But trekking to the top of the unclimbable mountain isn't like winning the Super Bowl. There was no pour-Gatorade-on-your-heads moment. The testosterone wasn't pumping. They hadn't won yet. Because there's no win in climbing until you're home. "We had to get off this damn thing," he remembers. "If we let our hubris get the better side of us, we're cooked."
Every climber is asked, "Why?" There's no answer. Like a Prometheus of earthly beauty, Chin just wants to photograph and videotape Meru's spectacle and give a glimpse of it to the people. "I don't know how else to justify it," he says. And Anker doesn't see Meru as the end of his road. It is the toughest climb on the planet, by all technical standards. And yet. "Eventually, yes, every mountain will be climbed. And on a personal level, I don't feel like I have to do something that's bigger and better. I'm not saying Meru is the apex of all of what I did. It was a really beautiful thing. It's more like artwork for us because we're always evolving what we do. It's kind of this odd performance art that first ascent climbing involves. You have to look at the mountain, figure out where to go. What's the aesthetic line? Is it safe? It's sort of our opening a route. Fewer people have been on that wall in Meru than have been on the moon."
That's a reason.
This article originally appeared on US Esquire