Jimmy Chin // MeruFilm.com
Jimmy Chin // MeruFilm.com

9 Facts About Climbing Mount Meru—And Making a Documentary Out of It

Jimmy Chin // MeruFilm.com
Jimmy Chin // MeruFilm.com

Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, and Renan Ozturk made history in 2011 by becoming the first people ever to reach the summit of the central peak of Mount Meru, a nearly 22,000-foot-tall mountain in the Gharwal Himalayas. Today, MERU—a documentary about the trio’s experience, filmed by the men as they climbed—is hitting theaters. We sat down with co-directors Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi to talk about what makes the mountain special, why it’s so tough to climb, and how the men went from filming their journey for posterity to making a feature length doc.

1. IT’S THE ANTI-EVEREST.

Outside of serious climbers, few know about Mount Meru, which is the opposite of the most famous Himalayan mountain in many ways. “As a professional climber, everybody’s like, ‘Have you ever climbed Everest?’” says Chin, who has climbed that mountain twice and once skied down from the summit. “It’s what people are familiar with, and it’s created this stereotype of mountain climbing: People with big down suits walking up a big slope.” 

But the Shark's Fin route up the northwest side of Meru’s central peak is a much tougher, and more technical, climb: Those looking to make the 20,700-foot summit need to carry 200 pounds of gear—there are no Sherpas to haul heavy loads at Meru, as there are at Everest—and be very, very experienced in all kinds of climbing, from mixed ice to big wall. There’s 4,000 feet of technical climbing before hitting the route’s most daunting feature, a 1,500-foot stretch of nearly featureless granite. 

“You can show up at Everest having never really climbed before, because it’s like hiking, basically,” Chin says. “You can’t show up on Meru and start up the thing unless you have years and years of experience. Climbing and spending time on the mountains is really the only way you can train.”

2. MANY PEOPLE HAVE TRIED TO CLIMB IT—AND FAILED.

Climbers had been trying to conquer the Shark’s Fin route for 30 years before Anker, Chin, and Ozturk made it in October 2011. According to Chin, before the trio’s 2008 ascent (when bad weather delayed their progress up the mountain and, facing food shortages, they were forced to turn back just 300 feet from the peak), “the highest attempt had basically only gotten halfway.” One climber even broke both legs in the attempt. “The top climbers in the world had attempted this climb and couldn’t do it,” Vasarhelyi says. “That history is what makes Meru special.

“If there’s a known route that’s kind of stunning and beautiful and has that aesthetic, just having that many failures on it, in itself, draws more climbers towards it,” Chin says. “Having it go 30 years with that many [unsuccessful] attempts is a long time.”

3. THERE AREN’T MANY OTHER ROUTES LIKE THIS ONE.

Though there are a number of other challenging routes up mountains, including on Meru's other peaks, “I don’t know of many [routes] specifically like the Shark’s Fin because the upper head wall was overhanging, and that just doesn’t happen geologically that much," Chin says. 

4. THREE CLIMBERS IS THE MAGIC NUMBER.

And there are two main reasons why: “One, if somebody gets injured, you have two people to help evacuate him,” Chin says. More than three people, and you’d need more equipment, including two portaledges (hanging tents that are anchored into the rock thousands of feet above the ground) and the weight of all the gear would become too much. But with a three-person team, “you can get everybody in one portaledge, and then you can always have one team climbing, like one person leading, one person belaying, and then the third can either be resting, melting snow, organizing gear,” Chin says. “There’s a certain efficiency to it.”

5. THE FALL IS THE BEST TIME TO CLIMB.

The Himalayas have two main climbing seasons, in the spring and in the fall. “Geographically, one season favors one part of the Himalayas and one season favors another part,” Chin says. “For the Garhwal, the fall is great because supposedly the weather is a little bit more stable.” But there’s a downside to a fall climb: “It does usually mean it’s a lot colder, and the days are getting shorter.”

6. GETTING DOWN TOOK THREE DAYS.

The trio’s 2011 ascent took 11 days, and they made it back down in just three. “It’s a lot easier, but it’s way more dangerous,” Chin says. “Statistically, most accidents happen during the descent.”

7. BRINGING ALONG EQUIPMENT TO FILM MEANT SACRIFICING FOOD.

Chin and Ozturk are both filmmakers, and shot their journeys up Meru in both 2008 and 2011. But bringing along the cameras and batteries to shoot meant making sacrifices. When you’re climbing and dragging gear with you, “weight is a really big deal,” Vasarheyli says. “They cut the labels out of their jackets and the handles off their toothbrushes. The 15 pounds of camera gear is equivalent to two days of food, which they certainly could have used on the first climb. There’s really only two hours of direct sunlight a day, so it made no sense to bring a solar charger, so instead they weighed the charger and said ‘OK, this weight would be equivalent to this many batteries, so we can bring this many extra batteries.’ Those kinds of calculations are stunning to think about.”

There were other challenges presented by filming while climbing, too: No shot could hold up the climb, and whoever was filming had to hold his breath so as to not disrupt the shot. “Because it’s high altitude, breathing is an issue,” Vasarhelyi explains. “The takes are short because otherwise you’re panting, so they’re holding their breath while shooting a shot.” The various restrictions on filming meant there was not a lot of footage when they came off the mountain.

8. THE MEN WERE ORIGINALLY DOCUMENTING FOR POSTERITY, NOT A FILM.

Chin says he never even considered turning the film into a feature-length documentary until after the 2011 climb. “It just seemed very daunting, but it struck me that there was enough going on with all the characters, and there was also this motivation to share some aspects of climbing that have always been really important to me, which I didn’t feel like people understood or got—the friendship, and the mentorship, and kind of the loyalty,” he says. 

He began assembling rough cuts, and showed them to Vasarhelyi in 2012. “I had never seen footage like this, and it was unique to the situation and the particular skill set of the climbers and the fact that there are three of them and they’re filming each other,” she says. “We had this wonderful footage, but the question, I think, when you make a feature-length doc is, are there ways that people who aren’t familiar with climbing can identify with the story?”

So she stepped behind the camera to interview the climbers and their families to flesh the film out. “I’m not a climber, so I was very interested in the human story,” she says. “That’s what happens in feature docs. The more time you spend, the more nuance emerges, the more a story evolves—but it’s different than fiction where you can reshoot something. There’s no reshooting on Meru.” 

9. NO ONE HAS MADE IT TO THE TOP OF THE SHARK’S FIN ROUTE SINCE.

Chin credits the trio’s success where so many others had failed to a few things: better weather; what they learned from their first climb; and, mostly, Anker, for whom the third attempt to climb the mountain was the charm (before the 2008 attempt, he tried his luck in 2003). “Conrad had 30 years of experience climbing,” Chin says. “That type of climbing—alpine, big wall climbing—is his kind of specialty, and he’s also this very innovative character. He’s always open to trying new things. He’s a strategist, and he’s very detail oriented. When it comes to our climbing systems, everything has to be the most efficient. His expectations are very high. He deserves a lot of the credit.”

And though no one has completed the route since he, Anker, and Ozturk did, Chin has a prediction: “There’s a very, very, very small percentage of really hardcore climbers who will watch the movie and be like, ‘I want to go there,’” he says. “But 99.9999 percent of people would never want to go there after they watch [the doc].”

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The Curious Origins of 16 Common Phrases
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Our favorite basketball writer is ESPN's Zach Lowe. On his podcast, the conversation often takes detours into the origins of certain phrases. We compiled a list from Zach and added a few of our own, then sent them to language expert Arika Okrent. Where do these expressions come from anyway?

1. BY THE SAME TOKEN

Bus token? Game token? What kind of token is involved here? Token is a very old word, referring to something that’s a symbol or sign of something else. It could be a pat on the back as a token, or sign, of friendship, or a marked piece of lead that could be exchanged for money. It came to mean a fact or piece of evidence that could be used as proof. “By the same token” first meant, basically “those things you used to prove that can also be used to prove this.” It was later weakened into the expression that just says “these two things are somehow associated.”

2. GET ON A SOAPBOX

1944: A woman standing on a soapbox speaking into a mic
Express/Express/Getty Images

The soapbox that people mount when they “get on a soapbox” is actually a soap box, or rather, one of the big crates that used to hold shipments of soap in the late 1800s. Would-be motivators of crowds would use them to stand on as makeshift podiums to make proclamations, speeches, or sales pitches. The soap box then became a metaphor for spontaneous speech making or getting on a roll about a favorite topic.

3. TOMFOOLERY

The notion of Tom fool goes a long way. It was the term for a foolish person as long ago as the Middle Ages (Thomas fatuus in Latin). Much in the way the names in the expression Tom, Dick, and Harry are used to mean “some generic guys,” Tom fool was the generic fool, with the added implication that he was a particularly absurd one. So the word tomfoolery suggested an incidence of foolishness that went a bit beyond mere foolery.

4. GO BANANAS

chimp eating banana
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The expression “go bananas” is slang, and the origin is a bit harder to pin down. It became popular in the 1950s, around the same time as “go ape,” so there may have been some association between apes, bananas, and crazy behavior. Also, banana is just a funny-sounding word. In the 1920s people said “banana oil!” to mean “nonsense!”

5. RUN OF THE MILL

If something is run of the mill, it’s average, ordinary, nothing special. But what does it have to do with milling? It most likely originally referred to a run from a textile mill. It’s the stuff that’s just been manufactured, before it’s been decorated or embellished. There were related phrases like “run of the mine,” for chunks of coal that hadn’t been sorted by size yet, and “run of the kiln,” for bricks as they came out without being sorted for quality yet.

6. READ THE RIOT ACT

The Law's Delay: Reading The Riot Act 1820
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When you read someone the riot act you give a stern warning, but what is it that you would you have been reading? The Riot Act was a British law passed in 1714 to prevent riots. It went into effect only when read aloud by an official. If too many people were gathering and looking ready for trouble, an officer would let them know that if they didn’t disperse, they would face punishment.

7. HANDS DOWN

Hands down comes from horse racing, where, if you’re way ahead of everyone else, you can relax your grip on the reins and let your hands down. When you win hands down, you win easily.

8. SILVER LINING

The silver lining is the optimistic part of what might otherwise be gloomy. The expression can be traced back directly to a line from Milton about a dark cloud revealing a silver lining, or halo of bright sun behind the gloom. The idea became part of literature and part of the culture, giving us the proverb “every cloud has a silver lining” in the mid-1800s.

9. HAVE YOUR WORK CUT OUT

The expression “you’ve got your work cut out for you” comes from tailoring. To do a big sewing job, all the pieces of fabric are cut out before they get sewn together. It seems like if your work has been cut for you, it should make job easier, but we don’t use the expression that way. The image is more that your task is well defined and ready to be tackled, but all the difficult parts are yours to get to. That big pile of cut-outs isn’t going to sew itself together!

10. THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

A grapevine is a system of twisty tendrils going from cluster to cluster. The communication grapevine was first mentioned in 1850s, the telegraph era. Where the telegraph was a straight line of communication from one person to another, the “grapevine telegraph” was a message passed from person to person, with some likely twists along the way.

11. THE WHOLE SHEBANG

The earliest uses of shebang were during the Civil War era, referring to a hut, shed, or cluster of bushes where you’re staying. Some officers wrote home about “running the shebang,” meaning the encampment. The origin of the word is obscure, but because it also applied to a tavern or drinking place, it may go back to the Irish word shebeen for a ramshackle drinking establishment.

12. PUSH THE ENVELOPE

Pushing the envelope belongs to the modern era of the airplane. The “flight envelope” is a term from aeronautics meaning the boundary or limit of performance of a flight object. The envelope can be described in terms of mathematical curves based on things like speed, thrust, and atmosphere. You push it as far as you can in order to discover what the limits are. Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff brought the expression into wider use.

13. CAN’T HOLD A CANDLE

We say someone can’t hold a candle to someone else when their skills don’t even come close to being as good. In other words, that person isn’t even good enough to hold up a candle so that a talented person can see what they’re doing in order to work. Holding the candle to light a workspace would have been the job of an assistant, so it’s a way of saying not even fit to be the assistant, much less the artist.

14. THE ACID TEST

Most acids dissolve other metals much more quickly than gold, so using acid on a metallic substance became a way for gold prospectors to see if it contained gold. If you pass the acid test, you didn’t dissolve—you’re the real thing.

15. GO HAYWIRE

What kind of wire is haywire? Just what it says—a wire for baling hay. In addition to tying up bundles, haywire was used to fix and hold things together in a makeshift way, so a dumpy, patched-up place came to be referred to as “a hay-wire outfit.” It then became a term for any kind of malfunctioning thing. The fact that the wire itself got easily tangled when unspooled contributed to the “messed up” sense of the word.

16. CALLED ON THE CARPET

Carpet used to mean a thick cloth that could be placed in a range of places: on the floor, on the bed, on a table. The floor carpet is the one we use most now, so the image most people associate with this phrase is one where a servant or employee is called from plainer, carpetless room to the fancier, carpeted part of the house. But it actually goes back to the tablecloth meaning. When there was an issue up for discussion by some kind of official council it was “on the carpet.”

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15 Facts About the Summer Solstice
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It's the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, so soak up some of those direct sunrays (safely, of course) and celebrate the start of summer with these solstice facts.

1. THIS YEAR IT'S JUNE 21.

June 21 date against a yellow background
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The summer solstice always occurs between June 20 and June 22, but because the calendar doesn't exactly reflect the Earth's rotation, the precise time shifts slightly each year. For 2018, the sun will reach its greatest height in the sky for the Northern Hemisphere on June 21 at 6:07 a.m. Eastern Time.

2. THE SUN WILL BE DIRECTLY OVERHEAD AT THE TROPIC OF CANCER.

A vintage mapped globe showing the Tropic of Cancer
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While the entire Northern Hemisphere will see its longest day of the year on the summer solstice, the sun is only directly overhead at the Tropic of Cancer (23 degrees 27 minutes north latitude).

3. THE NAME COMES FROM THE FACT THAT THE SUN APPEARS TO STAND STILL.

Stonehenge at sunrise.
CARL DE SOUZA, AFP/Getty Images

The term "solstice" is derived from the Latin words sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still), because the sun's relative position in the sky at noon does not appear to change much during the solstice and its surrounding days. The rest of the year, the Earth's tilt on its axis—roughly 23.5 degrees—causes the sun's path in the sky to rise and fall from one day to the next.

4. THE WORLD'S BIGGEST BONFIRE WAS PART OF A SOLSTICE CELEBRATION.

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Celebrations have been held in conjunction with the solstice in cultures around the world for hundreds of years. Among these is Sankthans, or "Midsummer," which is celebrated on June 24 in Scandinavian countries. In 2016, the people of Ålesund, Norway, set a world record for the tallest bonfire with their 155.5-foot celebratory bonfire.

5. THE HOT WEATHER FOLLOWS THE SUN BY A FEW WEEKS.

Colorful picture of the sun hitting ocean waves.
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You may wonder why, if the solstice is the longest day of the year—and thus gets the most sunlight—the temperature usually doesn't reach its annual peak until a month or two later. It's because water, which makes up most of the Earth's surface, has a high specific heat, meaning it takes a while to both heat up and cool down. Because of this, the Earth's temperature takes about six weeks to catch up to the sun.

6. THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE GATHER AT STONEHENGE TO CELEBRATE.

Rollo Maughfling, the Archdruid of Glastonbury and Stonehenge, conducts a Solstice celebration service for revelers as they wait for the midsummer sunrise at Stonehenge on June 21, 2012, near Salisbury, England.
Rollo Maughfling, the Archdruid of Glastonbury and Stonehenge, conducts a Solstice celebration service for revelers as they wait for the midsummer sunrise at Stonehenge on June 21, 2012, near Salisbury, England.
Matt Cardy, Getty Images

People have long believed that Stonehenge was the site of ancient druid solstice celebrations because of the way the sun lines up with the stones on the winter and summer solstices. While there's no proven connection between Celtic solstice celebrations and Stonehenge, these days, thousands of modern pagans gather at the landmark to watch the sunrise on the solstice.

7. PAGANS CELEBRATE THE SOLSTICE WITH SYMBOLS OF FIRE AND WATER.

Arty image of fire and water colliding.
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In Paganism and Wicca, Midsummer is celebrated with a festival known as Litha. In ancient Europe, the festival involved rolling giant wheels lit on fire into bodies of water to symbolize the balance between fire and water.

8. IN ANCIENT EGYPT, THE SOLSTICE HERALDED THE NEW YEAR.

Stars in the night sky.
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In Ancient Egypt, the summer solstice preceded the appearance of the Sirius star, which the Egyptians believed was responsible for the annual flooding of the Nile that they relied upon for agriculture. Because of this, the Egyptian calendar was set so that the start of the year coincided with the appearance of Sirius, just after the solstice.

9. THE ANCIENT CHINESE HONORED THE YIN ON THE SOLSTICE.

Yin and yang symbol on textured sand.
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In ancient China, the summer solstice was the yin to the winter solstice's yang—literally. Throughout the year, the Chinese believed, the powers of yin and yang waxed and waned in reverse proportion to each other. At the summer solstice, the influence of yang was at its height, but the celebration centered on the impending switch to yin. At the winter solstice, the opposite switch was honored.

10. IN ALASKA, THE SOLSTICE IS CELEBRATED WITH A MIDNIGHT BASEBALL GAME.

Silhouette of a baseball player.
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Each year on the summer solstice, the Alaska Goldpanners of Fairbanks celebrate their status as the most northerly baseball team on the planet with a game that starts at 10:00 p.m. and stretches well into the following morning—without the need for artificial light—known as the Midnight Sun Game. The tradition originated in 1906 and was taken over by the Goldpanners in their first year of existence, 1960.

11. THE EARTH IS ACTUALLY AT ITS FARTHEST FROM THE SUN DURING THE SOLSTICE.

The Earth tilted on its axis.
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You might think that because the solstice occurs in summer that it means the Earth is closest to the sun in its elliptical revolution. However, the Earth is actually closest to the sun when the Northern Hemisphere experiences winter and is farthest away during the summer solstice. The warmth of summer comes exclusively from the tilt of the Earth's axis, and not from how close it is to the sun at any given time. 

12. IRONICALLY, THE SOLSTICE MARKS A DARK TIME IN SCIENCE HISTORY.

Galileo working on a book.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Legend has it that it was on the summer solstice in 1633 that Galileo was forced to recant his declaration that the Earth revolves around the Sun; even with doing so, he still spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

13. AN ALTERNATIVE CALENDAR HAD AN EXTRA MONTH NAMED AFTER THE SOLSTICE.

Pages of a calendar
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In 1902, a British railway system employee named Moses B. Cotsworth attempted to institute a new calendar system that would standardize the months into even four-week segments. To do so, he needed to add an extra month to the year. The additional month was inserted between June and July and named Sol because the summer solstice would always fall during this time. Despite Cotsworth's traveling campaign to promote his new calendar, it failed to catch on.

14. IN ANCIENT GREECE, THE SOLSTICE FESTIVAL MARKED A TIME OF SOCIAL EQUALITY.

Ancient Greek sculpture in stone.
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The Greek festival of Kronia, which honored Cronus, the god of agriculture, coincided with the solstice. The festival was distinguished from other annual feasts and celebrations in that slaves and freemen participated in the festivities as equals.

15. ANCIENT ROME HONORED THE GODDESS VESTA ON THE SOLSTICE.

Roman statue of a vestal virgin
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In Rome, midsummer coincided with the festival of Vestalia, which honored Vesta, the Roman goddess who guarded virginity and was considered the patron of the domestic sphere. On the first day of this festival, married women were allowed to enter the temple of the Vestal virgins, from which they were barred the rest of the year.

A version of this list originally ran in 2015.

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