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Jimmy Chin //

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

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Jimmy Chin //

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.


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.”


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.”


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. 


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.”


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.”


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.”


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.


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.” 


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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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images
Pop Culture
5 Killer Pieces of Rock History Up for Auction Now (Including Prince’s Guitar)
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Karrah Kobus/NPG Records via Getty Images

If you’ve ever wanted to own a piece of rock history, now is the time. A whole host of cool music memorabilia from the 20th century is going up for sale through Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles as part of its “Icons and Idols” sale. If you’ve got the dough, you can nab everything from leather chairs from Graceland to a shirt worn by Jimi Hendrix to never-before-available prints that Joni Mitchell signed and gave to her friends. Here are five highlights from the auction:


Elvis’s nunchucks
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Elvis’s karate skills sometimes get a bad rap, but the King earned his first black belt in 1960, and went on to become a seventh-degree black belt before opening his own studio in 1974. You can cherish a piece of his martial arts legacy in the form of his nunchaku. One was broken during his training, but the other is still in ready-to-use shape. (But please don’t use it.) It seems Elvis wasn’t super convinced of his own karate skills, though, because he also supposedly carried a police baton (which you can also buy) for his personal protection.


A blue guitar used by Prince
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

Prince’s blue Cloud guitar, estimated to be worth between $60,000 and $80,000, appeared on stage with him in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The custom guitar was made just for Prince by Cloud’s luthier (as in, guitar maker) Andy Beech. The artist first sold it at a 1994 auction to benefit relief efforts for the L.A. area’s devastating Northridge earthquake.


Kurt Cobain wearing a cheerleader outfit in the pages of Rolling Stone
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

The Nirvana frontman wore the bright-yellow cheerleader’s uniform from his alma mater, J.M. Weatherwax High School in Aberdeen, Washington, during a photo shoot for a January 1994 issue of Rolling Stone, released just a few months before his death.


A white glove covered in rhinestones
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

A young Michael Jackson wore this bejeweled right-hand glove on his 1981 Triumph Tour, one of the first of many single gloves he would don over the course of his career. Unlike later incarnations, this one isn’t a custom-made glove with hand-sewn crystals, but a regular glove topped with a layer of rhinestones cut into the shape of the glove and sewn on top.

The auction house is also selling a pair of jeans the star wore to his 2003 birthday party, as well as other clothes he wore for music videos and performances.


A piece of wood in a frame under a picture of The Beatles
Courtesy Julien's Auctions

You can’t walk the halls of Abbey Road Studios, but you can pretend. First sold in 1986, the piece of wood in this frame reportedly came from Studio Two, a recording space that hosted not only The Beatles (pictured), but Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Eric Clapton, and others.

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Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0
5 Dubious Historical Antidotes for Poison (and What Actually Works)
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An artificial bezoar stone from Goa, India
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

When it comes to their health, humans will believe just about anything. In this extract from the new book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything, authors Lydia Kang, MD, and Nate Pedersen discuss some of the more questionable ways people once tried to protect themselves from poison—whether or not the methods actually worked.

Poison is everywhere. Naturally or unnaturally, it can be in the soil (arsenic), in the air (carbon monoxide), in your drinks (lead), and in your food (cyanide). With so much danger around, it’s no wonder humans have obsessed over finding a universal antidote—the one thing that could save us from all toxins. Imagine you’re a medieval prince about to inherit the throne. Chances are, there are a lot of power-hungry wannabes waiting in the wings. A little arsenic or hemlock might be your best friend or your worst nightmare. Just in case, best have an antidote on standby.

For millennia, a certain amount of magical thinking was employed when arming oneself against poison because science was inconveniently slow to catch up. So grab your handy unicorn horn and a bezoar, and let’s take a look.


Bezoars have been used for centuries as antidotes to poisons. A bezoar is solid mass of undigested food, plant fibers, or hair found in the digestive tracts of animals, including deer, porcupines, fish, and, yes, humans. Anyone with a cat is familiar with the less-cool feline version: hairballs.

Bezoars and other stone-like items created by animals often had a good story behind them. Legends told of deer that would eat poisonous snakes and become immune or cry tears that solidified into poison-curing stones. First-century Arabic author al-Birumi claimed bezoars could protect against one poison called “the snot of Satan,” which we hope never ever to encounter. By the 12th century, when Europe became plagued with, uh, plagues, the bezoar crept into pharmacopeias as panaceas and alexipharmics (poison antidotes).

Bezoars were a seductive notion for the rich and royal, who were at risk of assassination. The stones were often enclosed in bejeweled gold for display or worn as amulets. Indian bezoars, in particular, were sought for life-threatening fevers, poisonous bites, bleeding, jaundice, and melancholy. Consumers were also known to scrape off a bit of bezoar and add it to their drinks for heart health and kidney stones. These tonics were sometimes adulterated with toxic mercury or antimony, which caused vomiting and diarrhea, making buyers think they were effective.

But were they? One team of researchers soaked bezoars in an arsenic-laced solution and found that the stones absorbed the arsenic or that the poison was neutralized. Hard to say if it worked well enough to cure a fatal dose. Ambroise Paré, one of the preeminent French physicians of the 16th century, was also a doubter. The king’s cook, who’d been stealing silver, was given the choice between hanging or being Paré’s lab rat. He chose the latter. After the cook consumed poison, Paré looked on as a bezoar was stuffed down his throat. Six hours later, he died wracked with pain. Perhaps he chose ... poorly?


This antidote was named after Mithridates VI, the king of Pontus and Armenia Minor. Born in 134 BCE, he pretty much invented the phrase “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” by consuming poisons daily to prevent his own assassination. His royal home was stocked with stingray spines, toxic mushrooms, scorpions, mineral poisons, and a poisonous plant–filled garden. He was so unpoisonable that after his son took over his kingdom and he faced execution, he couldn’t even commit suicide by poison! He begged a guard to stab him to death. (It worked.)

Though the king’s actual recipe for the antidote is nowhere to be found, versions began to circulate after his death, and they became synonymous with the king himself. Compounds with lengthy and expensive ingredient lists prevailed, including iris, cardamom, anise, frankincense, myrrh, ginger, and saffron. In the first century, Pliny the Elder snarkily remarked, “The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients ... Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? ... It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Showy or not, people would take the extensive mix of herbs, pound them together with honey, and eat a nut-sized portion to cure themselves. At least it endowed them with expensive-smelling breath.


An apothecary shop sign in the shape of a unicorn
An ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn's head
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Unicorn horns have been considered a part of antidote legend since the mythical beast galloped into literature around 300 BCE. For centuries afterward, real earthly beasts would sacrifice their lives and their horns to slake our thirst for the miraculous, nonexistent animal, including rhinoceroses, narwhals, and oryx. Even fossilized ammonites were used. It was believed that drinking vessels made of such horns might neutralize poisons, and wounds could be cured by holding them close by. In the 16th century, Mary, Queen of Scots reportedly used a unicorn horn to protect her from poisoning. Too bad it didn’t prevent her beheading.


Pearls have long been thought to be powerful antidotes. A beautiful, rare gem created by the homely oyster, a pearl is born out of annoyance (the mollusk secretes iridescent nacre to cover an irritant, like a parasite or grain of sand). Pretty as they are, they’re about as useful as the chalky antacid tablets on your bedside table; both are chiefly made of calcium carbonate. Good for a stomachache after some spicy food, but not exactly miraculous.

Pearl powder has been used in traditional Chinese medicine to treat a variety of diseases, and Ayurvedic physicians used it as an antidote in the Middle Ages. It was also reported to make people immortal. An old Taoist recipe recommended taking a long pearl and soaking it in malt, “serpent’s gall,” honeycomb, and pumice stone. When softened, it would be pulled like taffy and cut into bite-sized pieces to eat, and voilà! You would suddenly no longer need food to stay alive. Cleopatra famously drank down a large and costly pearl dissolved in wine vinegar, though in that case she wasn’t avoiding poison. She didn’t want to lose a bet with Antony—which might have fatally injured her pride.


Albarello vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
A vase for theriac, Italy, 1641
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Theriac was an herbal concoction created in the first century by Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, who was reported to have Mithridates’s secret notes. It was a mashed formula of about 70 ingredients, including cinnamon, opium, rose, iris, lavender, and acacia in a honey base. In the 12th century, theriac made in Venice was branded as particularly special, and Venetian treacle (derived from a Middle English translation of theriac) became a hot commodity. Its public, dramatic production often attracted curious crowds.

By the 18th century, cheaper golden syrup was substituted for honey. As treacle began to lose its luster as a treatment, its definition as an herbal remedy disappeared from common vernacular. But the sweet syrup remained. Which is why when we think of treacle, we think of treacle tarts, not a fancy means of saving ourselves from a deathly poisoning.


Thankfully, science has brought us a wide range of antidotes for many items we shouldn’t be exposed to in dangerous quantities, if at all. N-acetylcysteine, fondly referred to as NAC by doctors, saves us from acetaminophen overdoses. Ethanol can treat antifreeze poisoning. Atropine, ironically one of the main components of plants in the toxic nightshade family (such as mandrake), can treat poisoning from some dangerous fertilizers and chemical nerve agents used as weapons. For years, poisonings were treated with emetics, though it turns out that plain old carbon—in the form of activated charcoal—can adsorb poisons (the poisons stick to the surface of the charcoal) in the digestive system before they’re dissolved and digested by the body.

As long as the natural world and its humans keep making things to kill us off, we’ll keep developing methods to not die untimely deaths.

We’ll just leave the fancy hairballs off the list.

The cover of the book Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything
Workman Publishing

Excerpt from Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang, MD and Nate Pedersen/Workman Publishing. Used with permission.


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