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For sweaty palms and white knuckles, watch Free Solo in theaters and Meru on Netflix

For sweaty palms and white knuckles, watch Free Solo in theaters and Meru on Netflix


Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s dual documentaries about terrifying mountain-climbing adventures make a perfect pairing

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Photo: Netflix

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services, and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

Meru, a 2015 documentary co-directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and her husband Jimmy Chin, about the two attempts Chin and his colleagues Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk made at scaling the daunting “Shark’s Fin” wall at India’s Meru Peak. In 2008 and then again in 2011, the trio worked together to overcome bitter cold, strong winds, technically complicated climbing challenges, and their own mental, physical, and emotional limitations to be the first to complete this particular route. Meru makes the difficulties of the feat easy for non-climbers to understand, while combining vertiginous first-person footage and engaging personal stories of these men and their families.

Why watch now?

Because Vasarhelyi and Chin’s new documentary Free Solo is in select theaters now.

Rather than documenting another one of his own expeditions, Chin and Vasarhelyi spent a few years following Alex Honnold and his attempts to be the first person to ascend Yellowstone’s mammoth, near-sheer El Capitan formation without ropes all by himself. (That’s what “free solo” means: athletes climbing alone, relying on just their hands and feet.) Like Meru, Free Solo is split into a three-part structure: a failed try, a period of regrouping, and then a second attempt. Between those passages, Chin and Vasarhelyi fill in details about the history of the sport and Honnold’s place within it, while considering how the climber’s background and psychology might explain his fearlessness.

One of the more striking aspects of Free Solo is the ethical concerns of the filmmakers who interject themselves into the story occasionally to let viewers know — but not in a sleazy, hyped-up kind of way — that there’s a good chance they’ll be recording Honnold’s death. What comes across in both Free Solo and Meru is how close-knit the climbing community is and how the participants all grapple with the idea that they or their friends may never come back from a particularly tricky ascent. Honnold’s situation is complicated by the most serious romantic attachment he’s ever had and his concerns about whether it’s fair to his girlfriend when he puts his life on the line so frequently.

In Meru, the possibility of death also looms, especially for Chin and Ozturk, who both suffer near-fatal accidents (partially caught on-camera!) between their two trips to the Shark’s Fin. As best-selling outdoorsman author Jon Krakauer explains in interviews that run throughout the film, elite climbers understand that there’s no glory in irrational risk. “If you die doing something stupid, you’ve embarrassed yourself,” Krakauer says. The big question that Anker and company keep asking mid-climb is whether it’s worth continuing, knowing that each additional foot up the Fin moves them further away from safety. 

Photo: Netflix

Who it’s for

Adrenaline junkies... or people who want to understand them better.

Vasarhelyi is an accomplished documentary filmmaker, and Chin has had a prosperous career taking pictures and shooting video for National Geographic and other outdoor lifestyle and extreme sports media companies. They both know how to construct stories in ways that can grab and hold an audience, and they both know how to put pictures on the screen that’ll make viewers’ palms sweat and their hearts race. Even while watching Meru from the safety of an easy chair, it’s hard not to feel at least mildly panicked at the sight of these guys camping overnight in a tiny little tent, pegged to the side of a windswept mountain.

What makes these images especially nerve-wracking is that they’re so well set up. The interviews in Meru describe the mix of techniques required to shift between hiking and wall-climbing, and the potentially insurmountable obstacles: frostbite, hypoxia, running out of food, and so forth. The movie also gets into why it matters to be the first to accomplish a summit and how just the notion of doing so nags at climbers their entire lives, persisting beyond any setbacks. Prior injuries, the prospect of miserable cold, the mortal danger… the top climbers ignore all that because, as Chin puts it, “The best alpinists are the ones with the worst memories.”

Photo: Netflix

Where to see it

Netflix. The service currently has several films and TV series that explore the forbidding wilderness and the humans who try to conquer it, such as the documentary Valley Uprising (about the history of rock climbing in Yosemite Valley), the docuseries The Horn (about Swiss rescue crews on the Matterhorn), and Into the Wild (Sean Penn’s thoughtful adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s book about troubled adventurer Christopher McCandless).