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Why "Meru" Isn't Just a Film About Rock Climbing...

· Entrepreneurship

So last Friday I had the opportunity to stay in and watch a documentary which I'd been waiting over a year to see: Meru. It won the "Audience Award" at the Sundance Film Festival, and is available for viewing either on iTunes ($14.99 pricepoint is tough to swallow) or Amazon ($4.99 rental is more manageable).  Why did I "need" to wait an entire year, you ask?  Because I'm "frugal" (read: cheap), and was perpetually waiting for it to come out on Netflix for streaming, to no avail.

What is Meru, you ask? I'll let the official website explain:

In the high-stakes game of big-wall climbing, the Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru may be the ultimate prize. Sitting at the headwaters of the sacred Ganges River in Northern India, the Shark’s Fin has seen more failed attempts by elite climbing teams over the past 30 years than any other ascent in the Himalayas.

The layout of the 21,000-foot mountain’s perversely stacked obstacles makes it both a nightmare and an irresistible calling for some of the world’s toughest climbers. Hauling over 200 pounds of gear up 4,000-feet of technical, snowy, mixed ice and rock climbing is actually the simple part of this endeavor. After crossing that gauntlet you reach the Shark’s Fin itself: 1,500 feet of smooth, nearly featureless granite. There are few pre-existing fissures, cracks or footwalls. It is simply a straight sheet of overhanging rock.

To undertake Meru, says Jon Krakauer, the bestselling author of Into Thin Air, “You can’t just be a good ice climber. You can’t just be good at altitude. You can’t just be a good rock climber. It’s defeated so many good climbers and maybe will defeat everybody for all time. Meru isn’t Everest. On Everest you can hire Sherpas to take most of the risks. This is a whole different kind of climbing.”

In October 2008, Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk arrived in India to tackle Meru. What was meant to be a seven-day trip with the equivalent amount of food became a 20-day odyssey in sub-zero temperatures, thanks to the setback of a massive storm that showered the mountain with at least 10 feet of snow. Like everyone before them, their journey was not a successful one. But they had reached further than anyone else, beaten back just 100 meters below the elusive summit.

Heartbroken and defeated, Anker, Chin and Ozturk returned to their everyday lives, swearing never to attempt the journey again. But they faced sudden physical and emotional challenges back home, too, challenges only exacerbated by the siren song of Meru, one that Anker perhaps heard the loudest. By September 2011, Anker had convinced his two lifelong friends to undertake the Shark’s Fin once more, under even more extraordinary circumstances than the first time around.

Amazingly, this review doesn't even mention that separate avalanches caused 2 of the climbers (Ozturk & Chin, respectively) to literally crack his skull open and flat out be almost buried alive.

Needless to say, I absolutely LOVED it.  It include amazing climbing scenes (I can barely climb a fence), included interviews with Jon Krakauer (I literally inhale his books like a drug), and had unreal cinematography, but I think I officially developed a full-on man-crush for Jimmy Chin: climber, skier, photographer, filmer, director, & producer...and extraordinary at every. single. one.

I know, I must be asking "But what if I don't give a shit about climbing, and I dont want to watch three dudes talk to no one else but each other for an hour and a half?" Well, I think I have an answer for you: sure Meru is about rock climbing on the surface....but the messages from the movie? They are transferable to SO much more, especially from the lens of entrepreneurship....

Here are a few themes off the top of my head:

  • Collaboration: on their first trip up Meru, they sat in a "tent" (if that's what you call something that literally was hitched up to the side of the mountain) together for over 7 days to wait out a blizzard.  SEVEN DAYS!!  Not to mention the fact that a blizzard went for 7 days, I can't even sit in a car with my Dad for 3 hours without wanting to jump out at a stop light (no offense, Dave!). Additionally, each one of the climbers would spend a day "leading" the climb - they would be the trailblazer of sorts, putting in all the hooks into the rock face to rig the ropes for the other guys to climb up after.  Just like in the business world, you're going to be spending a lot of time with your colleagues, and each one of you is going to have to "take the lead" at some point on certain projects;  Which leads to my next theme:
  • Trust Each Other:  Hitch up a rope incorrectly? 20,000 feet is a long, long way to fall.  These men relied on no one else beyond each other to survive both climbs up Meru.  As you hear right in the beginning of the documentary, Jimmy Chin was somewhat hesitant of Renan before the first climb because he has a very tight circle of friends that he climbs with given the level of trust one must have with his/her climbing partners.  Since Conrad Anker trusted Renan, and Jimmy trusted Conrad, he was accepting of including Renan on the trip.  The theme of trust is just as important in business as well (and relationships, for that matter) - without trusting your colleagues, you lose focus/efficiency, and it can often lead to mistakes being made.
  • Take Calculated Risks: We saw this time and time again throughout Meru.  Every decision each climber made was based on a quick assessment of the potential outcome(s), and though the decision seemed almost binary at times ("if I do this, I will die" vs "if I do this, I won't die"), it was nothing but well-calculated based on multiple data points.  In the back of their heads, Jimmy & Conrad always knew that they had promised their individual families that they would come home from every trip, and every decision was made to keep these promises.  That said, always remember that you can only control what is within your power to control.  The avalanche scares of both Jimmy and Renan during their "down time" in between attempts was a formidable reminder of this truth.  If you have a hunch on a new product or a startup idea, GO FOR IT....but make sure that you have at least done some homework (market research, customer insights, proof of concept, feasibility assessment, etc.) before you put your crampons on and climb that mountain.
  • Be Perseverant: Sure, Jimmy and crew didn't reach the summit during their first trek....but it's not like anyone else had summited Meru before them either!  Not only were they stopped by the mountain itself, but they faced a certain level of hardship after their climb that could have stopped them from continuing (or even be alive, for that matter).  But training (intense rehab, on Renan's part) and perseverance to finish what they started drove them back to the mountain, and never stopped them from reaching their goal.  In fact, the climb of Meru is unique in that anyone who is up for the challenge will no be able to do it if they are only an expert in 1 of the several technical skills required to reach the summit - you must be good enough at all of them!!  When faced with a challenge, hard work, perseverance, and commitment almost always pay off in the long run....and don't be afraid to be a generalist - depending on your individual challenges, specializing in one skill isn't always the answer.                      

As I mentioned, Meru is available via both iTunes and Amazon.  I strongly encourage you to check it out!!

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