See Jimmy Chin and the ‘Meru’ Climbers’ Campsite at 20,000 Feet

National Geographic photographer Jimmy Chin's Sundance award-winning adventure documentary Meru, premieres today in select New York City theaters and will debut nationwide Friday. The film chronicles the 2011 quest of three elite climbers, Chin, Conrad Anker, and Renan Ozturk, to take on one of big-wall climbing's ultimate challenges: the 1,500-foot vertical, nearly featureless granite wall known as Shark's Fin near the peak of the 21,850-foot Mount Meru in the Himalayas.

There are no base camps, no sherpas, and no tourists on Meru, and that required the team to set up camp themselves during their multiple expeditions. And camp just happened to be a tent located at about 20,000 feet and attached to the face of the mountain's wall. During the first expedition in 2008, the team spent four days trapped inside their 20-square-foot tent during a massive snowstorm and, according to Chin, only had a double portaledge with a hammock situated for the third man. After realizing that the hammock was too cold and a double portaledge is too small for three guys, they came back more prepared in 2011 with a custom-built ledge big enough for two-and-a-half people. 

In a National Geographic Adventureblog post and video, Chin explained what it was like to end a day of climbing some of the world's toughest terrain and come home to what they lovingly called the "prime tenthouse suite at 20,000 feet, no elevator." It's described by Chin as a "small, fetid, dank, stinky confined space suspended thousands of feet off the deck" of a mountain, but there is a refuge and comfort in the tent. "While it sounds like it's claustrophobic and terrible in there, it's really your safe haven," explains Chin. "You zip up the door, and it's the first time all day you'll feel comfortable and warm. And usually you can take a break from being scared for a little bit — unless it's storming really heavily. During one really bad storm in 2008, the wind blowing up the wall actually lifted the portaledge with everyone in it."

Witnessing these extreme, yet mundane to Chin and company, details — sharing a pee bottle, surviving tent-blasting winds, and sleeping on top of one another above a 4,000-foot drop — en route to one of climbing's most inspiring feats is why Meru is already being called one of the best sports documentaries.