Meru is a documentary about the impossible. The mountain is impossibly steep, the risk impossibly high, the reward impossibly spectacular. A plotline as dripping with suspense as “three men overcoming insurmountable odds to climb a mountain never before summited” needs to be handled with extreme care. (And seriously: I will personally refund the ticket of anyone who sees the movie and finds “insurmountable odds” to be an overstatement.) Thankfully, Jimmy Chin – climber, skier, filmmaker and photographer extraordinaire – was just the man for the job. Chin has created an intricately woven combination of mesmerizing cinematography and paralyzing suspense that serves both as a vehicle for an incredible sensory experience and an examination of abstract ideas that transcend mountain-climbing.

From the very beginning, Meru is the anti-Everest. To summit Meru, the climbers must be totally self-sufficient and at the same time interdependent. There are no Sherpas to haul supplies, no oxygen tanks to counteract the altitude, and no pre-set ropes or ladders to guide the ascent. To put it another way: Everest focuses on a guide service stewarding paying customers to the summit; Meru features three men at the pinnacle of dedication, experience and talent who choose to climb together based on trust, not finances. At the helm of the expedition is Conrad Anker, who is trying to complete the “cosmic plan” of his late mentor Mugs Stump. The other two climbers, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk, are simultaneously his peers and his students.

Meru is as much about getting to the top of a mountain as Moby Dick is about killing a whale. The brilliance of this documentary is its ability to speak genuinely and unassumingly about situations that could easily be melodramatized into oblivion. It is a soap opera without all the bells and whistles (and tears). Chin uses a combination of sit-down interviews and quick dispatches from the mountain to create a raw and introspective narrative. The mid-ascent comments can change quickly from quips about the weather (like being “inside of a ping pong ball”) to emotionally charged statements like “I don’t wanna go down. I’ll never forgive myself.” The more the climbers are tested physically and psychologically on the mountain, the more profound the commentary becomes both in the moment and during retrospective formal interviews.

This kind of character development comes in surprising measure from the protagonists’ families. The film’s numerous interviews with family members provide arresting reminders that Jimmy, Conrad, and Renan are mortal men doing dangerous things, the consequences of which extend beyond themselves. Conrad’s wife, a climber herself, is a total badass but also a human being. The most detail she can manage about her husband’s job is, “I know that stuff can happen.” Simplicity speaks volumes. Another interviewee, the author Jon Krakauer, compares “big wall climbing” to making a cabinet; every move is calculated, exacting. The caveat to the metaphor is if you split a cabinet, you can start over. If you split a mountain, you’re dead.

The most remarkable thing about Meru is not its expansive panoramas of the Himalayas, or the climbers’ relentless exhibition of mental and physical strength. It is easy to be impressed by mountain climbing. It is hard to understand why the hell anybody would do something so irrational. Meru stands out to me because it takes a long, hard look at that impossible question and formulates a response no less involving for its being ultimately inconclusive.