Entering his 40s, Jimmy Chin has already checked off some notable to-dos from his lifetime list. One of those things: forget about the list. “I’ve become a little less objective-driven”, he said from his home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he lives part-time with his wife and newborn daughter. This is at first surprising, coming from Chin — not just a professional athlete but also as a renowned photographer — who has gained some serious momentum since signing with The North Face in 2001 and has yet to show the slightest indication of slowing down.
To name just a few of Chin’s recent achievements: his photo work documenting Yosemite’s superclimbers made the cover of National Geographic in May of 2011 (arguably the most coveted honor in the profession); he’s graced the cover of Outside several times; he started his own production company, Camp 4 Collective; and his full-length documentary, Meru, covering the historic first ascent of Shark’s Fin on Meru Central in 2011 (his second attempt alongside fellow climbers Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk), won the 2015 Audience Choice Award at Sundance.
But speaking with Chin, it’s evident he’s not the type of guy who kicks ass for praise. Rather, he seems to enjoy getting out there and getting it done, and sharing as much as he can along the way. We talked with the modern-day renaissance explorer to discuss leisure in a life of adventure (spoiler: he catches waves with Into the Wild author Jon Krakauer), the success of Meru, and the art of balancing the climb with getting the shot.
Q. What’s one thing that every man should know?
A.Besides how to ski? Humility. And the importance of friendship and loyalty.
Q. Who or what inspires you?
A. I am always inspired by the incredible athletes I get to work with and people who are doing really amazing things in amazing places. I am inspired by this whole next generation of taking things to another level, whether it’s climbing, freeskiing, big mountain skiing or snowboarding. I get to work with a lot of different athletes in the industry and I am always inspired by people’s passions.
Q. Any creative influences in particular?
A. There’s all of these unbelievable photographers out there — from fashion to war. John Stanmeyer, Steve McCurry, David Alan Harvey. They’re the greats. I love the medium of photography and filmmaking, so I like to look really broadly at people who are making and creating all different types of films and all different types of photography.
Q. What about films?
A. The last film that really knocked me over was Whiplash. The tempo, the pacing, the way they reveal the information. They totally got me. I love films where my jaw is on the ground, multiple times. You’re sitting on the edge of your seat and you’re repeatedly getting blown away. I love experiences like that.
Q. At what age did you start shooting photography and film?
A. I picked up a camera when I was like 22 or 23. I didn’t study photography, I studied international relations. After school, I basically moved into my car for about a year and lived on the road, doing odd jobs, waiting tables. I’ve shoveled roofs up in Jackson on mansions. Starting out, it was really just about documenting the adventures I was on and the people I was with. A lot of my friends at that time turned out to be professional climbers, like Dean Potter and Steph Davis. And then I met Conrad [Anker], and I started shooting for The North Face. It all kind of happened naturally. Then, obviously, it evolved over time. Photography and filming became passions in my life as much as the climbing or the skiing. It was a great creative outlet to have with the athletic, physical and mental game.
Q. Meru just won the Audience Choice Award at Sundance. First and foremost, congratulations.
A. Thank you. Pleasantly surprised, for sure.
Q. How was the festival?
A. It was really amazing. I think we had seven or eight screenings that I went to. I don’t normally get to see people’s reactions to a lot of the work that I do because, you know, because with Instagram or a story in National Geographic you don’t actually get that kind of experience — their reactions. So that was really nice.
Q. Did you feel like an audience member during the screenings, or were you still pretty connected to the film as its director?
A. Connected. The thing is: you obviously spend so much time watching it and going over it with a fine-toothed comb. You’ve gone over it so many times. But whenever you watch it with a new audience, and it’s the first time they’ve seen it, you do kind of experience it again. You can kind of get a feeling for the audience’s experience.
Q. How so?
A. Every screening that I went to had a standing ovation, so that was astounding… and moving.
Q. That must have felt pretty special.
A. Yeah. I just don’t get that very often. The first day we screened the film, it was a hometown crowd. There were a lot of people in the audience that we had invited, so we had a standing ovation that night. I didn’t anticipate that it would happen again. Then it happened the second night. And the third night. It was pretty cool.
Q. As a photographer and a filmmaker, I am sure it was just exciting to have your film screened at Sundance.
A. For sure. In some ways that was almost as far as I had really looked. I was just really excited to be there, and I had zero expectations. In some ways, it was almost like a luxury of just getting to work in a different space.
Q. Were your climbing partners and costars Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk there as well?
A. Yeah, and Conrad and Renan were there. And my wife [Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi], who co-directed Meru.
Q. Tell me about working with her on the film.
A. I would say it’s probably the best collaboration I have ever done in my life, creatively. We just came from such completely different places in filmmaking. She was born and raised in Manhattan and has been working on feature documentaries for the last 15 years; I came from an outdoor place, obviously — more adventure, short-form content.
Q. What strengths did she bring to the table?
A. She brought a totally different sensibility to the film. The strongest reactions we got were from women — of all ages. They really connect with it.
Q. Why, do you think?
A. Going into it, most people think it’s a genre film on mountain climbing. But really, it’s about mentorship, friendship, loyalty and sacrifice. Climbing was our vehicle to share that. The climbing footage is important, but it’s really the story around the climb that becomes the focus.
“It’s like they understood that it would be a big trial and through these trials are where you gain clarity.”
Q. So then why climb Meru?
A. Well in 2008 [during the first attempt], we weren’t even trying to make a film. Conrad and I had been climbing together for seven, eight years at that point. It was really Conrad’s mentor, Mugs Stump — well, it was his dream to climb it, and he failed multiple times. So the torch then was kind of passed on to Conrad. When you’ve got like a 30-year career climbing under your belt, you have pretty refined tastes for what you want to do, and Meru was definitely one of those things. It was his 20-year dream and he specializes in this kind of climb. Conrad even says in the film that it’s something he’s built his whole career for.
Q. What kind of context can you provide for Mount Meru in the climbing world?
A. We called it the “anti-Everest”. Nobody knows about it. I mean, you could be a rock climber and have never heard of it. Only like the core of the core of the core know about it. There had probably been 25 expeditions before us, and all of them had failed. That has created a certain aura around it.
Q. Why is it such a difficult mountain to climb?
A. It’s not the highest peak in the world. But it’s extremely technical. It’s perversely stacked up in this way that you have to be able to ice climb, mix climb, and rock climb, aid climb, snow climb and big wall climb, all at a high level. You have all this climbing gear, but then you have to do this pretty massive alpine climb just to get to the wall. What happens is: people try to go alpine style — light and fast — to get to the bottom of the wall and they just get shut down. The upper wall is severely overhanging for at least 1,000 feet so the mountain just poses all of these challenges. There are all these obstacles that just keep getting harder and harder the farther you get up the mountain. Toward the top you’re fully big-wall climbing. You’re also climbing at altitude and it’s a north-facing wall with winds coming off the Tibetan plateau. It’s remarkably cold.
Q. Others have pointed out that the mountain plays a central role in Hindu cosmology. Did that attract or inspire you at all, as a climber or a filmmaker?
A. It definitely adds another element to it. The glacier that comes out of Meru seeds the headwaters of the Ganges. It’s an incredibly powerful landscape. It’s almost like a pilgrimage for the type of climbing that we were doing because it’s got some of the biggest alpine, granite walls in the world.
In the hike up you pass all these Sadhus on their own pilgrimages. But they kind of get it; they were very supportive. When we explained that we were going to climb [Meru], they would say, “Oh, that’s so great. Tell us what you see.” It was kind of broken English. “Tell us what you see.” It’s like they understood that it would be a big trial and through these trials are where you gain clarity.
Q. How do you balance performance as a climber with your agenda to get the shot?
A. That’s always been a big challenge. You’re always the climber first, especially on a climb at Meru. It was Conrad’s 20-year dream, you know, so it was all hands on deck and really just trying to film when you can. It’s the unstated rule: you can’t hold up the climb. There’s always something to do [as a climber], so it’s definitely tricky.
Q. What kind of camera rig did you bring with you?
A. The first year it was just a little Sony point-and-shoot Handi-Cam. And then in 2011, we shot the Canon 5D and Panasonic TM900. And then there’s a lot of footage with the L.A. interviews that is shot on the Red Epic, with everything in between.
Q. Do you have a favorite camera?
A. I mean, I’ve shot with everything: GoPro, Nikon, Canon, Sony, Red, Leica, Hasselblad. But there are different cameras for different applications.
Q. In the trailer for Meru, Jon Krakauer, author of Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, makes an appearance. What was it like interviewing him for Meru?
A. I have known Jon for many years, who was very close to Mug Stumps and also very good friends with Conrad. Conrad, Jon and I had done some climbing in Nepal together before and I have definitely done a few good surf trips with Jon as well. So I have known him for a long time.
But when I was finally sitting down to interview Jon, I was a little bit mortified. I was like, “Oh, my gosh.” Yeah, I remember the night before being like, “Oh, gosh, tomorrow I have to interview Jon Krakauer.” Even though he’s a friend, it’s intimidating.
Q. Sure. He’s a giant in the outdoor space.
A. Yeah, and the thing that was amazing is that we sat down. I had known him for years but I had no idea how good he is on camera and in interviews. He’s so articulate, and I could tell he actually prepped because he had a bunch of papers with him. He was looking over them before he came in because I told him that I had wanted to ask him about Meru and about Conrad and some of these other people in his life that were related to the film. He just showed up and everything that came out of his mouth was usable. I mean, he’s amazing.
Q. What climbs are left on your bucket list?
A. I’ve become a little less objective-driven. It doesn’t have to be the biggest, baddest objective. I can be out in my backyard in Jackson or in the Tetons — skiing or rock climbing with my friends — and be happy. I don’t take any of it for granted anymore. But that’s not to say that there aren’t other objectives that I have.
Q. So what’s next?
A. It’s a mishmash of projects and speaking engagements. I am starting a NatGeo assignment right now. Then I have a few other commercial shoots and some TV shows coming up. I basically juggle between being a photographer, a filmmaker and an athlete still — I am trying to be a husband and a father too.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What will it be?
A. Pot stickers just because I grew up with them and they are like a comfort food for me. My mom made them. I make them. And the drink would probably be Martinelli’s Apple Juice.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. I guess first and foremost as a good person — a good father, a good husband.