Figuring it out

Commit first, a young Jimmy Chin was told, then work it out from there, and the adventurer, photographer and filmmaker has lived by that advice ever since

Story by Steve White

Jimmy Chin, Half Dome, Yosemite, CA
Photo: Jimmy Chin

There were few clues in Jimmy Chin’s early yearsto suggest where he was headed. His parents, Frank and Yen Yen Chin, had emigrated to the US, and gave him the sort of disciplined and focused upbringing familiar to millions of ethnic Chinese the world over. Both librarians at Minnesota State University, they pushed their son to excel in everything, academically above all. He practiced his Chinese characters, played the violin, got his black belt in martial arts.

“There was always this drive for perfection, a very, very high bar set,” he says, looking back today.

But if his school years were characteristic of his parent’s heritage, his teenage years saw young Jimmy display the rebellion more commonly associated with his own homeland.

“I knew that I needed to find a life that I was passionate about,” he says. On trips with the family to the wild open spaces of America, he had already discovered what he was passionate about: the outdoors.

He started to climb and ski in his late teens and suddenly what came next in life seemed clear to him: some time out among the beauty and grandeur of the wilderness.

“The original explanation was: ‘Mom, Dad, I am going to take one year off, leave me alone, I am going to climb and ski full-time, get it out of my system.’ ”

The news was not well received: “My parents were mortified. They would say, ‘Of course we are worried, there’s not even a word in Chinese for what you do!’

Jimmy Chin BW Portrait
Photo: Jimmy Denis

“I ended up living out of my car for seven years. During that period there were two or three when I couldn’t even talk with them.”

But he stayed the course: “I always had this feeling I wanted something different but I didn’t know what it was. And even when I was being a climber and skier, I thought that was just an interim thing to discover what that thing was, but it actually became what I was looking for . . . which I think is a beautiful thing.

“Being a climbing bum is akin to being an ascetic. Leaving behind society and simplifying everything down. All of my belongings fit in my car – and I liked it that way.

“Honestly, I look at my life now and I think, gosh, I am going to spend my entire life trying to move back into my car.” He laughs: “Wow, I had it figured out early, I just didn’t know it!”

Life really started to shift gears the day Chin picked up a camera – or more accurately, was handed a friend’s while on a climbing trip in Yosemite. The film was later sent to an outdoor apparel company who used only one shot: the one that Chin had taken.

He bought a camera, and when his clapped-out old Subaru died, he upgraded to a bigger car in which to fit his stuff, a Toyota pickup. He started to make regular money from photography, shooting the people around him, fellow ‘dirtbag’ climbers, many of them living out of their cars just as he was. Many of Chin’s friends from that time are today among the biggest names in the sport: Steph Davis, Dean Potter, Cedar Wright. He shot them all as they spread their wings, ripped up the copybook, got sponsored.

Chin put together his first expedition in 1999 and people started to notice this climber who could take a camera places few others could even reach. Then, in 2001, the big time came calling in the shape of Conrad Anker, one of the greatest living alpinists.

“Someone introduced me to him and he looked at me and he said, ‘You’re Jimmy Chin.’ I was completely floored that he knew who I was. He said, ‘Nice job on that last trip to Pakistan.’

“I was on top of the world. Almost spontaneously I asked: ‘Is it hard to shoot for The North Face?’ And he said, ‘No. I have a trip coming up in a couple of months, why don’t you come and shoot it?’ ”

That trip took them to Yosemite and the Sierras and it was while out there that Chin told Anker about an expedition he was planning with Brady Robinson to K7 in the Karakorams. Chin was floored when Anker asked to go with him.

Robinson had been one of the bunch of climbers Chin had been hanging out with in Yosemite, and he in particular had had a big influence on Chin’s development, pushing him to ever bolder ascents – so much so that Chin’s first wall climb was Half Dome in a day, and his second, The Nose, also in a day.

Now Chin rang Robinson to see how he felt about Anker coming along to K7: “Dude, you are never going to believe this . . . Conrad Anker just asked me if he could come on our trip!”

“So whaddya say?”

“I said I had to ask you.”

“Well of course, dude!”

That summer found them in the Karakorams, and though they didn’t get up K7 in the end, Chin took a few of what he says are still some of his favourite photos ever. Better yet, The North Face picked up the tab.

Chin has been sponsored by The North Face – and been a close friend of Anker’s – ever since: “I can’t overstate how much of an influence Conrad has had on my career,” he says today. “I have learned so much from him as a climber and person.”

In 2002 he took on the biggest climbing challenge of his life to that point, an alpine-style ascent of the North Face of Everest with Stephen Koch that despite being unsuccessful, still brought a useful payoff.

“When you spend two months staring at the direct north face of Everest – a 9,000-foot face that starts at 20,000 feet – and you get on the face and climb halfway up that thing . . . after that nothing was that intimidating to me,“ he says, “even though we didn’t make it and almost got killed in an avalanche.”

The next year, Chin was asked to make a film about an expedition involving Anker, Rick Ridgeway and Galen Rowell, following the migration of the chiru antelope. Problem was, he was taking the place of legendary filmmaker David Breashears who had had to pull out – and he’d never shot a film before.

“I was so excited I agreed to do it,” he says, but on the phone to Ridgeway, he had to admit his lack of experience. “He just paused and was quiet for a second and then he said, ‘You know what I’ve always lived by? Commit and figure it out.’ ”
Advice that Chin has lived by ever since.

Jimmy Chin skiing in Chamonix, France.
Photo: Jimmy Chin

He spent the next two months tailing Rowell on what he calls: “one of the most incredible journeys of my life with one of my greatest inspirations.”

It had been a Rowell shot of Pakistan that had first moved Chin to want to go and climb there. So moved him in fact that Chin had more or less immediately driven across the States to meet the great man in person, dumping a girlfriend in the process and dropping in at his office daily for a whole week until finally he could catch Rowell when he was free of deadlines.

“I watched him work for Nat Geo. Spend two hours with a guy on a job like that and you’ve learned ten new things. Spend two months with the guy . . . I didn’t even have any questions left by the end of that trip.”

Sadly Rowell was killed soon after, in 2002, in a plane crash.

“The irony is that my first two pics in Nat Geo were the tribute to Galen [including] a shot I took of him on top of this unclimbed peak we had just summitted.”

There’s also a Rowell link to Chin’s first National Geographic cover. That now-famous shot of free solo climber Alex Honnold gazing out from a ledge on Half Dome was shot just a couple of hundred metres from where Rowell got his June 1978 cover for a story called ‘Climbing Half Dome the hard way’.

“It was like a chapter finished in my book, says Chin of that May 2011 cover.

If that chapter is done, the next is a work in progress and is all about filmmaking with Chin currently finishing his first feature-length documentary.

“It’s about Meru,” he offers, referring to the summitting of the Shark’s Fin on that mountain in 2011 with Anker and Renan Ozturk, after the three had narrowly failed to climb it in 2008.

“Well, it’s really about Conrad,” Chin decides, meaning how the peak was Anker’s idea, Anker’s dream, and also how the film will go on to explore why Anker continues to climb having married his best friend’s wife after that friend, Alex Lowe, was killed in the mountains.

“It’s a film about mentorship, a film about loss, a film about conflict, a film about passion, how it cuts both ways: a thing that gives meaning in life and how it can take away meaning in life.”

It was also Anker who invited Ozturk, bringing him into the fold as he had done for Chin before. Ozturk then nearly died in a terrible skiing accident and only went on the second trip because of his incredible will to recover and the support of the others.

“We couldn’t go without Renan because it was such a pivotal point for him,” says Chin. “He needed it to get back on the horse.”

“I’d never done a trip like that before [2008], never been pushed to the brink before. Then to have to go back in 2011 . . .”

To have to?

“Kinda,” he says, “we had to finish it.”

He thinks for a moment. “Conrad is one badass motherfucker,” he concludes, nodding for emphasis and smiling.

The North Face Meru Expedition, 2011
Photo: Jimmy Chin

You can expect the film to feature a lot of raw emotion, not least when the three summit. Still, the tears didn’t stop the camera.

“When you get up there and shit starts going down sideways, you gotta roll. There’s always that little person in your head that’s just like, ‘dude, you know what, just embrace this moment, you’ve just spent three years trying to climb this thing, just forget about it’. But then you have just enough experience that you know in six months’ time when you are sitting in an editing room [without the footage], you are going to be like, ‘someone shoot me!’ ”

So the film is a big deal to Chin but just how high does his ambition run for his filmmaking? He gets a little coy: “I guess it would be,” he laughs, “I don’t even want to say . . . well . . . you win an Oscar for best documentary . . . I’ll be happy if I ever get a film shortlisted for an Oscar.”

Anything else?

“When you are in your twenties you’re grabbing everything that comes down the pipe. I still struggle with that . . . I still struggle with the fear of missing out all the time. I want to do it all. IT. ALL.”

Still, he says he has started to evaluate jobs more critically: “When I am 80, what’s gonna matter? What’s gonna standout? What’s going to have meaning? . . . Now I just want to do hallmark projects,” he says. “Spend two years working on a project, spend five years, I don’t care. You can’t do great things unless you commit to them and that’s really, really, hard for me to do, but now I am much more focused behind projects that I feel contribute to my life’s work.”

A case in point perhaps is his latest project, a film with snowboarding icon, Travis Rice, the biggest budget film Red Bull have ever done.

“I have the best snowboarders in the world, the coolest locations ever, the budget, the manpower . . .

“I know why they asked me to do it. Because they wanted a few more stories and a bit more character development, maybe a different view of the whole action sports genre.

“We have to make a mind-blowing action sports film, that’s the baseline, it has to be that no matter what. Whether I can pull an incredible story together? Contribute something meaningful?

“I keep telling myself I am going to pull back . . . Wish me luck!” AA


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