If you don’t know any better, Jimmy Chin’s curriculum vitae sounds like it came straight from the lips of a snake-oil salesman on the American frontier. Or as if it were the log line for … well, a Jimmy Chin film.
The 48-year-old director of Free Solo and Meru spent his childhood and college years in Minnesota, lived out of his Subaru after graduating, and cut his teeth climbing the American West’s most challenging mountains.
He has survived a class-three avalanche—the sort that razes structures, snaps conifers like plastic spoons, and kills most humans—skied down Mount Everest, and completed first ascents of Biblical features whose mere names are enough to strike fear into hardened alpinists, stoic Sherpas, and acrophobic reviewers alike.
And—here’s the huckster’s flourish—he’s done it all with a camera in hand.
Chin is one of those people whose accomplishments are so prodigious that if he were any less affable, he’d be infuriating.
Case in point, when I interviewed him over Zoom last Sunday evening, he revealed that aside from his latest film, The Rescue, about the 2018 mission to save a Thai boys soccer team trapped in a cave, he and the woman he calls both business partner and wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, have four other films and two new series in production.
Then, wide-eyed as if he were ventriloquizing on behalf of a slightly mad stranger, he quickly follows with: “And filmmaking’s not really my day job.”
So perhaps you’ll understand why I—a man whose latest feat of perseverance was polishing off four courses at a restaurant called Pastabilities the day before—was more than a little relieved to discover a chink in Jimmy Chin’s suit of armor. (Incidentally, Chin appears never to have eaten a carbohydrate in his life.)
If you want to overwhelm the consummate mountaineer, upend the Oscar-winning standard-bearer of contemporary outdoor and extreme sports photography, fluster the man for whom free soloing in the Grand Tetons is like “walking down the sidewalk,” and distress the father of two, you need only send him to the Hamptons for a weekend. And if that doesn’t do the trick, curse him with bumper-to-bumper traffic on his return journey.
“I mean, there are so many things about the Hamptons that make me a little crazy,” he says, ruffled in the slipstream of a holiday weekend spent sharing a Zip code with people who reserve their wonder for mountains of money rather than those of granite and ice. Yes, Jimmy Chin is very weak indeed.
This particular limitation, if you can suspend your sympathy long enough to label an aversion to the ordinary thusly, is writ large upon Chin’s new collection of photographs, There and Back: Photographs from the Edge.
In the book, he compiles 20 years of still shots and anecdotes that are simultaneously spellbinding and fearsome, from fighting off bandits in Chad to exploring the unclimbed walls of Pakistan’s militarized Kondus Valley with a special-forces escort, to losing 15 pounds scaling K7 with insufficient provisions. (Hamptons mommies, take note.)
And though you could generally call these “nature photographs,” they are more often than not populated by Chin’s friends, climbing partners, and other characters (“participants,” the ever solicitous documentarian calls them) whom he’s encountered during a career spent documenting adventure in its most hazardous forms.
Giants of the sport such as Conrad Anker, Alex Honnold, and Tommy Caldwell dangle from the book’s pages by fingertips so often that you’d be excused for thinking There and Back is a history of modern climbing. Though, with shots that have the pristine sharpness of mountain air, you’d never make that mistake.
In any event, the volume does nothing to betray a misanthrope, someone for whom a life alone in the mountains is the only answer. Really, it turns out to be a fitting companion piece to the rest of Chin’s work for quite the opposite reason: it illuminates that, though nature is both subject and setting for the photographer, he aspires to more than just assuming the mantle of, say, Ansel Adams.
“Broadly speaking,” Chin says, “all the stories I’ve really been interested in have been about the human potential and the human spirit, and the human capacity to overcome challenges or impossible tests.”
Chin has been doing this all along in his work for the likes of National Geographic and the North Face (which has sponsored him since 2001)—this is, in fact, his day job. But it becomes a more explicit focus of his and Vasarhelyi’s as they delve further into narrative filmmaking.
What you discover in talking to Jimmy Chin is that he considers his remit, and in fact his existence, with a philosophical, poetic interest, an enthusiasm that only someone who cheats death with a smile could possess.
He’s as unyielding in the face of my question about the future of climbing as he is under several thousand feet of vertical rope: “There’s so much to climb, there are so many places to go, there are so many ways to up the ante, there are so many styles in which you can do routes that’ve already been done in better style with less gear because you’re stronger and more fit.”
These days, though, with the madness of films, family, friendships, and everything in between, I wonder if Chin isn’t as determined to remain centered as he is to push boundaries. His reply is that of a man who survived an avalanche and set out to climb Meru less than a year later: “If I get these little windows to get out and climb … I can keep going.”
All the talk of scaling things and taking risks seems to warrant a disclaimer for people such as this reviewer. Something along the lines of “Don’t try any of this at home.” But to issue such a warning would be to undermine the very life force Chin so astutely documents and so clearly incarnates.
If anything, it would be more appropriate to offer Chin advice: don’t try any of this in the Hamptons.
There and Back: Photographs from the Edge, by Jimmy Chin, will be published by Ten Speed Press on December 7
Nathan King is a Deputy Editor for AIR MAIL