Beyond Meru: An Interview With Jimmy Chin


Jimmy Chin in MERU. Courtesy of Music Box Films. Photo by Renan Ozturk.
Jim­my Chin in MERU. Cour­tesy of Music Box Films. Pho­to by Renan Ozturk.

As one of the world’s fore­most adven­ture pho­tog­ra­phers, the award-win­ning Jim­my Chin has doc­u­ment­ed expe­di­tions for Nation­al Geo­graph­ic and The North Face, from big walls in Bor­neo to unex­plored desert tow­ers in Chad and the mys­te­ri­ous Musan­dam Penin­su­la of Oman. As an adven­tur­er, alpin­ist and ski­er, Chin, 42, has crossed the Chang Tang Penin­su­la of north­west­ern Tibet unsup­port­ed on foot and skied from the sum­mit of Ever­est. He also claimed the first ascent on the cen­tral pil­lar of Mt. Meru in India, known as “The Shark’s Fin,” which is the sub­ject of his lat­est and crit­i­cal­ly-acclaimed film “Meru” co-direct­ed with his wife, Eliz­a­beth Chai Vasarhe­lyi. I sat down with Jim­my to dis­cuss the suc­cess of Meru, the impor­tance of obses­sion, and the sto­ries behind his astound­ing expeditions.

The Clymb: Since the release of Meru, there’s been a lot of atten­tion from main­stream Hol­ly­wood. Was there any par­tic­u­lar praise from any par­tic­u­lar fig­ure that you felt hum­bled or starstruck by?

Jim­my Chin: I think that we were hum­bled in gen­er­al by how it was received. It was a goal to cre­ate a film that broke out of the genre and spoke to a more main­stream audi­ence. We were sur­prised by the scope of that. Rid­ley Scott saw the film and I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to sit with him at a film event. Just to hear him say that he real­ly loved the film, I was hon­ored and hum­bled. I was sur­prised he’d seen it. I mean, Rid­ley Scott direct­ed Blade Run­ner, Alien, Thel­ma and Louise, and Black­hawk Down, all these icon­ic films that I grew up with. Michael Keaton was a real­ly big fan, as was Tom Brokaw, peo­ple who I look up to and real­ly respect.

The Clymb: In recent years, climb­ing and snow-sport films like Meru and The Crash Reel, which used to appeal to a niche audi­ence, have more and more entered the main­stream con­scious­ness. What do you feel appeals to an audi­ence that isn’t as invest­ed in these com­mu­ni­ties like climbers and snow­board­ers or skiers?

JC: I think every­thing has to do with the sto­ry, the nar­ra­tive, and how the film is craft­ed. It has to be com­pelling in a uni­ver­sal sense. The themes that we real­ly tried to focus on were uni­ver­sal themes, and climb­ing was just a vehi­cle to present these themes of friend­ship, loy­al­ty, men­tor­ship, sac­ri­fice, spir­it, and pas­sion. Meru’s a come­back sto­ry. These are ideas big­ger than any genre. They’re uni­ver­sal, that peo­ple can relate to. The chal­lenge was to tell a sto­ry that would speak to a main­stream audi­ence, but it also had to be true and authen­tic to the core com­mu­ni­ty as well. I would nev­er want to release a film that spoke to the main­stream but I couldn’t feel com­fort­able shar­ing with my peer group.

The Clymb: I want to talk about Meru’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy. You set up shots in very high and some­times sketchy places or sit­u­a­tions. How you do mea­sure risk ver­sus reward and decide if it’s worth set­ting up the shot?

JC: You don’t real­ly set up shots. In the climb­ing part of the film, you’ll notice there are no top-down shots where you pull the rope, take the gear out and shoot, which is usu­al­ly a much more dra­mat­ic angle. We didn’t have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to do that nor did we want to. Most of it was a doc­u­men­tary, and you don’t real­ly set up. It’s more verite; it’s more shoot­ing on the fly, and so the ethos of film­ing Meru was the climb­ing came first and the climb­ing objec­tive came first and the shoot­ing was sec­ondary. So we shot when we could, and I felt that brought a cer­tain lev­el of authen­tic­i­ty to it; you’re a climber first and a film­mak­er sec­ond. When we pulled out the cam­era, we were always in the mid­dle of it. I think it’s good to feel like a par­tic­i­pant because Renan and I were the par­tic­i­pants, and that’s the kind of expe­ri­ence I feel is inter­est­ing to share.

The Clymb: Can you tell me about that shot in Meru with the star field, the moun­tain and the head­lamps, and how it was created?

JC: I shot plates of the whole land­scape and essen­tial­ly stitched togeth­er this huge high-res­o­lu­tion image and that allowed us the capac­i­ty to cre­ate a 3D ren­der­ing of the land­scape, which was big enough where you could actu­al­ly move a cam­era in it. It was such a crit­i­cal shot because we need­ed to give a sense of scale.

The Clymb: There’s a scene in the film where you and Con­rad describe urg­ing Sil­vo Karo, a Sloven­ian climber, to fin­ish the sto­ry of Meru, so that you didn’t have to. Did com­plet­ing the sec­ond expe­di­tion change the way that you approach objec­tives that are obses­sive in nature? An objec­tive that has to be com­plet­ed no mat­ter what?

JC: I don’t think that we approach objec­tives ‘no mat­ter what’ because it sug­gests that you’re will­ing to die for some­thing. You always main­tain a lev­el of mar­gin for safe­ty. I’ve had a lot of objec­tives I was obsessed about, and Meru wasn’t the first one and it won’t be the last nec­es­sar­i­ly. Obses­sions for me go beyond just climb­ing moun­tains. There’s the prize of mak­ing films and work­ing on cre­ative projects as well. I think that to do any­thing great, you have to have some lev­el of obses­sion that’s required. Obses­sion is one way to look at it, but it’s also some­thing that you’re pas­sion­ate about, some­thing that’s real­ly inspir­ing to you and real­ly moti­vates you. I think obses­sion has a neg­a­tive con­no­ta­tion but there’s a lot of pos­i­tive aspects as well.

The Clymb: Regard­ing the climb itself, you hit sec­tions where the wall is com­plete­ly blank. How did you man­age to pro­tect these pitches?

JC: A lot of the hard­er aid pitch­es are very dif­fi­cult to pro­tect which is why they got dif­fi­cult grades. You’re mov­ing from hook move to hook move to hook move, you don’t have any pro­tec­tion and you’re look­ing at mas­sive falls. There are often a lot of moves between place­ments. That’s what made the upper aid pitch­es so chal­leng­ing. You’re already out there and it’s pret­ty remote, and it starts to feel even far­ther out when you don’t have any sol­id protection.

Jimmy Chin in MERU. Courtesy of Music Box Films. Photo by Renan Ozturk.
Jim­my Chin in MERU. Cour­tesy of Music Box Films. Pho­to by Renan Ozturk.

The Clymb: Fur­ther­more, how did you pro­tect the loose blocks of the House of Cards pitch?

JC: Not great. We used a lot of anchors. In the seam above the block pitch­es, we couldn’t get any gear in the low­er half of that pitch. We had some loose pins here and there but it was just too frag­ile to get much gear in.

The Clymb: You men­tored under Galen Row­ell who coined the term ‘par­tic­i­pa­to­ry adven­ture pho­tog­ra­ph­er,’ a term that you now wear. Could you describe the def­i­n­i­tion and how it affects your art?

JC: It’s what it sounds like; you’re not an out­side observ­er. You’re shoot­ing from the inside, and in a lot of these expe­di­tions that Galen and I shot, you’re a mem­ber of a team and your respon­si­bil­i­ty is to be a mem­ber of the team while you’re doc­u­ment­ing. I always appre­ci­at­ed Galen’s work because it felt inti­mate and it makes you feel like you were right there in the adven­ture. Not all my work is like that; I feel that’s more the jour­nal­is­tic side, like doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ing, and there’s the com­mer­cial side, where you’re shoot­ing and it’s more set up.

The Clymb: How does land­scape shape your pho­tog­ra­phy? You’re known for incred­i­ble com­po­si­tion, but how do you find the bal­ance between ath­lete and setting?

JC: So much of what I love about being a climber and ski­er is to be in vast, beau­ti­ful, and inspir­ing land­scapes, and plac­ing a human being in that envi­ron­ment is twice as mov­ing and inspir­ing because you have con­text of a human being in this envi­ron­ment doing some­thing incredible.

The Clymb: I want to talk a moment about your par­tic­i­pa­tion with Sher­pas Cin­e­ma and ‘Into the Mind.’ What role did you have in the project and what drew you to the film?

JC: Sher­pas Cin­e­ma are good friends, and I loved the work that they’ve done in the past. Dave Mossop, Eric Crosland and Mal­com Sang­ster, first and fore­most, are great guys and real­ly cre­ative so I was drawn to the col­lab­o­ra­tion with them because I was excit­ed to work with them on their last film. They invit­ed Renan and I to come out and work on a par­tic­u­lar seg­ment which was this sto­ry about these two guys going up into the moun­tains and decid­ing whether to con­tin­ue on or turn around. They nev­er had a true dis­tinc­tion of who that was; it was always ambigu­ous, like every man’s con­scious­ness, the one that push­es through and the one that turns around and the con­se­quences of the deci­sions that you make. I thought that was pret­ty cool so we played into those roles.

The Clymb: There’s a scene from ‘Into the Mind’ where a ski­er has a hor­rif­ic fall and the sto­ry turns into one of redemp­tion and come­back. Was this theme planned from the start, or was it based on yours and Renan’s inci­dents pri­or to Meru?

JC: They def­i­nite­ly talked to us about it, and I think some of it was inspired by our events.

The Clymb: On the sub­ject of ski­ing, you skied off the sum­mit of Ever­est in 2006. You’ve men­tioned that the crux of the route was the Lhotse Face. Can you describe what ski­ing the face was like?

JC: Com­mit­ting. We chose to ski the South Pil­lar Route of the Lhotse Face, which is the climbers’ left of what the reg­u­lar climb­ing route is. We want­ed to ski a skier’s line which is the fall line com­ing off of Camp IV, and [on] the climb­ing route, there’s a lot of tra­vers­ing over to Lhotse and then down to Camp III. We were much more inter­est­ed in ski­ing that fall line, so out of Camp IV.  When you roll over into the actu­al face, it’s a very intim­i­dat­ing place to be because you’re start­ing at 26,000 feet and you know that once you roll over into the face, there’s no real chance of climb­ing back out, so you’re com­mit­ted to the line. It was very steep and very icy for close to 5,000 feet and you real­ly couldn’t make a sin­gle mis­take. There were these rib­bons of real­ly hard-pack, bul­let­proof snow that you ski down and then you’d have to cross over icy ter­rain to get to con­nect the rib­bons all the way down the face. You’re very high up on the moun­tain but still very high up, around 24- or 25,000-feet. It was very, very intense.

The Clymb: Last Octo­ber, you had a friend­ly Insta­gram rival­ry with Tim Kem­ple. Did you have any addi­tion­al thoughts about the matter?

JC: I don’t think the social media space is where you air dirty laundry.

The Clymb: Last ques­tion. What are three items that are always in your climb­ing or ski pack and what’s your favorite piece of non-pho­tog­ra­phy gear?

JC: Head­lamp, a knife and Hanah One, an Ayurvedic sup­ple­ment that’s pret­ty awe­some. I use it as an ener­gy sup­ple­ment that’s great for the moun­tains. My favorite piece of non-pho­tog­ra­phy gear is the North Face Sum­mit Series L4 Jack­et. I always have a cou­ple jack­ets that are my go-to and it’s my new favorite.


You can fol­low Jim­my’s spec­tac­u­lar pho­tog­ra­phy on Insta­gram and Face­book and see Meru on DVD, Net­flix or iTunes.