Jimmy Chin: Beyond The Shark’s Fin

jimmy_chin_interview-featuredPho­tog­ra­ph­er and film­mak­er Jim­my Chin is every bit as much an artist as he is an adven­tur­er. Com­bin­ing his pas­sions for tak­ing pic­tures with scal­ing high moun­tains in remote loca­tions around the world, he has cre­at­ed a unique form of sto­ry­telling in which he and his climb­ing part­ners are cast as char­ac­ters who record on film the nar­ra­tive of their jour­ney even as it unfolds.

Return­ing from an unsuc­cess­ful attempt to ascend one of the few remain­ing unclimbed peaks in the Garhw­al Himalaya in 2008, Chin along with pro­fes­sion­al climbers Con­rad Anker and  Renan Ozturk made it to the sum­mit of Mount Meru in 2011. A 20,700-foot ver­ti­cal wall of rock known as the Shark’s Fin, Meru pushed each mem­ber of the expe­di­tion to their phys­i­cal lim­its even before the climb began. Ozturk was bad­ly injured in a dev­as­tat­ing ski­ing acci­dent just months ear­li­er. And a few weeks lat­er Chin sur­vived an avalanche that by all accounts should have killed him. And Anker, hav­ing lived through anoth­er avalanche that claimed his best friend back in the 90s, con­tin­u­al­ly strug­gles to bal­ance his life as a moun­taineer with his respon­si­bil­i­ties as a hus­band and father of three sons.

With such intri­cate­ly com­plex life sto­ries the climb itself seems to be mere­ly the back­drop of an incred­i­ble tale of per­son­al tri­umph. Now about to enter the final stages of edit­ing for the com­ple­tion of a fea­ture-length doc­u­men­tary called Meru, Jim­my Chin reflects upon his lat­est adven­ture and shares his thoughts with the Clymb in this can­did interview.

The Clymb: The film project to doc­u­ment your epic climb of the Meru Shark’s Fin in the Garhw­al Himalaya is now more than two years in the mak­ing. What moti­vates you to keep the pro­duc­tion process mov­ing for­ward to tell this story?

Jim­my Chin: There are a few things that I’m very moti­vat­ed by in the Meru film. I think prob­a­bly one of the big inspi­ra­tions is Con­rad who has been just an incred­i­ble friend and an incred­i­ble men­tor. And I think that this film gives me the oppor­tu­ni­ty to share this idea of men­tor­ship and what it means, because in climb­ing men­tor­ship also involves a lot of respon­si­bil­i­ty. In a lot of ways you’re tak­ing some­one’s life in your hands because you’re teach­ing them how to climb and where to push your­self, not only in climb­ing but in life.

That’s one motivation.

I think anoth­er moti­va­tion is just the idea of film­ing in the moun­tains and try­ing to take expe­di­tion film­ing to anoth­er lev­el. That’s always been a goal of mine in pho­tog­ra­phy and my film­mak­ing. I thought that being able to shoot on one of the hard­est climbs of my life and com­ing back with some footage that I was hap­py with and proud of and tying all those things togeth­er as well as the work that Renan did, which is incred­i­ble. Just the syn­er­gy of that team going to climb this moun­tain that had real­ly bat­tered us on the first attempt, the expe­ri­ences of the climb and every­thing that came with it and putting it all togeth­er has been a huge learn­ing expe­ri­ence and real­ly fun.

The Clymb: What has most inspired you to make this project into what you hope it will be?

Jim­my Chin: Renan and I real­ly want­ed to do some­thing that went both beyond our climb­ing com­mu­ni­ty and the out­door com­mu­ni­ty. There’s a big­ger sto­ry there that I thought would reach a broad­er audi­ence. There are some uni­ver­sal themes of friend­ship and also over­com­ing hard­ship, not just in climb­ing but in life. We real­ly go into the sto­ries with char­ac­ters: myself, Renan and Con­rad. But we try not to make them extra­or­di­nary. Life when it comes at you and throws some curve­balls at you it can feel pret­ty extra­or­di­nary. So I was inspired by just these human stories.

I was also inspired by the fact that this was a soul trip for Con­rad, Renan and (me).  A lot of things came out of it, which is great. It’s part of our cre­ative process. We go on these trips and we shoot and that’s just what it is. I don’t real­ly know how not to shoot. It’s so much a part of my expe­ri­ence and what I’m moti­vat­ed by. Those are some of the things that inspire me.

The Clymb: You’re clear­ly ded­i­cat­ed to mak­ing this project a com­plete suc­cess. What kind of prepa­ra­tion went into the climb that’s fea­tured in this film.

Jim­my Chin: Hav­ing been up 99 per­cent of the route was very help­ful. We also got hit by prob­a­bly the worst pos­si­ble con­di­tions we could have encoun­tered on the first climb. So we had a real­ly good sense of what it would take to climb Meru. We did­n’t take any­thing for grant­ed. We trained real­ly hard. We thought through all the strate­gies, the food, every aspect, the gear, every aspect of the climb. We spent a ton of time con­tem­plat­ing the solu­tions to every prob­lem, etc. I think what made it real­ly chal­leng­ing was Renan’s injury and of course the avalanche I got caught in. I nev­er should have sur­vived that avalanche. It was a mas­sive wet slab avalanche.

It’s fun­ny. I just saw Jere­my Jones a few months ago. Jere­my Jones, big moun­tain snow­board­er, he’s been around the block and he came up to me after this event in San Fran­cis­co. We were just rem­i­nisc­ing about that day and he turn to me and said, “You know what Jim­my, that is still the gnarli­est thing I have ever seen in the moun­tains.” And I thought about that for a moment and thought well it must have been pret­ty bad. He did tell me when he got to the bot­tom and he found me that he thought he was 100 per­cent sure that I was dead. He just did­n’t think it was sur­viv­able. Com­ing back from that, just the head space you need to be in was real­ly chal­leng­ing for me as well as. And then there’s Con­rad, he’s watch­ing two of his friends go through this and he’s car­ry­ing a lot of respon­si­bil­i­ty of it all. He under­stands respon­si­bil­i­ty. He’s a father. So I think all three of us were jug­gling quite a bit when we embarked on the trip to India

The Clymb: What pieces of gear or spe­cial equip­ment were most crit­i­cal in mak­ing this project possible?

Jim­my Chin: In terms of the cam­era equip­ment we went real­ly light. But we still brought things that a super alpin­ist would think was com­plete­ly out of this world to even think about bring­ing. We brought a DSLR a Canon 5D with a 24 to 105 lens, which is great because it’s got a sta­bi­liza­tion fea­ture which works great. And then we brought a 24 mil­lime­ter 1.2 which gave us this shal­low depth of field. And then we just brought anoth­er hand-held Pana­son­ic that we could just kind of point at some­thing and not wor­ry about focus­ing or any­thing. That was our cam­era set­up. Renan and I would always have a cam­era, one or the other.

Also it was real­ly amaz­ing because The North Face was so sup­port­ive of our expe­di­tion and they built basi­cal­ly a kit for us that was cus­tomized to exact­ly what we need­ed to climb that moun­tain. So we got out­fit­ted pret­ty well with jack­ets and pants and gloves and stuff that was specif­i­cal­ly cre­at­ed for the needs that we had on the climb. And then we also built a port-a-ledge that was wider so we could be a lit­tle bit more com­fort­able sleep­ing in it.

The Clymb: That did­n’t work out too well. Did­n’t it break?

Jim­my Chin: It did break. We took this pro­to­type on the climb and it snapped. It was actu­al­ly a real­ly amaz­ing moment on the climb because we had basi­cal­ly our shel­ter which is fair­ly key on a climb like this snap in half on us while we’re hang­ing on a wall. It was just this extra­or­di­nary moment where we did­n’t even think about going down. All we thought about was how we were going to fix it. And we did. We fixed it by duct-tap­ing ice screws as a splint and we stuck a piton in the tube to hold it togeth­er. We use web­bing to rein­force it all the way up to the anchor point and it actu­al­ly held up for the rest of the climb.

The Clymb: On a trip like this there were prob­a­bly a lot very spe­cial moments through­out the climb to the sum­mit. What was the most beau­ti­ful moment?

Jim­my Chin: I would say there were a few of course. When we were real­ly far up on the route at our high camp there were a few moments in our ledge camps where we’re just hang­ing off the wall.  Up high on the route you’re in a port-a-ledge at 20,000 feet in the Garhw­al Himalayas. It’s at night and you’ve final­ly got­ten into your sleep­ing bag and all of the tasks for the day are done. You’ve fin­ished melt­ing the water. You’ve put every­thing away and you’ve final­ly got­ten into your sleep­ing bag and it’s warmed up and you’re look­ing out of the port-a-ledge win­dow. You’ve got your elbows propped up on the edge and you’re look­ing up across one of the most spec­tac­u­lar moun­tain ranges in the world, the Garhw­al Himalayas! You’re look­ing at Shiv­ling and the Bha­gi­rathis and this huge glac­i­er. There are those moments of qui­et when you’re able to con­tem­plate where you are and when you do you real­ize that this is com­plete­ly insane! But it also feels real­ly nat­ur­al and you know that this is an extra­or­di­nary expe­ri­ence and it will be dif­fi­cult or near­ly impos­si­ble to repli­cate. 

Don’t miss Jim­my Chin’s incred­i­ble images in The Shark’s Fin Redux.


Jim­my Chin’s Bio Reel: