Photographer 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: