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.
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.