‘Why did you want to climb Everest?’ reporters quizzed mountaineer George Mallory in 1922. That the question even needed asking shows mountaineering is fundamentally different from other pursuits. No journalist would ever ask a footballer why they kick a ball around. But mountaineering is gruelling and you’re way more likely to perish from it than to make a fortune. So why would anyone climb any mountain, let alone Everest? Mallory’s rationale was short and sweet: ‘Because it’s there.’
And what about Jimmy Chin? Why does he climb?
Chin, 48, is part Bear Grylls, part David Attenborough. He has not only climbed snow, ice and rock terrain on all seven continents, he’s also photographed other climbers doing the same and made documentaries for National Geographic. In 2019 he won both an Oscar and a Bafta for Free Solo, a hair-raising account of how his buddy Alex Honnold climbed Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope. And if that list wasn’t extreme enough, Chin has also skied down Everest.
Chin is about to release his first photography book, There and Back, which recaps his 20-year career. In the introduction, he explains that he climbs mountains because that’s where he’s ‘found the best version’ of himself. That yearning for self-improvement is universal. Most of us have dabbled in self-help at some point, maybe attended a Tony Robbins seminar or read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. But, like a mythological character, Chin literally ventured into the wild in search of his telos. ‘Wild places,’ he writes poetically, ‘stirred a sense of awe and self-reliance in me.’ Or, to tip it another way: his life coach is Mother Nature herself.
Even casually flipping through There and Back will send your heart racing to 180 bpm — Chin’s photos are that intense. On one page, alpinists are hanging onto the ice with only the tip of an axe. Next, rock climbers are lunging up a steep wall. On yet another page, we are treated to a close-up of the cracked, bloodied hands of a mountaineer. (Chin humorously calls this an ‘expedition manicure’.) Each picture tells an epic tale and could be an outtake from a Werner Herzog movie. Interspersed throughout the book are short essays by Chin, in which he recounts his life story.
It starts, logically, with his parents. They escaped China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and settled in the American Midwest, where Chin was born. They were exacting and demanded nothing less of their son than excellence. ‘Life was really about academics,’ Chin recently told CBS News. ‘If I got an A-minus, honestly, it would be like, “Why wasn’t that an A?”’ His parents told him there were only three careers open to him: ‘Doctor, lawyer or professor.’ Unfortunately, Chin caught the climbing bug in college, and after graduating in 1996, decided to climb full time. His parents were in a state of shock: ‘My mom would say “The Chinese language is 5,000 years old, and we don’t even have a word for what you do.”’
The English language, however, had a word for Chin’s unlikely profession: ‘dirtbag climber’. According to The Dirtbag Dictionary, such a fellow devotes ‘his entire existence to the pursuit of climbing’ and usually lives ‘in a tent or vehicle to save money’. For seven years, Chin called his Subaru Loyale home. Today he remembers these times fondly, even longingly: ‘I loved being a dirtbag climber. I joke that I’ve spent my entire career trying to get back to being a dirtbag climber!’
In The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac, a hero to dirtbags everywhere, wrote: ‘When you get to the top of a mountain, keep climbing.’ And that’s exactly what Chin did. He climbed with such gusto he landed a sponsorship deal with the North Face in 2001. Soon he felt the urge to take a camera with him on his expeditions. ‘Taking photographs became a way to examine and share these fleeting moments,’ he says in There and Back. ‘I wanted to capture the landscapes that moved me and the sublime moments that I experienced.’ Well, these moments may have been sublime, but they were also treacherous.
Chin eluded the Grim Reaper more than once. But his closest brush with death came in 2011 while shooting snowboarders in the Teton range of Wyoming, where Chin was swept up in an avalanche. The harrowing incident was captured on film in Meru (2015), Chin’s first documentary. In it, he shares what went through his mind as he was being hurled down the mountain: ‘I heard this voice, having this conversation that was like, “Wow… I always wondered how I was gonna die and now, now, I know…”’ Chin’s teammates were also sure this was it. And yet, miraculously, Chin made it out with barely a scratch.
Climbing demands total focus, so does photography. How does Chin manage to pull off both at the same time? Imagine if Harry Kane not only had to dribble, but at the same time had to take pictures for BBC Sport. That’s the predicament Chin has faced as a National Geographic photographer. In There and Back, he explains: ‘You go to the mountains to be in the moment. Taking out a camera pulls you out of the moment. I struggled with this for years.’ Through practice, he became a master of his craft, able to stay relaxed and snap photos whatever the situation.
His interest in the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism might have come in handy. As he once told National Geographic, ‘Taoism taught me to focus on the process and not to be attached to preconceived ideas of what I thought the outcome should be.’ Taoism — like climbing and adventure photography — is all about wu wei, or effortless action. This means working with, not against, the flow of events. Chin embodies that age-old principle.
While the photos in There and Back are by Chin, he’s rarely the subject of them, his fellow climbers are. This book, therefore, serves as a perfect introduction to the larger--than-life figures populating the vertical world of mountaineering. Chin calls them his ‘second family’. There’s Conrad Anker, the rugged old-timer with whom Chin has gone on expeditions to Antarctica, Borneo, British Columbia and the Himalayas, among other far-flung destinations. There’s also Steph Davis, the masterly climber who’s put up first ascents in the Karakoram, and Dean Potter, the intrepid free soloist, slackliner and BASE jumper who died in Yosemite in 2015. And, of course, there’s Alex Honnold, arguably the world’s most famous climber and the star of Chin’s Free Solo.
Chin’s partner in life, wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, is also his partner behind the camera. Together they’ve co-directed three documentaries, including The Rescue. Released in cinemas last month, it’s an inside look at the 2018 Thai cave rescue. ‘It highlights the common denominator we all share — empathy and humanity,’ Chin said. The result is a docudrama about the kind of selflessness that can only emerge out of crisis.
A climber never stops climbing. As Kerouac tells us, even when he gets to the summit, he keeps challenging himself. So, what’s next for Chin? Along with Chai Vasarhelyi, he’s about to make the jump to narrative film and direct Nyad, starring Annette Bening as plucky marathon swimmer Diana Nyad. Pre-production started in November.
Godspeed to Jimmy Chin on his ascent of mount Hollywood. May he reach that summit too.
Jimmy Chin’s There and Back: Photographs from the Edge is published by Ten Speed Press and is on sale from 7 December. The Rescue is showing at selected cinemas and is available on Disney+.