Climb with the world’s best alpinists and you’ll end up seeing the planet’s most beautiful, least visited places, such as China's Minya Konka massif. Climb with a bunch of actors and musicians on Kilimanjaro to draw attention to the global clean water crisis and you’re going to be number one on Twitter. Climber-photographer Jimmy Chin, also a National Geographic emerging explorer, has done both. Here are his thoughts on getting the shot in all conditions, why clean water maters, and the difference between all-star climbers and straight-up stars.
Jimmy, our last story with you involved a dangerous, unsupported first ski descent of an obscure 20,000-foot peak in western China. How did you end up on Kilimanjaro with a bunch of actors and musicians for Summit on the Summit?
Kenna called me. I’m not sure how he got my name. It was kind of a cold call. I was superflattered that he wanted me to join the team. I was a little reluctant at first, because I have climbed Kilimanjaro before. The kind of climbing I have typically done is a little bit different than climbing on Kilimanjaro. But Kenna is very passionate about this project. I was inspired by his vision of bringing together a lot of people from different walks of life and focusing on making really positive change. He was very sincere and genuine. And more than anything, I found that to be something I could get behind.
As a professional climber and photographer, I am asked to shoot in a lot of situations with a lot of different people. Sometimes I'm with the hardest, most seasoned alpinists in the world. Sometimes I'm hanging out with celebrities doing a benefit climb. Sometimes you are roped in; sometimes you are not. Obviously, if I am in the Garhwal Himalaya climbing a big wall on the cutting edge of high-altitude, big-wall climbing, then there is a lot going on. But when I’m shooting celebrities on Kilimanjaro, I’m not as worried because I actually can’t fall off the mountain.
What you’re saying is that there’s a reason why Kili is on most adventurers' to-do lists. With some preparation, almost anyone can bag one of the Seven Summits and go on safari—all in one trip.
Technically it’s not a very difficult climb; you can hike up it. But the altitude is very difficult. It’s a high-altitude peak. Any time you go up over 18,000 feet, I consider it pretty high altitude. For folks who don’t climb at altitude or who don’t spend that much time in the mountains, it’s a significant challenge.
Are you personally connected to the global clean water crisis?
There are a few different organizations that I have worked with, such as Machik, which is a nonprofit organization focused on building sustainable communities on the Tibetan Plateau. But the global clean water crisis is new to me. I do know that when there is momentum being built by a diverse cross-section of people with the intention of creating positive change, I want to contribute to that.
I truly believe the intention of creating positive change is so important to the collective consciousness. When you have a group of people that have the intention and the capacity, talent, and intelligence to actualize those intentions, then you have something really powerful.
I learned a lot about the global clean water crisis on this trip, and now it is something that I am connected to. So many diseases and illnesses have fundamental roots in the lack of clean water. Resolving the clean water crisis would mitigate a lot of problems.
Was this climb different than your last climb on Kilimanjaro?
Could you see a difference in the melting glaciers, which some say could be gone within the next 12 years?
I climbed it in a different season last time. And it was much drier and clear outside, so we could view the glaciers. This trip was really stormy. We had a lot of bad weather. It rained every day and we had snow at the summit. The visibility wasn’t very good. So we weren’t able to get a good look at the glaciers.
Bad weather must make shooting more of a challenge.
It does, for sure. You’ve got to try to keep your camera equipment dry. When it rains and snows up there, it comes down hard. Fortunately, there was not a lot of wind. I carried an umbrella almost the entire time. People kept looking at me funny when I first took it out, but that look turned to envy after the first day of rain. Umbrellas are an obvious, but not so obvious, solution to keeping camera equipment dry. Of course, it helps keep you dry, too.
What was it like to hike with actors Emile Hirsch and Jessica Biel instead of fellow climbing superstars Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk?
Mountains are like the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter who anyone is or what they do. Actually, everyone on the trip was really grounded and had a great perspective on life and themselves. The mountain took everyone outside of his or her comfort zones and the weather and altitude was a struggle, so it was a real shared experience. Kenna really brought together an amazing group of people.
Jessica and Emile both have a great sense of humor. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of really good conversations on the trail. The comraderie and friendship on the Kili trip was similar to being with Conrad and Renan, but Conrad and Renan don't ask where to go to the bathroom on the trail.
The summit shot shows the group holding a sign that says “Send Water.” What’s next for this project?
Besides the large amount of money that was raised from sponsors, there’s also been a great deal of awareness raised. Tweets about the climb were number one or number two on Twitter for a couple days. The climb was also the number one cause on Facebook for a few days. That is significant exposure for this cause.
It’s actually been really eye-opening to see how people like Kenna and people in the entertainment industry work. They can be really effective in getting the word out. There is a big documentary coming out on MTV. There’s a photo exhibit going up at the State Department this week. And Kenna is going up to lobby Congress to pass legislation to help with the global clean water crisis.
We've been saying that we've accomplished the easy climb. Now we have the real climb, which is to get the word out and get people to understand how they can contribute to helping solve the global clean water crisis.
Watch a documentary featuring this climb on MTV on Sunday, March 14, at 9 p.m. For more information or to get involved, go to www.summitonthesummit.com.
Text by Mary Anne Potts; Photograph by Jimmy Chin