What Was Photographer Jimmy Chin’s Scariest Climb?

Jimmy Chin at first light on the 11th day of climbing on the 2011 Meru expedition. This was the summit day push. Photograph by Renan Ozturk
Jimmy Chin at first light on the 11th day of climbing on the 2011 Meru expedition. This was the summit day push. Photograph by Renan Ozturk

It’s not very often that a world-class climber and photographer agrees to answer any question asked—live! But that’s just what happened last week on our Nat Geo Adventure Facebook page when Chin chimed in on each inquiry posted from fans like you.

We learned quite a few things about Chin, whose award-winning film Meru just made the short list for the Academy Awards’ documentary category. We discovered which of his climbs was the scariest, what he thought when he encountered bodies on Everest, how he deals with risk now that he’s a dad, and his advice for making it as an adventure photographer—including embracing the ski bum/climber bum lifestyle. He even shares his favorite backcountry skiing spot in the Tetons. Below is a list of our favorite questions and answers. Read on!

1. Kenji Tsukamoto: Jimmy! I don’t think a lot of people appreciate the intricate dance of balancing your athletic career, film/photo career, and a more recent addition of your own family. In what ways have you started to introduce your family to the great outdoors? 

Jimmy Chin: Hey Kenji! I bought a sick new van for road tripping… and I figure if I can get [my daughter] Marina stoked on skiing and surfing, we’ll have a lot of fun together down the road.

2. Amy Bucci: Jimmy, I know that often you take on risky climbs, and I think it’s so great! I wonder, who is your favorite climbing partner and why?

Jimmy Chin: I have a lot of great climbing partners to choose from but for big expeditions it’s gotta be Conrad Anker….

3. Bryce Mullin: Hi Jimmy, I am looking to be a ski photographer also, and when I’m on shoots I am always thinking about the balance of skiing versus photographing, especially when the whole day is photogenic like it must be at Meru. Have you found any techniques that you use to help with this?

Jimmy Chin: We call it “FOMAS,” fear of missing a shot. That is normal. And no, there is no great technique I know of not to suffer from FOMAS.

4. Mike Fennell: Hey Jimmy! Congratulations on the huge success of Meru… I’m a nature and adventure photographer trying to make it my full-time career… I was just curious about when you knew you had made it as a professional? Was it more freelance work or editorial staff photographer jobs that gained you recognition?

Jimmy Chin: I’ve always been freelance. I thought I made it when I sold my first photo. Yes, I was naive….thankfully….

Meru Expedition, Garwhal, India
Meru Expedition, Garwhal, India; Photograph by Jimmy Chin

5. Freddy Allport: 3 tips for being a broke climbing/ski bum? 

Jimmy Chin: Stay broke and climbing / skiing! Hah! I spent seven years living out of the back of my 1989 Subaru Loyale. Some of my best years ever (except for the ones coming up). I often joke I lived in my car, started working and building a career and am now spending my entire adult life trying to move back into the back of car…ok maybe a van this next round.

6. Mario Jonathon Wade: Jimmy, since you have a family, have you become “less extreme”? Do you feel like you don’t want to risk as much now?

Jimmy Chin: I got older and “less extreme.” You see enough and experience enough to try and make smarter decisions. But risk is relative, and my risks still aren’t going to make most people comfortable.

7. Ivan Kallen: Hey Jimmy, is it scary when on Everest you come across fallen climbers that have been there for years?

Jimmy Chin: Not scary, but I do usually take a moment to pay my respects even if it is an acknowledgement of a life lost on the mountain.

8. Eric John: Hey Jimmy! What’s the next big adventure you’re planning?

Jimmy Chin: There are a quite a few in the works…. Starting a new film shortly….

9. Luke Dowbiggin: Hey man! I’ll be traveling around northern India next summer (mainly in Uttarakhand) and was wondering which mountains around there you’d recommend checking out. I’m far from being able to call myself a skilled climber but love hiking/backpacking and mountain culture.

Jimmy Chin: I think trekking up around Gangotri would be beautiful…

10. Liz Hall: Jimmy, what were you thinking in the moments before you skied off of Mount Everest?

Jimmy Chin: Holy sh**! ☺

Jimmy Chin: Actually I had a moment standing on the top all by myself with my skis sticking out from the summit. I just took it all in and reflected for a moment how much time and energy I had spent to get to that moment. It was a good one…but then I started focusing on what I needed to do….

11. Jonathan Kolby: Hi Jimmy. Your work is an inspiration and I thought the Meru documentary was phenomenal. Like yourself, I am frequently behind the lens, documenting my team’s field research in remote rain forest locations, but I will soon need to have the cameras turned on me in order to tell my story. In Meru, it was great to follow you through this adventure. From your experience, can you tell me how it felt to be in front of the camera? And did it make you evaluate the activities’ risk differently, since you have different things on your mind other than capturing a great shot?

Jimmy Chin: I always prefer to be behind the camera. Being in front of it is a necessary evil for me, but we needed it to help round out the story.

Jimmy Chin: I always evaluate the risks the same and need to remain as objective about the risks as possible. I’m a climber first, shooter second on trips like Meru.

12. Brian Alexander Jones: Hi Jimmy! I have two questions – one about Meru and the other about general climbing. 1. When you guys went up the second time (3rd for Conrad) and Renan had issues with his health the first night, what were the emotions in the portaledge like? In the movie you guys didn’t spend a lot of time with this scene, but I have to imagine this was the defining moment of the trip. Just wonder what was truly going through your heads and some of the things Conrad might have said to rally the group. My second is – I’m turning 30 and recently turned down a huge corporate management job, and I’m thinking about buying a van and driving out west to ride and live in my car for the winter… Any pointers? 

Jimmy Chin: 1. We couldn’t get emotional about it. We had to stay focused on thinking about our exit strategy and how we were going to manage worst case scenarios. We were also monitoring his vitals closely.

Jimmy Chin 2. 30 is the new 20! Hahaha! Better hit the road. It’s not going to get any easier…..

13. Dawn Finicane: The ending to Meru (awesome film btw), that last seen of the peak, at night, surrounded by all those stars—I hate to say it but was that really the sky that night? No editing? If so, that has to be worth 5 more climbs JUST for seeing that unmeasurable beauty of the sky. Wow!

Jimmy Chin: We did some digital enhancement on the star scape at the end. We felt like having a moment to represent the ephemeral feeling after a climb like Meru was appropriate.

14. Baldo Michael: I’m planning on trekking mount Kili in Tanzania in June with my girlfriend. Any advice on preventing or assimilating acute mountain sickness if any at that altitude? 

Jimmy Chin: Take your time on the daily hikes. It’s not a race that is won by the fastest….

15. Paul Knoop: Jimmy…what’s the most dangerous climb you have done?

Jimmy Chin: Probably the attempt on the direct north face on Everest….

16. Emma Morgan: Jimmy! You are someone who I look up to and admire dearly. Thank you for all you do! Was there a pivotal moment you knew that climbing mountains was something you needed to do for the rest of your life?

Jimmy Chin: I was around eight, and I knew I wanted to spend my life in the mountains / outdoors. I’ve had a lot of doubts over the years whether it was the right choice….but in the end, I know it is what brings me the greatest happiness, and I am my best self out there.

17. Rory McCarthy: As a photographer, do you ever run into those moments that are too good to drive a wedge between with the lens? I would imagine some of your best shots have never even been taken.

Jimmy: Chin You’re correct. I’ve missed some good ones for sure!

18. Rory McCarthy: Can you talk about balancing risk and safety in a sport/lifestyle that requires the boundary to be pushed constantly, at what point do you look at something and say “no, it’s just not worth it.” Especially now that you are a dad?

Jimmy Chin: It’s the constant balancing act of risking too much and risking too little. It’s pretty safe in the short term to sit on the sofa and watch TV all day. Is that for me. Probably not.

19. Francois Haasbroek: I can’t imagine how much “abuse” your camera gear must take; but if you had to have only one body and two lenses, which would it be?

Jimmy Chin: Canon 5d mIII body, 24-70mm f2.8 lens, then it is a toss up between 16-35mm f4 lens or 50mm f1.2 or 70-200mm f2.8

20. Michel Caron: I know you love taking images of your adventures. I also know that the productions you work for are involving a lot of “work.” Do you still sometimes just go outside “for fun” without any obligations?

Jimmy Chin: All the time….

21. Johnny Hobart: Do you use any breathing techniques to deal with altitude, cold, and/or mental state? For example, the Wim Hof Method?

Jimmy Chin: I don’t do much with breathing techniques except for a bit of pressure breathing when I’m cranking up hill. I train a lot of cardio. Learning to pace is important and knowing what your all day pace is helps. I often use my breathing to gauge my output. If I need to be out all day moving over terrain, I try to pick a pace I know I can sustain.

22. Pat Valade: Hey Jimmy, there was some talk in Meru about the justification of risk when taking on activities in the outdoors. Are you still often putting yourself into situations where there is enough risk you feel that you need to justify being there? And if so, how do you justify the risks you’re taking?

Jimmy Chin: Life is risk. How do you justify not taking risks?

23. Jeska Clark: Jimmy! I am a fan and I am wondering, how did you get into the outdoors? Also what was the first major expedition you did to get attention from NG? I love your work keep it up.

Jimmy Chin: I grew up in the Minnesota, but I was always running around outside in the forest around my house. Then I saw Glacier National Park on a road trip with my parents when I was around eight. I was very moved and knew I would want to live a life in the mountains.

Jimmy Chin: Probably my first expedition to the Charakusa Valley in Pakistan.

24. Jennifer Stevens: Jimmy, to start, I’m a huge fan. I bought and have watch Meru many times already, super inspiring, and makes me want to work harder in life. Tell me, what pushes you, when you’re in the mist of a climb, what’s on your mind?

Jennifer Stevens: Also, what was your first love, photography or climbing?

Jimmy Chin: Often times you are just thinking about the three feet in front of your face and how to move up and through it. In general, it’s just a feeling of being very present. You have a clear purpose and you are focused on all the elements around making that happen….which is going up or down.

25. Glenn Cantre: I’m starting with alpine climbing next year. What’s the best advice you can give me?

Jimmy Chin: I would try to get out and start the basics of rock climbing with really experience friends. Otherwise, I would either take a NOLS course or hire a guide to get you started.

Jimmy Chin: Take your time with it, too. The whole process of discovery and learning is the best part of it because it is ongoing….even for me now….

26. Oisin McHugh: Hey Jimmy. A lot of the footage from your first try at the climb shows the inside of the lens barrel like a fish-eye lens, but they don’t look like there fish-eye lens. What gear did you bring with you on the first attempt. 

Jimmy Chin: We did regrettable have a fish-eye lens on our first climb. Personally, I really try NEVER to shoot with a full fish eye because of the distortion. I think it works for specific shots but not something to use all the time.

27. Eric Smith: Hi, Jimmy– Fellow Carlton graduate here. What’s your favorite “get away from it all and be in the wilderness” part of Minnesota?

Jimmy Chin: Palisade Head on the North Shore of Superior….So epic.

28. Nelson Tang: Hey Jimmy! Long-time fan. Mentorship seems to have played such a huge role in your growth and success, and you’ve had some great mentors in your life, like Galen Rowell and Conrad Anker. Can you give some insight into how you navigated those relationships, and why do you think they chose you to be their mentee?

Jimmy Chin: I think mentors choose you. There has to be some affinity or maybe a mentor seeing a bit of themselves in someone. I know for me I would look for someone passionate, hard working and deeply committed to a craft or life. It is a powerful thing to know what you want to do and to do it. People who feel that drive and passion….you know it when you see it.

29: Brent Seward: Recommendation for favorite off-piste skiing in Jackson Hole?

Jimmy Chin: If I’m telling you about it, it’s my second favorite! Haha.

Jimmy Chin: There is tons of off piste or backcountry skiing around Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Teton Pass is also incredible….Of course there is the Tetons too….

30: Jon Gregory: Jimmy, It’s been great to watch your career grow over the years. It’s been a true inspiration. What advice do you give the next generation of adventure photographers trying to break into a crowded scene to get noticed?

Jimmy Chin: Stay focused on your work. Be inspired by others and forget the petty competitiveness, the angry, whiney child sh**. It takes a lot of space to be negative. Do the work. Enjoy the work.

31. Carson Biederman: How do you feel about the use of drones in climbing / mountaineering video?

Jimmy Chin: I think they are great tools. Just check if it’s legal to fly in the area. Definitely useful to help give a location context or show exposure.

32. Ben Zavell: Hi Jimmy! How did you even end up working for National Geographic, and how could I do what your doing?

Jimmy Chin: I worked hard and got lucky from time to time and met the right people at the right time. There is no other magic dust than having total commitment and figuring it out.

33. Andrea Mason: Rush Jimmy, just want to say thanks for sharing your Meru and for your spirit of adventuring. When out, my whole goal is intact survival, but I don’t want to live in fear. How do you balance the risk/reward tension between “one more step” and knowing when to turn back?

Jimmy Chin: You have to trust your instincts. Building those instincts is the hard part. Be smart, be aware. Gain experience and build those instincts carefully.

34. Jessie Hoyng: Hey Jimmy, I’m curious about how you managed to carry your filmmaking equipment up Meru along with all the other climbing and expedition gear. What camera/filming equipment did you bring, and what other sacrifices did you have to make in order to bring all that along?

Jimmy Chin: We left a lot of food behind! Haha….

Jimmy Chin: Renan and I just carried the equipment in shoulder bags like you’d carry your cameras down the street.

35. Robert Logi Benediktsson: All my life I thought I was afraid of heights but it turned out it’s the fear of falling to my death, what can I do to overcome that fear, besides just climb ?

Jimmy Chin: Facing fears straight on is one way to do it. Sometimes you can manage fear by rationalizing and separating out what are perceived risks and what are real risks.

Next: Meru Filmmaker Jimmy Chin on Risk, Fatherhood, and Fame—Plus Bonus “Tenthouse” Tour Video

Comments

  1. santiago
    cairo
    December 2, 2015, 10:31 pm
  2. Augustine Yeo
    Singapore
    December 17, 2015, 1:13 am

    Amazing. There is no one like you. Jimmy,