This week’s conversation is with Jimmy Chin, an Academy Award winning filmmaker, National Geographic photographer and professional mountain sports athlete.
He has led or participated in cutting edge expeditions around the world for over 20 years.
Jimmy has climbed and skied Mount Everest from the summit and made significant first ascents on all seven continents including the coveted first ascent of the Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru.
For those of you unfamiliar with Meru, it’s the sacred five-peaked mountain of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist cosmology and is considered to be the center of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes.
Jimmy’s photographs have graced numerous covers of National Geographic Magazine and the New York Times Magazine.
He co-produces and co-directs with his wife Chai Vasarhelyi.
Their film Meru won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015 and was on the 2016 Oscar shortlist for Best Documentary Feature.
Their latest documentary Free Solo, featuring Alex Honnold, won a BAFTA, seven primetime Emmys and the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2019.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s the first thing you should watch after you’re done listening to this podcast.
Jimmy’s resume precedes itself… I’d been wanting to have this conversation for a long time and I can’t wait for you to learn from him.
We talk about his unorthodox path to becoming a photographer and filmmaker, chasing dreams, and managing risk.We also discuss why he almost turned down making “Free Solo” which I think you’ll find captivating…
“Be conscious of the story that you’re telling yourself. One of the great challenges is being objective and having that awareness to self-examine. It’s having the awareness to look at why you’re doing things and the choices that you’re making.”
In This Episode:
What were his parents like?
Both my parents were from China and they both experienced the cultural revolution in China. So they both experienced some hardship going from China to Taiwan where they spent a good amount of their lives before they ended up going to graduate school in the States. My mom side of the family was a very progressive. My dad came from the opposite spectrum, a military background family. I think that really shaped my upbringing because, and I see it in my day-to-day life just these two very different sides.
How did his parents shape the man he is today?
My mom was always very creatively minded. I started playing the violin when I was three, was always doing arts and crafts and drawing, and was thinking about music and all these things that she wanted me to be exposed to. My dad was very tough and had me studying martial arts from a very young age. It’s the first thing I really remember doing with my dad was learning how to punch correctly. And there was a lot of the ethos of the martial arts instilled in me. They were both very focused on my academics. One thread that was clear from both of them was they had very high expectations in everything that I did. Excellence was a big focus also academically. And that’s what I remember. I remember going to a lot of swim meets, a lot of martial arts competitions, playing in the orchestra, was very structured.
Exposure to diverse interests
I think it was probably somewhat predictable to have immigrant parents who wanted to create the best life they could, this new life in a new country with their kids. So trying to give me every single opportunity they could and expose me to everything that they could think of that would help develop me as a person. Now as a parent, that’s something that I do with my children too. I think it’s great for them to have a lot of exposure. I do really appreciate having a big world presented to me. And I think that opened up my imagination to a lot of different worlds I could occupy.
Is there anything he’s trying to undo from his childhood?
I understood from an early age to excel at anything required a lot of discipline and a lot of self-motivation. And if you really, really wanted to excel, it took a lot of focus and almost obsession to a certain degree. You really had to go dig deep and persevere. I think one of the hard things about it was, it instilled a certain sense of fear of failure. And that is something that I’ve had to work on to undo, where it’s like, I’ve learned over the years, certainly now, that failure in a lot of ways is the greatest way to progress. You can’t be afraid to fail. You want to fail fast and early and learn and embrace that potential. I’m a perfectionist. So I often feel that pull of conflict where I’m like, “I don’t know if I want to go that far because I might fail,” but then I’ve taken some fairly extraordinary risks in my life and many of them have paid off for me. So it’s been reinforced to undo that fear of failure that I was set up for in a way.
Saying no to the traditional career path
I came out of school and there was a huge expectation that I was going to follow a traditional career path. There was a lot of pressure. My parents were librarians. They weren’t extraordinarily wealthy, but they had really taken their life savings and put it into my education and my sister’s education. So there was that pressure of like, “What are you going to do with yourself now that we’ve spent our life savings putting you through school?” I told my parents, I was like, “Look, I know this is what you want from me,” but I had discovered climbing early on in college. And I was just completely enraptured with that idea, the lifestyle. In a lot of ways, it coalesced all of these skills that I had gotten through different things like swimming, and the training for swimming and endurance and peace and all those things in martial arts, just physical awareness and those kinds of things. And then add this element of risk. I found this thing that I was deeply passionate about and I told my parents, I was like, “Hey, look, I’m just going to take a year off and I’m going to climb and ski full-time and I’m going to get it out of my system. And then I’m going to focus on my career.” And they’re of course mortified of this idea, but I went and did it.
What was his dream?
I just wanted to climb and ski and be in the mountains. And the part of the story that I think is important to note here to answer your question is I remember distinctly thinking, is the end of that first year I thought, “I can’t not climb. I’m going to go back for another season in Yosemite.” And I put it on myself and I was like, “If I’m going to do that, I’m going to be the best possible climber I can be.” And I remember that I can be part is different than I’m going to be the best climber in the world. It was more like, “I’m going to see how far I can take this.” And I had an innate confidence in the fact that I knew what I was capable of if I really focused because I understood what that meant. That meant training and just devoting everything to it.
He never took a photography or film class
I didn’t grow up in a family where climbing or photography or filmmaking was (normal)… My mom used to say, “Of course, we’re worried about you. There’s no word in Chinese for what you’re doing. There is no career in Chinese or a word for it, for what you’re doing.” These were things that I had discovered. And I never took a photography class and I never took a filmmaking class. These were things that I discovered and then I was just like, “Okay, this is what I’m going to do. This is what I’m passionate about. I’m going to figure it out. And I’m going to see out of almost pure curiosity, how far can I go with it?” And I would look around and I’d be like, “Okay, well, this is what other people are doing. I think I could do that better by doing this.” It did open the aperture. And really, nothing phased or intimidated me in that sense, because once I started having this, I guess you’d say reinforcing of like, “Oh.” I’d have these breakthroughs all the time. I’d be like, “Oh, I want to climb El Cap in a day.” And then I would focus on it, and then I do it. And I’d be like, “Huh, that seemed absolutely absurd a month ago, but by applying myself in these ways you can figure it out and you can do it.” And then that evolved. And I’m just talking about the climbing side. So I was like, “Okay, well now I’m climbing El Cap in a day. I want to climb a bunch of routes.”
What was he chasing?
There was this sense of urgency for me in terms of life. I didn’t necessarily use the words I’m about to say when I thought about it, but it’s just that idea that time is our only true currency and you’re only spending it. You don’t get it back. So if you want to look even beyond this idea of, I wanted to discover what my capabilities are, more of it is related to this idea that life is short and I want to make the most of it. I want to experience the most out of this life. And for me, that meant seeing how far I could go.
Is it more painful life to live a life not knowing or live a life at the edge, doing what you want, but potentially die earlier?
There’s that part of me that is like, “I can’t not do this.” It’s a calling, as some people would say. That calling has evolved. Some of it is still the same at the heart, but part of my life experiences also on a lot of levels on the outside looks like it’s all about this physical risk, but the craft of a lot of what I do is around managing risk, those calculations, those decisions, the team you surround yourself with. And if you really look at my work, it’s managing risk. How accurately can you assess risk? How accurately can you calculate it? That’s a huge part of the process outside of what is being seen superficially. It’s like, “Oh, he’s climbing a mountain and it’s really hard and there’s ice and there’s all this stuff, and he’s got to be physically strong and technically capable.” There are all those aspects, but there’s this other aspect for me that is also deeply satisfying is like, “You’re not just going into these things without chasing adrenaline.” There’s a creative aspect to it outside of the film and photography that’s also creative problem solving and understanding the risks, managing them, assessing them, building this situational awareness that constantly expands the more experience you have and being able to apply all of these different things and ideas to be able to do this in a way that hopefully doesn’t end up with you dying. When those stakes get really high, it becomes very interesting. And there’s a lot of self-reflection, that’s also involved with it. These experiences feel very deep for me because they’re so, all encompassing.
Why he cares about the work he does
I find these real life stories deeply inspiring. Some of the motivation is because I’m really inspired. And it’s as if the urge to share that, because I’m excited about it, is something that drives a lot of what I do. And if you look at my body of work, photography or filmmaking, there’s a common theme about the human potential and the human spirit. And what I try to bring are universal ideas that people can relate to. But in the experiences and the places and the people that I’m with, those might on the outside seem very unrelatable. And it’s so far from most people’s reality. It’s like, to be able to connect in a way to that, that for me is fun.
Human potential is limitless
I’ve been able to work with many of the great adventurers, explorers, climbers, snowboarders, skiers of my generation. And on some levels it’s all the same. These are people who don’t see boundaries, or if they see boundaries, they’re just like, “Well, that’s a great place marker, because I’m just going to go right through it.” And I’m constantly inspired by the people that I get to work with. And I think, what I’m really saying is the human potential is limitless in a way. It truly is. Whether that’s in music or design or whatever it is, I’ve seen it time and time again where attitude and vision and, well, simply hard work, perseverance, hard work, determination, all those things. I’ve seen the impossible achieved over and over and over again. Not everything we got to make a documentary about in Free Solo, but day-to-day things where someone will do an impossible trick on a snowboard that nobody’s ever done before, ski a line that nobody’s ever done before, had the vision and the right attitude to achieve the impossible. And I think history has many examples of that.
Why attitude is such an important word to him….
It’s how people look at life, it’s perspective, how they choose to see the world. A lot of people can only see limits and challenges and impossibility. And then some people are just, brush those aside, and they’re like, “No, this is how I see it.” And the bigger and broader they can think. It’s this exploration. And I always think about this idea, the word explorers, of people exploring new territory, or a physical landscape that explorers or people who are exploring the boundaries of the human potential and their own potential. And so, that attitude, I mean, means a lot of things.
Journaling is critical
I started noticing at one point, I would write something in my journal and be like, “This is where I want to be.” And then it would happen. So then I started purposely writing stuff in the journal and being like… But it was just that idea of like, “Oh yeah.” You have to identify where you’re going in a way, but there’s that intention behind it. And then there’s the actual belief of what that intention can become. I think that’s something I do all the time. It creates a certain, not confidence or overconfidence, but it does allow me to try things that seem really far out there. And I see that with a lot of the athletes I work with, you see that with great entrepreneurs or great musicians, in a lot of different genres in worlds.
What was the inspiration for working with Alex Honnold on “Free Solo”
In the back of my mind, I had always thought, “Alex is a very interesting character.” And Alex, among all of these people, I have worked with, the greats, he was one level up. And I always say this, among Alex’s peer group of the best of the best, I think it’s safe to say, even they feel like he’s an anomaly in a peer group of anomalies. I was witnessing things that he was doing that even for someone who’s very open-minded and seen a lot, was boggling my mind. There were things that were incomprehensible. So I had let it slip at the end of this one meeting, and people have been like, “Yeah, that’s okay.” And then it was immediately like, “Oh, that’s the film.”
Why he was reluctant to move forward with the film
I was really reluctant because I was like, “I don’t want to make a film about Alex free soloing.” It’s extraordinarily dangerous and of course it’s really stressful. That will be horribly stressful. I don’t want to deal with it. I didn’t know he was going to free solo El Cap. It was just pitched as a story, a film about Alex and his free soloing. In the process of vetting the idea, my wife, Chai, was like, “You know what? I need to spend some time with him and get to know him.” And in the time that she spent with him, she spent two days with him, and I was like, “Hey, what’d you think of Alex?” She’s like, “He’s very, very interesting. And by the way, he told me that he’s going to go free solo El Cap. Isn’t that great?” Because Chai isn’t from the climbing world. And she didn’t understand what that meant. And she said, “That’s a perfect focal point for the film.” And I just said, “There’s absolutely no way we can make that film.” And the reason why is, I didn’t even know if it was ethically okay…
The biggest risk in filming Alex Free Solo El Cap
Alex is able to manage external pressure in a way that I’d never seen with anybody else. But still, introducing a camera to a situation, no matter who you are, even if you’re Alex Honnold, changes the situation. And when the margins of success, that is the difference between life and death are so thin that the idea of the camera being there, or the pressure of a production around what he was doing was, even for him, if he barely felt it, but if that was the amount that it took for things to go bad, I was like, “I don’t want to carry that responsibility.” And funny enough, we let the cat out of the bag at a meeting with Nat Geo, and before we could even say anything, they were like, “We’ll finance that film.” And I was like, “Actually, I’m not going to make that film.”
What changed his mind when it came to filming Free Solo?
I turned it down, a fully financed film for six months and was like, “Mm-mm, not going to do it.” And it was only after a conversation I had with Jon Krakauer, who’s a good friend and mentor of mine, someone I really trust in terms of these kinds of decisions, because he obviously has a mind for it. And like any good mentor he just said to me, he didn’t give me an answer. He asked me three questions. He said, “Well, is he going to do it anyways?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Is there someone else, do you think that would be better at telling the story, not just better telling the story, but in a better position to tell the story?” And I was like, “No. I mean, I took Alex on his first international expedition.” I’d been working with him and climbing with him for 10 years. I knew him well. And then his last question was, “Well, do you trust him?” I thought about it for a minute, but I was like, “I do.” And that’s what allowed me to make the film is that I did trust Alex. And I did trust that he would make the right decisions. He wouldn’t go for the glory of the film. If he didn’t feel like it was going to happen, sure as hell wasn’t going to do it for the camera.
The stress that came with the film
There wasn’t a day on two and a half years of production where I didn’t wake up thinking about the worst-case scenario. And on different days it was much deeper stress than others, but over time it was a process. And one of the things that I told the team early on that we reiterated over and over was that, the only way we can think about this film is that the needs of this film will never be above Alex’s needs. We couldn’t even think that. It doesn’t matter if you spent five days rigging and carried a 60-pound load and went up and down the ropes to get the shot, and if he decides not to go up that day, and you’ve done all that work, it’s like, no big deal. It’s always about Alex and what he’s trying to do. Because if you come at it with any other attitude, if something goes wrong, it’s different, even though the actions are all the same. And we always lived by that.
What causes mistakes to happen on the mountain?
Usually, and isn’t just for me, but the mistakes happen often in benign situations that have big consequences where you don’t feel. When you’re focused on something that’s really hard and potentially dangerous, that’s not usually where it happens. It’s the moments before, the moments after, you’re too comfortable, that’s when things happen. So there’s a certain, knowing that, you have to constantly be on, because you’re like, “Oh, this is the moment where you don’t think anything’s going to happen. Don’t let anything happen.” Then of course, there are those moments we’re fatigue, where you’ve just done 24 hours and you’re rappelling. That’s why most accidents in the mountains happen when you’re descending.