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For Action Photographer/Filmmaker Jimmy Chin, New Challenges Lead to New Heights of Creativity

Jimmy Chin has danced with death more times than a drunken gravedigger. He has waltzed with disaster climbing up and skiing down the world’s highest peaks, often with a camera or video recorder in front of his eye or strapped to his back. He has jigged with fate by free soloing—no ropes, no aids, no harness—the Grand Traverse in Grand Teton National Park in one day, making it back to his car unscathed after scampering up and over 13 miles of rock and ice.

By Chin's own admission, he's had several powdery brushes with death when he became the first American to ski down Mount Everest, doing the descent without fixed ropes, supplemental oxygen, or Sherpa support. Chin has also endured more than a few dangerous moments on the Shark’s Fin, a sheer vertical rock face that is the most direct route up the infamous Meru Peak, which he summited with two other mountaineers in 2011 to become the first team ever to conquer one of the world’s most difficult climbs.

Despite Chin’s repeated challenges of human mortality and his many successes in overcoming the seemingly impossible, the 40-year-old photographer, filmmaker, professional skier and climber insists that there’s still more that can and will be done in the realm of outdoor expeditions. “Every generation thinks, ‘Wow, we’ve reached the [limit of] human potential, we’ve maxed it.’ And then, in every generation, someone comes along and blows it out the water,” says Chin, who has been sponsored by The North Face for 14 years. “I’ve experienced it myself, where I’ve said that something’s not possible. But then someone comes along and does it and makes it possible. I like the idea of infinite human potential, and a lot of my photography and filmmaking has been focused on that.”

Photographer Jimmy Chin climbs the Pacific Ocean Wall on El Captain in Yosemite National Park.

Photographer Jimmy Chin climbs the Pacific Ocean Wall on El Captain in Yosemite National Park.

This thematic shift in Chin’s work is not insignificant—he is one of the leading adventure photographers and filmmakers in the industry now. His photos of famous peaks, athletes, and expeditions have been featured inside and on the cover of National Geographic, where he has masthead real estate as a contributing photographer, and he has produced and directed films for MTV, ESPN, and other networks, along with commercial ads for The North Face, Pirelli, Apple, and other major companies. He has shot some of the most accomplished climbers, skiers, snowboarders, and mountaineers in the world, and in that capacity, has often been the subject of his own work. 

“When you’re really shooting in the mountains, you have to be a participant to get the shot,” says Chin, who captured his first published photo by accident on a climb in 1998. “And not a lot of [athletes] wanted to f--- around with someone they have to worry about, so being an athlete has really helped me—I have never been a liability on shoots. It’s given me a lot of access and credibility.”

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That access and credibility has helped propel Chin’s career to where he says he is now: more passionate about working with cutting-edge outdoor-industry players such as snowboarder Travis Rice and climber Alex Honnold than about simply trying to expand his filmography and portfolio of stills. “I’ve always been interested in working with top athletes, athletes who are pushing the edge and are really progressive in the outdoor space and adventure world,” says Chin, who splits his time between Jackson Hole, Wyo., and New York City. “The idea of progression is constantly on my mind when I’m working with different athletes—I recognize it, I see it, and I understand the talent it takes as well.”

Jimmy Chin captures Alex Honnold reenacting his rope-less free climb of the 2,500-foot northwestern face of Halfdome, arguably the hardest free solo climb to date in Yosemite National Park.

Jimmy Chin captures Alex Honnold reenacting his rope-less free climb of the 2,500-foot northwestern face of Halfdome, arguably the hardest free solo climb to date in Yosemite National Park.

Perhaps Chin’s best effort at capturing an athlete’s quest for progression is yet to come. For the past six years, Chin has been working on Meru, a film about the celebrated U.S. climber Conrad Anker, also Chin’s mentor, and Anker’s 25-year obsession with the Shark’s Fin as the way to summit Meru Peak, which he conquered with Chin in 2011. “Meru is a film about ambition, sacrifice, and friendship,” Chin says. “We go to [Meru] peak and essentially almost die on it. But all this crazy stuff happened, too. The climbing part is the vehicle to tell Conrad’s story, and the hope is that [the film] gives people a glimpse of what it’s truly like to climb high-altitude mountains in the modern sense. I think people will say [after seeing the film that] it’s quite a bit different than hiking up Everest.” (Incidentally, Chin has also hiked up Everest—several times.)

Meru is due to premiere in early 2015. In the meantime, Chin says he’s trying to balance his career as a world-class photographer/filmmaker with his other career as a world-class athlete. “I’m constantly out of my mind trying to stay in shape,” says Chin. “I’m in New York right now, but I had five days at home [in Jackson Hole], and I climbed and skied Mount Moran and the Grand Tetons to feed the rat so I could stay sane in the city.”

Part of maintaining sanity has also meant selling the production company Chin co-founded, Camp 4 Collective, this past January. “I realized I was basically running a business, which was the last thing I wanted to do,” he says. “I had 12 employees, and I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not shooting.’”

Now, Chin says, he’s doing more shooting and trying to spend as much time with his wife, film director and producer Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and their new baby girl, Marina. “I’m mixing it up and trying to constantly grow and evolve, and I have some dreams for some personal projects, too,” Chin says. “It’s more about the story—I know that’s one of the most overused words, but it’s more than just the photo. Photos can tell a great story, but at this point, it’s more about bigger projects, longer-term projects, and projects with more depth.”

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