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Adventure Photographer Jimmy Chin: Defying the Rational, Physically and Creatively

Jimmy Chin

When skiing down Everest, like he did eight years ago, or ascending the northwest face of Half Dome, like he did four days ago, Jimmy Chin is used to making very fast, precise calculations leading to absolute decisions. Ask him what he wants for dinner on a typical Manhattan Tuesday night, however, and he’s pretty much worthless. “I can’t make up my mind to save my life,” explains Chin, a photographer and filmmaker who also happens to be a a world-class professional mountain athlete who has lead climbing and/or ski-mountaineering expeditions everywhere from Tanzania to Pakistan, Mali to Tibet, and many spots in-between. “I just went through this last night with my wife: should we go to Chinatown for Xiao Long Bao? Sushi in the West Village? Do we go for a burger at Melons? I don't know. I don’t know!” The reason for his crippling indecision is simple as it is maddening, especially if you happen to be married to him. “There aren't any steaks involved, pardon the pun,” says Chin. Then he adds with resignation, “My wife eventually got fed up and decided we should go get the sushi.”

What makes Chin, 40, a frustrating weekday date makes him very good at his very particular job— more of a calling, really— of both adventurer and documenter of those adventures in films, commercials, and spreads in magazines like National Geographic, among many others. He is extremely skilled at weighing the pros and cons of any given situation where his life may hang in the balance, which given his line of work, is not an uncommon occurrence. “I spend a lot of time calculating, sometimes over-calculating,” says Chin, whose personal risk calculus was seriously re-calibrated following his marriage to filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi in 2013 and the subsequent birth of their daughter, Marina. “In some ways, I like it when I put myself in situations where there are real stakes involved and time is of the essence and there isn't a lot of room to overthink it. I have to make a decision and then I just go for it. In day-to-day life, it’s harder for me.”

As a combination photographer and mountain athlete, Chin is forced to make his calculations from both halves of his brain, the one driven to capture that perfect shot that might land him a cover, and the one that simply wants to get down off the mountain with all his limbs intact. “When I look at a picture I’ve taken, it can jump me right back to what it took to take it,” says the 15-year-veteran of the North Face Athlete team. “This was the moment where I almost dropped that glove, and I could barely breath because of the altitude. And this was where I was so precarious, standing on an edge that was so small that even just pressing the shutter on my camera could throw me off. I hear the conversation in my ear that is going, ‘God, I really don't want to deal with taking this photograph,’ followed by, ‘You know, just take out the fucking camera.’ ‘No, don’t take the camera out, it’s not worth it.’ ‘Just do it now: take the camera out and keep moving. Why are you even having this debate? You’re wasting time! Get the freaking shot!’ I remember all of that.”

Not that the two sides of Chin are constantly in conflict. More often then not, they play relatively well together, with his photography able to answer the question he’s most commonly confronted with — some variation of, “Why the hell did you just climb up that rock face?”— in a way his words never quite can. “A photograph is in some ways the easiest way for me to show why I did what I did,” says Chin, on FaceTime from his New York City apartment where he lives with his family when they are not in their place in Idaho or he isn’t exploring some far corner of the planet (within the week, he’ll be off to South Africa for a commercial shoot). “You could say, ‘Well it’s really beautiful,’ and ‘It’s really amazing,’ and people don't quite get it. But when you look at a photo of a person hanging off a wall, there’s waterfalls in the background, stunning landscape all around them, last light— it is such an outrageous and beautiful confluence of all these things, of adventure and beauty, nature, light, shadow that people are sort of forced to understand.”

While photography was something that he stumbled on— Chin took a snapshot with a buddy’s camera during a climbing trip, the shot won an award, and so a career was born— discovering and exploring places that are literally and figuratively breathtaking has been something he’s wanted to do even before he even knew it was something people actually did. It was an idea that first sprouted up when the native Minnesotan was a kid in Mankato, curled up with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien at the University library, where both his parents worked as librarians. “My mom had me reading at a very early age,” recalls Chin, who when he wasn't reading was exploring the undeveloped river valley that made up his backyard. “The Chronicles of Narnia, The Hobbit, and the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy— those books inspired a lot of ideas about wandering off in the world and having my adventures. I never quite put it together, but that is really where this all started for me: as a kid imagining myself in those worlds.”

A family trip to Montana showed him that the fantasy worlds he’d been imagining actually existed. “The first time I saw Glacier National Park, it was the magical fantasy land I had always been dreaming about,” says Chin. “I remember standing at Lake McDonald looking out and thinking, ‘Oh, so this is where you go off to fight the dragon.’ I also remember thinking, ‘This is what Mountain climbers do. They go to places like this and they climb the mountains.’ It all made sense.” By the time he reached Carleton College in Northfield (he would eventually graduate with a degree in Asian studies), Chin had been all but consumed by his desire to get up those mountains. Recalls Chin, “The summer after my freshman year, my parents really wanted me to do an internship in DC. Instead I drove my Jeep back to Glacier and waited tables. That’s where I started peak bagging. Every moment I had off, I was off climbing some mountain.” Adds Chin, “It was an itch I had to scratch. I didn't know how long the itch would last. The itch is still there now.”

He doesn’t imagine a day when that itch will ever be remedied, a point driven home less than a week ago when he was shooting a commercial in Yosemite featuring free-solo legend Alex Honnold. Despite a production schedule that allowed fewer than five hours of nightly sleep, Chin was nonetheless compelled to take on Half Dome. “We were exhausted, but it was something I just had to do,” says Chin. “It was important, rejuvenating. I remember there was a moment where I was way high up on the face and I looked out and went, ‘Yep, this is exactly why I am here.’ Huge exposure, 2000 feet of air below you, the sun setting, the hard work to get there— it was so satisfying. I remember feeling really alive.” Then he adds with a smile, looking out the window towards the streets of Manhattan, “But then if I thought about it like a rational person in New York City, I’m not sure any of that would make sense to me at all.”