The venue is buzzing with excitement. Expansive paper mountains line the stage in an effort to make our guest feel at home. Attendees arrive long before the event begins.
Jimmy Chin arrives at The Hutton House without fanfare. It’s his first time back to his home state of Minnesota in a couple of decades, and besides our acknowledgment that one of our heroes has entered the premises, he blends in seamlessly. He is, we think to ourselves, one of us.
He’s one of us, except he won an Academy Award earlier this year for his jaw-dropping documentary Free Solo, which captures climber Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without ropes. The New York Times says the climb “should be celebrated as one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever.” It was an unbelievable demonstration of human potential, and it took immense skill to capture it the way Jimmy and his team, which includes his wife and director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, captured it. What makes his filmmaking extraordinary is that he films these high-altitude shots while on the mountainside himself.
He’s a filmmaker who happens to be a world-class mountain sports athlete.
Jimmy isn’t intimidated by the 200 National Geographic magazines waiting for him to sign (but what intimidates a guy who has skied Mt. Everest — from the top?) He’s not too important or busy to personalize our own editions, and he puts on display his midwest manners.
Upstairs in the green room, amidst the clicking of the camera shutter, the pattering of a computer keyboard, and the hum of microphone testing, Jimmy discovers stillness. Looking out the window to summer blues and greens, he says, “You just don’t see trees like this anywhere else.” He lets the nostalgia flood over him, and as quickly as the stillness starts, it stops, and we are microphoned up and ready for our interview.
Here is our conversation with filmmaker, National Geographic photographer, and mountain sports athlete, Jimmy Chin, edited down for concision:
Studio/E: What is your Desire and why does it give you energy?
Jimmy Chin: As a filmmaker and storyteller, you try to create empathy. Films and great stories are empathy machines. Being compassionate to other people is a wonderful place to start. Having gratitude in your life is very grounding. In my work, I hope to inspire people to be empathetic, to be compassionate, and live life with intention. Those are all ideas that were a part of Free Solo. This wasn’t so clear when I first started. Over time my desire around the work I do kind of embraced those things. It was also a reaction to seeing the effect of the work. Both in Meru and in Free Solo, part of where I started is that there are all these misperceptions around the kinds of things I do, like climbing and skiing. Shifting peoples’ perspectives and understanding the motivations of what people do, why we do it, is a good impetus to push the film forward for me. When you get into the films you realize the motivations and the dreams and the ambitions and the challenges and the conflicts are very universal. I like the idea that it makes people connect with people they never thought they would connect with.
What must a story have in order to resonate with others?
It needs to have universal stories in it — universal narratives that everybody can understand.
What mindset does your line of work require?
With documentary filmmaking in particular, and in life in general, having patience is a pretty good attribute. Documentary filmmaking requires a lot of patience. You can anticipate certain events happening or scenes unfolding in front of you, but the greatest scenes are always unexpected. So you really have to sit back, be present, and allow things to happen. That’s hard to do for a lot of people (particularly people like myself). I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that you have to embrace the process. You have to have goals, but when you embrace the process and think, okay, this is why I do what I do, you just need to be there and allow things to unfold.
What do you rely upon when you experience something you’ve never experienced before?
I’ve had so many experiences where I’ve said whoa I haven’t been here before, that when I think whoa I haven’t been here before, it feels pretty comfortable. You just embrace that moment. There’s always an experience to draw from, whether or not you’ve been close to the situation you’re in that you think you’ve never been in. Staying calm, collected, and maintaining your composure is the one thing that’s going to serve you, because you know panic won’t serve you.
how do you know when a project is a “jimmy chin” project?
My career’s been built from taking a lot of different pieces from different worlds and intersecting them. I look for these intersections of subjects and ideas that come from all the different worlds that I occupy.
what do you look for when assembling teams?
Part of great work is assembling the team. When I think about a great team, I want to build one where I have people who are better than me at certain things. You can’t do all of it, and if you’re going to fill a role for somebody to do something with you or for you, you try to find people who are better at it than you. When you surround yourself with people like that, it always becomes more than the sum of its parts, which requires a lot of trust. I look for people I really trust or that I’ve have experience with, especially if the stakes or consequences are very high. For Free Solo, there were a few people I’d never worked with before, but they were brought on by people who I’d worked a lot with, so I trust their judgment, and that’s part of having a great team: you trust their judgment. But the core, center, heart of the team for this project I had worked on numerous projects with, on very high-stakes situations. People like Mikey Schaefer, the cinematographer on the project — he’s the cinematographer who can’t watch while he’s filming — he is on speed dial for any project that requires very high-intensity, logistical, technical, alpine work. He’s amazing.
What role does trust play for you on the mountain?
A lot of the trust we need on the mountain is developed over time. Often if you are climbing with a new partner, you start on smaller climbs, you see how your interactions go, see what kind of decisions they make. A big part of it is understanding where everybody’s risk threshold lies so you understand their decision making. Sometimes trust can happen very quickly. One action can tell you a lot about a person. In climbing it’s easy: you watch them tie a knot, you watch them build an anchor, you watch how they belay, you watch what kind of gear they chose for the rack. It’s quickly obvious what their capacity is. You watch them lead the first 20 feet on a pitch, and you’re like oh, well that person is solid.
mountaineering is a community of mentors. what’s your experience as a mentor?
Mentorship’s played an important role in my career. And it’s played an important role for my mentors’ careers. The way Conrad Anker, who’s one of my mentors, explains it is that we all have this ball of knowledge. And then it’s handed down, and then you add more knowledge to it, and then he hands it down to me, and then I add to it, and eventually I hand it down to someone else. I always thought when I first started that you have to go find your mentors. But that’s not really the case. It’s more the case that the mentors find you. If you haven’t really paid your dues or you don’t have the right attitude or you don’t have your heart in the right place, you can go and look and look and look for a mentor, but they might not want you as a disciple. You have to pay your dues, be at a certain place, and develop yourself to a point where somebody’s going to tap you on the shoulder and say, okay, you’re worth me putting my time into.
Do you have a preparation routine or ritual?
Someone told me about a good practice: the first thing you do when you wake up is think of three things you’re grateful for. I thought that was a really good idea, so I’ve been trying to do that. It’s a good way to start your day.
do you pick the line on Everest or does Everest pick the line for you?
You have to be inspired by the line, and oftentimes it’s about aesthetics. Oftentimes it’s also about what’s possible. So in that way, the mountain chooses it for you; you kind of make a compromise. The best lines are the ones you choose that are really inspiring to you because they speak to you.
What is something about you that few people know?
I think it’s all been written about. But some people find it surprising that I started playing the violin when I was three years old. I played for 15 years. I also played guitar in a band in college called The Fruits of Babylon.
We wrap up our interview and Jimmy catches some much-needed respite. And then, as if he hasn’t just flown in from Sri Lanka, he addresses a room of 200. He shares his story. He answers questions. He takes pictures with eager guests. And then he leaves.
Jimmy used to think he was a jack of all trades and master of none. But by dabbling in all of these different worlds and putting them together, he discovered his superpower: being one of the greatest Exploratory Leaders of our time, Jimmy Chin.
Photos by Frank Denney