Jimmy Chin Summits New York City

Credit: Getty Images

Anyone can reach the top of World Trade Center with a $34 ticket and some patience. But climbing to the very top of the World Trade Center — the 400-foot spire — is impossible; unless you are Jimmy Chin and New York Times Magazine. Last month, the North Face–sponsored climber, mountaineer, and photographer found himself on a special ascent quite different from the big-wall adventures seen in his recent documentary, Meru. This time it wouldn’t be a mountain that he would be summiting, but the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. “Cathy Ryan, the photo editor at the New York Times Magazine said that she wanted me to take what I do in the mountains and bring it to an urban environment,” Chin says.

At first, no one was really sure how that concept would form into an once-in-a-lifetime project. “This was an idea that started months ago and was in the back of everyone’s mind,” he says. Eventually Ryan reached out to Chin, saying that the annual New York–themed issue would turn the magazine's layout and cover vertical. The magazine also wanted Chin to capture the experience with virtual-reality cameras. " 'We have this idea,' she told me. 'We want you to shoot something off of the World Trade Center,’ " Chin recounts. "My first thought was, ‘There is no way they are going to give us that access.’ ”

But “they” did. After completing piles of paperwork, Chin, Ryan, and the rest of the team completed the bureaucratic obstacle course that stood between them and the tip of the WTC. “It got to the point with the paperwork and formalities where there was just no more red tape to throw at us,” Chin says. “When we finally got clearance, I was the only person allowed to go up.”

After getting the official green light, Chin — in true artist style — decided that he couldn’t be out there alone, he needed a subject. And instead of relaunching the red-tape process to get someone else on the 1,792-foot tip of the tower, they found the only person who didn’t need permission. “Jamison Walsh is the one person who is certified to do the yearly inspection of the tower,” Chin explains. “And it turns out that he is the one person who I would want to photograph up there.”

Throughout his career, Chin maintained that getting a stunning shot is not luck or happenstance, it’s hard work and preparation coming to fruition. “You have one chance to get the shot,” Chin says. “But I didn’t get to go up and scout it, so I had visualized a few different images." Chin wanted to portray the vertigo you'd feel from the top. "I knew if I took the shot straight down it would look flat and you would lose the depth of the city. So I ended up putting the camera out on the very long pole to get the angle I needed.”

Armed with his homemade selfie stick and a batch of virtual-reality cameras, Chin set out to capture a moment of a lifetime. “It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get up there again,” he says. “It’s special.” As in, special in the same way claiming a first ascent is special to Chin. It’s the opportunity to capture the biggest, the best, and the most untouched in the most tangible way (save for Walsh's annual climb). “When I show up in New York and I look at the skyline, it’s like showing up in a mountain range,” he says. “My gaze goes toward the most impressive-looking climb. It’s always gone to the top of the World Trade Center.”

And just like the challenges you encounter when charting unmarked territory, the top of the WTC presented its own unknown trials. “It was pretty windy, and of course I was thinking that it would be really cool to shoot at night when the city lights are out, so it was also dark and we only had clearance to be up there for about an hour." Chin needed to place all of the virtual reality cameras, light Jamison, position his camera on a six-foot pole, and I then get a clear shot. "There are no tethers, so you have to clamp everything onto the metal structures. You don’t want a camera falling off a skyscraper into Manhattan," says Chin, "so I was being really careful with all of the equipment.”

By the time Chin and Walsh clambered to the top of America’s largest city, they didn’t have a lot of time to take it all in. “Climbing it was really, really cool,” he says. “I got awesome shots at sunset but I didn’t have much time for anything else because I had to come down once it got dark. They called up to me a few times and were like, ‘You ready to come down?’ but it was so incredible, I kept shooting.”

It’s not often during a shoot that Chin feels like he did the landscape and his vision justice. But within the last five frames atop the World Trade Center, he knew he had got it this time around. “And I’m rarely happy with what I get,” he admits. “But this might be better than I imagined in my mind.”

That night, Chin and the rest of the team sat down and looked at all of the footage while the experience was fresh at the front of everyone’s minds. “Only one in five were sharp at the end because it was low light and the camera was unstable,” he says. “The best composed one is the color shot that made the cover. I took that within the last five frames and I remember saying, ‘I think I got it.’ That’s rare.”

As for the virtual-reality footage, even Chin was taken aback by the genuineness of the final product. “Right after I shot it I did a rough stitch,” he says. “I put the headset on and was just like, ‘Wow! That is exactly what it looked like up there.’ ” Viewers don’t need a VR headset to enjoy the footage, however. Anyone with a smart phone can download this app to check out the video and see what it’s like to climb One WTC.