An Interview with Richard Branson, Jimmy Chin, and Ben Stookesberry

Credit: Photograph by Ruven Afanador

Among them, they've risked their lives every demon way you can and still come back to tell the story. One of them crashed his gas-fired balloon at sea. The second walked away from an avalanche that buried him alive; the third was upside down at the bottom of a river, trapped beneath the boils of Class V rapids. They've climbed Everest and skied down it; shattered records for air speed in big cloth balls soaring miles above the Earth; and run waterfalls in boats they'd carried up cliffs. But when three of the great explorers of the past quarter-century sit together one winter morning in New York, what strikes you about Richard Branson, Jimmy Chin, and Ben Stookesberry is how coolheaded, even cautious, each man is. For Branson, the globe-tripping, billionaire Barnum who built an empire on pluck and self-promotion, it may just be a low-ebb Monday, too early in the day for his lupine grin. But Chin, who schussed down Everest and summited the killer Shark's Fin, is so muted you have to lean in to hear him clearly. And Stookesberry, the kayaker with more than 120 first descents, many of them on rivers you can't pronounce in countries you couldn't find on a map — well, he seems stoked just to have been invited. "I don't belong in the same room as him," he says of Branson.

Having taken every thrill ride he could hail on this planet — setting a world speed record crossing the Atlantic by powerboat; traversing both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by balloon; kitesurfing the English Channel at age 61 — Branson has fixed his eye now on suborbital flight, where he (and any customer paying a quarter-million dollars) will eventually be able to fly one of his silver birds into low-orbit space. Chin has homes in Wyoming and New York, but can properly be said to live where his luggage lands. A premier photographer of remote expeditions, he logged 150,000 miles in planes last year to climb cliffs with a bag of cameras on his back, shooting big-wall heroes, first ascenders, and people who ski miles above the tree line. In 2014, he (with his then future wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) made Meru, a documentary about his five-year odyssey to scale Shark's Fin with his mentor, Conrad Anker, which may be the most humane, and harrowing, climbing movie ever made. Stookesberry, 38, has film credits of his own (Kadoma; Walled In) and is a former Adventurer of the Year (National Geographic, 2015). He follows the nose of his boat where it leads him, be it the blue-black falls of the Himalayas or the trench-foot jungles of Papua New Guinea.

These are the sort of men you meet in Werner Herzog films — restless and relentless, dialed into some signal that originates on the other side of the planet. Synaptically, they're the heirs of de Soto and de León, a lineage that found cities and nation-states in the New World. In an age when most of us go no farther than the mall, these adventurers are a reminder that life is to be lived outdoors — and the bigger and wilder, the better.

On a cold day in January, they sat down and discussed their start as explorers, the lessons they'd drawn from their serial scrapes with fate, and their advice to the women daft enough to love them.

MJ: Sir Richard, you come from a line of lawyers, Jimmy from a line of librarians. Ben, your father worked for a logging company. Given your origins, how did you become the badasses you are?

Richard Branson: I think sometimes when you come from a conservative background, you want to rebel a little bit. I dropped out of school at 15 and learned early in life that saying yes was a lot more fun than saying no. If you have the opportunity to explore the skies and attempt something people haven't done before — well, I was damned if I was going to sit around watching television while someone else was doing it.

Jimmy Chin: Yeah, my parents had a fairly fixed view of what I'd be: lawyer, doctor, professor. They had me playing the violin at three, swimming competitively, and starting martial arts at five. But I also had that rebel phase — well, not phase, 'cause I'm still in it — where I got expelled from my boarding school.

And what did you do to earn that privilege?

RB: He got high in a different way!

JC: [laughing] Um, I had a problem with authority. My dad was so strict that he was the only person I feared, so with everybody else, I was like, Are you kidding?

Ben Stookesberry: My father was really good at reverse psychology: He'd tell me I couldn't do something to give me a shove. He'd been hoisted into the family lumber business and had that dream that I'd follow my passion in some way. He passed away in a car accident when I was 21, but the day before we lost him, he got to watch me on the river. I remember how happy he was, thinking I could be a guide or teach or something.

Jimmy, how did your parents take it when you announced, after college, that you were living out of your car and climbing Yosemite?

JC: Well, they stopped speaking to me for a while, so not great. I'd told them it was for a year, to get it out of my system. But then one year turned to two, which turned to three and four, and I was doing expeditions in the Himalayas and — well, there went law school, you know.

But your mother, at least, seemed to get over it. Is it true she tracked you down in Pakistan?

JC: So we were in the Karakoram Mountains, on these walls that hadn't been climbed because it was a war zone and no one had gotten access. We were sending back daily dispatches via satellite phone when I took this big fall, and my teammates were like, great, let's post that! Two days later, we're about to summit and we see this team of soldiers at the base of the wall. We're all freaking out — are they here to arrest us? — till one of them gets on the loudspeaker and goes: "Jimmy Chin . . . your mother wants to know if you're OK. . . !" Somehow, she'd gotten hold of the brigadier general and demanded they send a team to check on me. It was the most mortifying moment in my life.

RB: That's a sweet story!

The subject turned to missions gone horribly wrong. When his balloon crossing the Atlantic in 1987 was blown off course and he lost control of it over the Irish Sea, Branson wrote a letter to his two young children, saying how much he loved them — then splashed down many miles out to sea. Both he and his partner, Per Lindstrand, barely survived. In the spring of 2011, Chin was skiing the Tetons when the snowpack above him cracked and fell. It carried him thousands of feet downhill, with downed trees and boulders, before burying him at the bottom of the hill. Nearly crushed to death twice, he somehow surfaced and walked away, mostly unharmed. In 2010, Stookesberry was running the Lukuga River, in Africa, when his friend, the great outdoorsman Hendrik Coetzee, was snatched from his kayak by a massive crocodile and never seen again.

Ben, after the mishap in Africa, how did you handle the call to your mother?

BS: I mean, it was a much harder phone call to Hendrik's mom. My mom was horrified and continues to worry — but she was in the car when my dad had the accident, and she kind of understands how short life can be, how unique these opportunities are.

Jimmy, you have a line in Meru, after the avalanche, where you say, "I always wondered how I was going to die, and now I know." How did you survive being trapped in tons of snow? There's no training yourself for that, is there?

JC: Not really, but it was an interesting experience. I never bought into the out-of-body thing until I had one myself that day. There was this moment where I went over a cliff band and 60 feet of avalanche debris plunged on top of me. I was being crushed to death, couldn't withstand the pressure — and suddenly I had this conversation that didn't feel attached to my physical being. I was like, "Oh, wow, look at this, I'm about to die; this is how it's going to go down."  Then a voice in the back of my head said, "Today is not my day; I'm not ready to die." I re-entered my body and remember fighting. It was the most primal thing I've ever felt.

BS: Yeah, I had one like that. There was this Class V falls in Washington state where I flipped over backwards and got trapped under for two minutes. I was trying to get off this wall doing carping rolls, and was just getting recycled by the current. I started to think about my mom and how much this was going to hurt her — and then, just at the moment I gave in to it, I got pushed to the bottom of the river. I was 60 feet down, but crossed under the outflow and popped up next to a log. [Long pause.] I don't know what to make of that, I really don't. It took me years to get back to even a Class V rapids; I'd be lying if I said it doesn't scare me still.

RB: I think if you have young children and you're facing death, it's the most lonely feeling you can imagine. You question how bloody stupid you are to be doing this. But now my kids are getting their own back at me. My son just climbed Matterhorn and is doing other extreme trips, and so now my poor wife has to go through the family doing it rather than just the husband. She wouldn't mind the husband disappearing, as long as she had the kids!

What's it like being emotionally involved with you guys, knowing that every time you pack your kit it could be the last time they see you?

RB: Yeah, your wife needs a reserve husband. Preferably when you're not around anymore. I've been with Joan for 40 years, and suspect she married me because I was an adventurer. There's a quote of hers in my film [Don't Look Down] where she said, "If he's stupid enough to go get himself killed, I won't be coming to his funeral!"

The talk came around to the question of fear and the limits of bravery. Both Chin and Stookesberry gagged when asked if they'd trade sports — Stookesberry: "Me hang off the side of Meru? No way, man!" Chin: "Kayak the Congo? Not a chance. Not in this lifetime or the next one!"

What scares you?

BS: I have a really bad aversion to ants.

Ants?!

BS: I was stuck in a tree one night in Costa Rica. We were portaging to this waterfall and going down a steep slope that turned into a vertical cliff. These trees were pistol-budding out the side of it; we spent the night sitting in the crooks of them, feeling these ants crawl all over us. To this day, I'm militant about checking for ants and getting my bivy sealed up.

JC: I don't know if I have that fear because I just avoid the jungle, period! But there's existential fears I have — losing passion and creativity and just kind of floating through life. When I feel a little lost — pulled away by the noise of what you're supposed to be doing and what your social following is — I go back to the things that inspire me. I just took a month off and skied every single day in Jackson Hole. I laugh because there are young guys, climbing bums in Yosemite, who are like, How do we do what you do? Man, I started in the back of my car like them — and have spent my adult life trying to get back there. I'm like, "Don't stop what you're doing, 'cause it's pretty good."

We've learned from new scanning techniques that adventurers share a lot of brain structures with drug addicts — high levels of dopamine when you're fully committed, and very low levels of MAO, an enzyme we associate with fear. Do you ever think to yourself, "Adventure is my fix, and I can't imagine a life without it"?

JC: I think it's the other way around. I think drug addicts have brains wired like adventurers and they didn't get the opportunity to find it. You know, the people I get to work with — not all of them are well-adjusted. Some of them are driven by heavy demons.

BS: I think drug addiction is the search for something meaningful in your life that's just missing. And what we adventurers have found is a connection to our world that sparks something very much like a high. But it's night-and-day different from a high you get off whatever your drug may be. It's grounded in these beautiful, wild places that we get to practice not just risk-taking but our art form.

What's it like when a mission goes sideways but ultimately prevails?

RB: Have I ever actually had that feeling, when everything went to plan and victory awaited? I think the only time I felt anything like it was on the Pacific crossing. Everything had gone completely wrong, we'd faced certain death for three straight days, and then suddenly we were over the Canadian Rockies in a snowstorm with heavy winds and got the balloon down on a frozen lake 900 miles from the next human. It was the most exhilarated I've been in my entire life. And then an otter wandered over to our capsule, sniffed us a minute, and toddled off. For 14 hours, we sat shivering and snuggled together, Per [Lindstrand] and I — and both of us badly needed a shower!

JC: It's actually a few different feelings. On the one hand, you're extremely focused on what you're doing because there's no alternative. If you're skiing the Ford Couloir in the Tetons and it's super-stiff and icy, a total no-fall zone, you're either locked in or you'll slide off a cliff and bounce three or four big pitches down. But it's also this weird Zen state where you're relying on muscle memory, because if you're tense or afraid, it's impossible.

BS: Oh man: That euphoria is why you went there in the first place! I mean, the big waterfalls I do — like the Anaconda in Brazil, 104 feet straight down — it's not just the three-second free fall, it's the 45 seconds at the bottom, fighting like a monster to get off the wall underwater and pop up while you're still in your boat. That sense of accomplishment and release of all the tension when you come up in one piece in the pool — it's just reveling in your purpose and sense of place.

What is it about you guys that sets you apart from other adventurers? Why do you suppose you were chosen for your strange skill set?

JC: I think about this a lot, actually. My aerobic base came from being a competitive swimmer from age eight — my dad made me swim everything from the 50-meter to the 1,500. And right on through today, my lungs and stamina are my engine. I'm not nearly the strongest guy or the most flexible, but I can definitely sustain pace on the mountain. And it's not just me. Look at guys like Travis Rice — he did gymnastics as a kid. That discipline and body awareness you develop early on — that's how you get really good at this.

BS: Yeah, so for me, it's not about mastery of the sport, which is equaled or surpassed by other people. It's about stubbornness — getting more and more in love with the places I've gone to and not giving into exhaustion or danger. For some fucked-up reason, I'm able to stay with the suffering, to deal with the foot rot or the frostbite or whatever and just keep going till I hit the sweet spot I came there for.

RB: I don't think it's about us against other adventurers. I mean, we're all one-of-a-kind lunatics in our way. But most of the great adventures had already been conquered, and we just found a few that weren't. I suspect there are plenty of other adventurers who'll read this article and think, "I do similar things that just aren't as well-known."

Is there anything about your sense of craft that can empower other people?

BS: Yeah, there are people who send me messages to that effect. They know I'm no superhero, just a regular guy with the motivation to see and document these places. People take heart in that stuff and want to do it themselves, see these marvelous, endangered rivers and jungles, and that's part of the feedback loop that keeps me going.

JC: I just think, "Yeah, the experience of being totally in your body is essential to a fully functioning human." We've evolved not to sit and let our fingers do the work: We're programmed to do certain very physical things, and if we don't do them, we get depressed and sick. If you don't get the sun and feel the bite of the cold, you start to dull or fucking die. Steel sharpens steel, and I'll never forget it. That's something my dad taught me, and I'll teach my kids.

BS: I think there's just so much more available now to weekend warriors — stuff to click on and be inspired by. But in terms of true adventurers doing it in the face of tragedy, what we do now is laughable compared to what Shackleton did. It's become so diluted and self-conscious. There are needles in the haystack: I still marvel at what Jimmy did at Meru with Renan [Ozturk] and Conrad. I mean, to fight that hard the first time and just barely fail, then go back and risk their lives there again — my God, that deserves every bit of attention that it's gotten.

Do you find your attention to technique and game planning is more pronounced than, say, 10 years ago?

JC: Yeah, I think the stakes change when you get older and have children. But it's also the classic arc of athletes: You have things pulling you away from what you do. Traveling to do photo shoots, handling social media. I mean, I signed on to Instagram in 2011, and the time it occupies in my life now is absurd. It's just insane how much things have changed in five years.

BS: Yeah, for me it's a constant battle between my passion and digital identity, which is my livelihood. If I'm not super-passionate and I'm just doing it to make a buck, that's not the right reason to be putting myself at risk, especially for the people who love me.

What's the future of adventure?

RB: Ten years ago, [Google co-founder] Larry Page and I posted an April Fool's Day ad asking for volunteers for a one-way mission to Mars, and within four hours, 10,000 people signed up! Well, needless to say, we had to come clean about it being a joke, and I can tell you, a lot of those men were sorely disappointed. But one day in the not-too-distant future, there will be a one-way journey to Mars — and that will be the ultimate adventure.