Jimmy Chin thought he was busy during the making of Free Solo. The documentary on Alex Honnold’s death-defying and superhuman ascent up the Freerider route of Yosemite’s El Captain was constantly evolving. Despite his crew of the most talented climbers in the world, the production was complicated and unprecedented in many ways, staging cameras all over the 3,000-foot-tall rock formation. That was all in addition to his “day job” of shooting epic photographs and mounting his own wilderness expeditions.
“I remember standing in the grass below El Cap before filming Alex, and realized how little of that quiet time I get these days,” says Chin. “Back in my 20s, when I lived there, I would just lay in the meadows for full days after a big climb. But we were there on location with two kids, trying to capture something special, and those moments don’t last anymore. I am so glad I took advantage of it while I could.”
Then the movie came out, and Chin got really busy.
Over the past year, Chin, his co-director and wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and the Free Solo crew have been traveling the world, sharing the story of Honnold’s accomplishment and the incredible filmmaking techniques used to bring it to the big screen. Not to mention pitstops at almost every awards show in existence, with big wins at the BAFTAs, Emmys, and Cinema Eye Honors, and the Best Documentary Feature prize at the Oscars.
That success has bred even more opportunities for Chin as a photographer, adventurer, and filmmaker—and also for brands willing to outfit him with the gear to get it done, like Panerai. The Italian watchmaker has brought him on as one of its worldwide ambassadors, and provided him with one of its new Submersible BMG-Tech watches, built to thrive in the elements and on the cliffs while remaining lightweight. Their legacy of building battle-ready timepieces for frogman commandos during World War II prepared the brand for making mechanics able to withstand the most extreme of conditions.
So now the natural question is, how does Chin want to spend his time? The short answer: in the wild, making movies, and going on adventures with his friends.
I think the first thing that people want to hear is what is the next movie?
There are a few projects in the works, we have a first-look deal with National Geographic, but the next one is on Kristine and Doug Tompkins and Yvon Chouinard. We are deep in that one now. I think on top of being a true adventure story about these people who defined the outdoor genre, it is also a beautiful love story. What the Tompkins did, handing over 1 million acres to the Chilean government—they are the greatest conservationists of our time.
There have been a lot of meetings about narrative features, but I think what we have realized that our hearts are still in nonfiction. Because of the medium and truth of the art form. I enjoy having to live up to the standards of journalism, and I think we know how to do it. Bringing that storytelling in tales that are important. Nobody has gone after making Free Solo or Meru as a narrative movie, and the consensus I have heard is that a narrative movie probably wouldn’t stand up against them. That is pretty satisfying. The fact that it is real unquestionably raises the stakes in a way that fictional stories can’t.
What’s the next expedition?
I am leaving for Antartica in January with Jim Morrison and Hilaree O’Neill, who are coming off of the biggest three years of ski mountaineering ever. They are in crusher mode. We are trying to ski a new line on Vinson Massif, which is the highest peak in Antartica. That is the primary objective, it being a fairly serious line. Our secondary objective is possibly just as important though, which is going down the second highest peak, Mount Tyree. The line going down Tyree is just astounding, but also much more serious.
How have you been preparing?
They aren’t super high altitudes, around 1,700 feet, but given the time frame that I have, this trip is going to be a fairly surgical strike. That means I won’t have as much time as I should to climatize, so I am sleeping in a Hypoxico tent for the month leading up to it.
I will start pounding vertical in Jackson soon, starting off with 3,000 foot days and then working my way up from there. By the time I leave I should be doing 10,000 foot days hiking with a ski pack. The training pack will be about 35 pounds. I will do some baseline strength training, which basically means hiking laps on the pass.
Has it been difficult with all the travel you have been doing?
Yes, on the road it can be hard, but you have to just make it happen. I was just in Singapore for 36 hours, and I had a talk that I needed to give at 1 in the morning, my time. I didn’t change my time zones, so I went to the gym around 3 in the morning. I was lucky to be staying in a hotel where they had a 24-hour fitness center. The staff was in there trying to clean the place, and I was just going off doing a three-hour session. [Laughs.] I am pretty good about it. It is all about maintaining a baseline and knowing that I am just about a month of training away from being able to go on expeditions with world-class athletes in the world. Because sometimes that is all of the notice that I am going to get.
Do you believe having those nonnegotiable makes you better at what you do?
Absolutely. There is no question. I know that if I get my time in the mountains or climbing, I can deal with anything and do anything. On the truly busy weeks I need to at least get a run in or to the climbing gym for an hour. I need those moments to center myself. I think there is also that feeling of gratitude for everything that has happened. Getting up and being grateful in the morning has been a new practice.
Do you feel like time is moving fast for you now?
Even when I was younger I had this innate sense of urgency. Time is truly our only currency, and we are only spending it. That feeling only gets heightened as you grow older. I just want to keep packing it in. But yes, I feel like time is moving faster. I have actually thought about it quite a bit recently, because relative to our age, every second does become shorter. So it feels like a constantly accelerating process. There is also that dichotomy between things that you want to do and really appreciating what is happening around you. My kids are just growing up so fast. I can imagine that it is a pretty typical feeling. The fact that my daughter is 6 years old and in kindergarten is insane because I have been gone a lot. But it also has made me incredibly present when I am around them. I cherish every single second.
Is wearing a watch more necessary than it may have been before?
There are obvious benefits. Keeping track of rates of speed or time dedicated to something. A watch is always useful as a time keeper. But it is also what it represents. That ticking clock, and the fact that those seconds are clicking away no matter what you do. That if there is something that you want to do, you only have a finite amount of time to do it.
Do you have climbs you still want to take on?
I started writing a list, because I am not getting any younger. The drive is still there, and I haven’t come to terms with the idea of losing the physical edge yet. But there are some things that are inevitable. I want to go to Shivling in Northern India, Trango Tower in Pakistan, Cerro Torre in South America. These peaks that I probably should have done earlier in my career but was too busy trying to find ascents that hadn’t been done yet. I am ready to go back and do the classics. I don’t need to be doing the hardest new route on any of these mountains, which are fairly serious endeavors no matter which way you do it, but I need to climb them. I am going to start knocking them off this year.
Speaking of earlier in your career, what milestones stick out in your mind the most as life-changing?
There have been these milestone moments that pop out often, like my first expedition. I had absolutely no idea of what I was doing or what I was getting myself into. I started off going into Galen Rowell’s office because I had seen these photos he had taken of this mountain range in the Karakoram’s. There were more questions I needed to ask than I even knew existed. The Chang Tang Plateau crossing in Tibet, when I first started shooting for National Geographic.
The first time I climbed Everest in 2004. The first time I skied it. But even before that I went to Everest in 2002 as well, to attempt the direct North Face. That was a milestone, even though we didn’t end up making it, because I really studied how to prepare for it properly not using oxygen, alpine style. That really informed how I look at the mountains so much. So even though we didn’t summit, it was a huge learning experience.
No objective since then has ever terrified or intimidated me because of how I felt about that attempt of the North Face. Because when you spend a full two months contemplating that climb, starting at 20,000 feet—I mean, that is the base, and then you have 9,000 feet of climbing left to go. No fixed lines. No sherpa support. That kind of commitment where you are actually imagining doing it pushes you past a point. Everything else has felt manageable.
The first attempt of Meru, and then the second attempt. Those are markers in my life for sure. Being trapped in that avalanche. These points of reference where they made me stop but were manageable once I contemplated the “why.” Because when you take on a challenge where the stakes are that high and the consequences are that permanent, especially when you have a family, you have to really wonder why you are doing things. Each of those challenges bring me back to that question of how I want to spend my time in this life. And that is in the wilderness.
How early did you know that answer?
Pretty early on, my whole upbringing had very narrow lanes. Growing up with Chinese immigrant parents, who were going to be disappointed if I wasn’t a lawyer, doctor, or professor. But along the way I found climbing, which gave me a tremendous amount of purpose and meaning. I made the decision to pursue it despite the expectations of my parents and of society. I moved into a car and into a cave behind Camp 4.
People always ask me what the greatest risk I have ever taken was, and they assume it was climbing a cliff or skiing a mountain. But it is pretty clear to me that the idea of pursuing a life of climbing, with no idea of how I was going to survive, was akin to leaping off a cliff. It is one thing where you have family or come up in a culture where it is a thing, but I grew up in Minnesota and it had nothing to do with anything. The path was very unclear. That period in my life was very much filled with doubt. I always went back to the idea that if this makes me feel a certain way and I love the community and lifestyle. That purity of intention is something that I look back at and is still intact. I started doing this with no anticipation of becoming successful or famous. There was no outside validation that I was searching for out of this. That is how I know it is the right way to spend my days.
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