Jimmy Chin on Pursuing Fringe Activities in the Face of Danger

Man climbing rock wall
After scoring an Oscar in the mountains, Jimmy Chin goes cave-diving with a stunning documentary.JIMMY CHIN COLLECTION

With 2018’s Academy Award–winning film Free Solo, Jimmy Chin and co-director/wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi documented Alex Honnold, renowned for climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan alone without any cheats like, er, ropes.

Then they went in the other direction: underwater. In 2018, a Thai junior soccer team visited a cave, only to have a flood trap them two miles from where they entered. The Rescue, which premiered in theaters Oct. 8, is a documentary that follows cave divers’ desperate attempts to save them. Then, in November, Chin’s first book, There and Back: Photographs from the Edge, was released. It covers his career as perhaps the world’s most celebrated adventure photographer.

We caught up with the venerated multihyphenate to get the low down on the method behind his madness.

Men’s Journal: What drew you and Chai to The Rescue?

Jimmy Chin: We were looking for depth. There are extraordinary stakes where people have to make really difficult decisions facing insurmountable odds.

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You have climbing experience, less so cave diving. Was it difficult adjusting?

I get what it means to pursue a very potentially dangerous calling. The obsession, the focus on the craft of this fringe activity that requires extraordinary expertise. You have to devote your whole life to it. That’s something I understand coming from the world I come from and the people I’ve worked with for the last 20 years.

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So you could relate?

When I met the divers there was an immediate level of mutual understanding: “OK, he gets it.” They know you’ve been there in high-stakes situations. I might even take it for granted: Oh, that’s totally normal. Chai has that outside perspective: “No, that’s not normal. Not everybody thinks that way.”

Example of an extreme act that struck you as “Sure, why not?”

Free soloing El Cap! I’d known Alex for years. I knew exactly where his head was going. Chai had to remind me, “Free soloing in any shape or form is completely outrageous.” I had to go, “Yeah.” I free solo, too. Obviously not the way Alex is free soloing.

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While working on a film do you ever think, “I smell an Oscar nod”?

No. If we were looking for an Oscar we’d be in trouble. Focus on the story, on the craft. It’s gotta be about the process.

Any advice for choosing an adventure partner?

  1. Start small: Get to know someone in lower-stakes situations and build up.
  2. Exploit differences: We [Jimmy and wife Chai] started working together [in 2015] and it was clear I brought something to the table and she brought something and we put those together.
  3. Lead and follow: Oftentimes your partner has to take the lead when you’re not feeling up for pushing ahead. And vice versa.
  4. Find faith: There’s gotta be a lot of trust. When stakes are higher, you need more trust.
  5. Go 50/50: Expeditions and films have similarities. Lots of moving parts and everyone has to carry their weight, literally, figuratively.

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