Jimmy Chin’s Toughest Feat

Jimmy Chin has often remained behind the scenes while shooting the world's top athletes — until now.
Jimmy Chin has often remained behind the scenes while shooting the world's top athletes — until now.  Mickey Schaefer

Jimmy Chin may be climbing’s ultimate eyewitness. In 2006, when Americans Kit and Rob DesLauriers skied from the summit of Everest, Chin lugged a camera up top to shoot the duo carving turns on the Lhotse Face — then clipped into his skis to follow them down. In 2013, when a team of North Face athletes traveled to a remote section of Oman’s coastline to assess its climbing potential, it was Chin who photographed the trip. “I like being behind the camera,” he says. “I like to tell other people’s stories.”

In his new film, Meru, Chin finds himself both behind and in front of the camera. The movie, which won the Audience Award at Sundance in January, follows Chin, Conrad Anker, and Renan Ozturk as they make the first summit of the Shark’s Fin route on Meru, a 21,850-foot peak in northern India. “It’s like putting El Cap on top of Denali,” says Chin, who grew up in Minnesota and spent his early climbing days in Yosemite, often hiding out in caves at night with the likes of Dean Potter. The climb is regarded as one of mountaineering’s most impressive feats, and Meru may be the rare climbing film that captivates both climbers and nonclimbers alike.

The movie’s real strength is its raw look at the men themselves, their individual motivations and vulnerabilities. But like the ascent itself, the movie almost didn’t happen. When it was first sent out, in 2012, the original cut was rejected by a number of film festivals.

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“It was dead in the water,” says Chin over breakfast on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he now splits his time with his wife, documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. The two met shortly after the climb, when Chin was trying to find a home for Meru, and he sent her a rough cut. “At first I don’t think she was that interested in me,” says Chin. “She was just like, ‘What are you doing with this film?’ ” They began meeting regularly in New York and at Chin’s house, outside Jackson, Wyoming, and things quickly escalated. In 2013, they married and had a daughter soon afterwards.

Around the time they began dating, Vasarhelyi agreed to collaborate on the film, and she started by reinterviewing Anker, Ozturk, and Chin. “Climbing is an understated culture,” says Vasarhelyi. “They don’t brag, so my central question going in was: Can they emote, and can they open up about their experiences? At the core seemed to be a story of a friendship that you didn’t have to understand climbing to be compelled by.”

A focus became the often difficult decisions the team was forced to make. Ozturk, for example, began suffering strokelike symptoms on Meru — he’d fractured his skull and broken two vertebrae in a ski accident only six months prior — but the team decided to push on after his blurred vision cleared. “The thing is, we don’t always make the best decisions,” says Chin. “We’re all fallible, and people get that.”

Chin was climbing Meru on the heels of his own near-fatal incident. Less than a week after Ozturk’s accident, Chin was swept up by a massive avalanche in the Tetons. It should have buried him, but he wound up floating on top, uninjured. “When you get taken down like that, it really hammers home how insignificant you are,” says Chin.

“I talked to him that afternoon and asked if, in the avalanche, it occurred to him that today was not the day to die,” says Anker. “He was like, ‘Yeah, that happened.’ So I was like, ‘All right, you’re fine, let’s go climbing.’ ”

Chin’s ski partners had captured footage of the avalanche, but Chin left it out of the film’s original version. It was Vasarhelyi who persuaded him to include it. “She was like, ‘Look, you’re a central character in this film, you have to be in it,’ ” says Chin. Also included at the last moment was a scene of Anker offering Chin the climb’s final pitch, which allowed Chin to tag the summit first. “High-altitude climbing is so dangerous that you think a mentor would try to stop you,” he says. “But Conrad, more than anyone, understands that it’s an insatiable calling, so instead he’s got to show you how to manage the risk and live with it.”

With a wife and daughter, Chin, now 41, is going on fewer big trips. “It definitely affected the risk calculus,” he says. “But it’s also age and experience — I’ve seen a lot of things go down, and I’ve lost a lot of friends.” In many ways, he says, making Meru helped him appreciate one of the reasons he still loves to climb. “I have a few more expeditions in me,” he says, “but they’re more about shared experiences with your friends, and you can have those without doing the gnarliest thing in the world.”

‘Meru’ debuts theatrically in N.Y., L.A., and other select cities August 14th.