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The Mindful Adventurer: Jimmy Chin

Mountaineer-turned-filmmaker Jimmy Chin talks about the value of courage over fearlessness and the parallels of life above and below the clouds.

Jimmy Chin

Jimmy Chin made history in 2011 when he and two fellow mountaineers, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk, reached the central summit of the 21,000-foot Meru Peak in India’s Garhwal Himalayas. They were the first team to successfully complete the ascent via Shark’s Fin, a sheer vertical rock on the northwest side of the mountain.

As if scaling that daunting peak weren’t enough, Chin and his teammates shot a feature-length documentary during the climb. Meru chronicles their harrowing journey three years after a furious storm stopped them only 100 meters short of the summit.

Chin, 42, has built his life and career around adventures such as these — capturing spectacular images while climbing or skiing on some of the world’s highest and most treacherous peaks. He has free-soloed the 13-mile Grand Traverse in Grand Teton National Park in a single day, made first ascents in Pakistan’s Karakoram, and traversed 300 miles of Tibet’s Changtang Plateau on foot. On one of his many trips to the summit of Mount Everest, he became the first American to ski down its South Pillar route.

Chin’s exploits may seem like the actions of a fearless adrenaline addict, but beneath that veneer is a calm, collected, and masterful athlete-artist who balances finely honed skills with well-tuned intuition — weighing every risk against its potential consequence. Far from fearless, Chin relies on that primal instinct to tap into deep reservoirs of courage.

“Fear is a good thing. It keeps you alive,” he says. “Managing fear is about separating perceived risks from real risks and focusing on mitigating those real risks. You try to focus on the task at hand.”

An Accidental Photographer

Chin, a Minnesota native, fell in love with the mountains at a young age during a family trip to Glacier National Park. He pursued his love of the outdoors, gaining experience and skill as a climber and skier, but found himself adrift after college, living out of his Subaru station wagon.

The course of his professional life changed in 1998, during a climbing trip in Yosemite National Park, where he was training for an expedition to Pakistan. He snapped a photo of El Capitan with a friend’s camera — a gem of an image that he later sold to an outdoor-gear company. With that, Chin found a new passion and accidentally launched a new career.

His pursuits — one athletic, the other creative — may seem at odds with one another, but both stem from the need to push beyond the perceived edges of human potential.

“There’s intense personal gratification in finding a mountain and becoming inspired by the aesthetics of an unclimbed line on that mountain, especially if that line has been tried by a lot of people who couldn’t do it, and you get to set yourself up against the history of it,” he said in a 2015 National Geographic interview.

“It becomes this creative, intellectual, and intensely physical process that has so many different layers. And what happens is that through the course of the pursuit there is so much to be learned about yourself.”

Chin’s photographs have been featured in a number of national magazines, and his Instagram feed (@jimmy_chin) is among the most popular outdoor-adventure accounts. He’s captured some of the world’s most skilled athletes, often set against stunning backdrops. At first glance, many of the images are jaw-dropping landscapes, but a closer look almost always reveals a personal scale: one or more climbers, simultaneously diminutive in appearance amid the sweeping vistas, yet powerful in their impulse to challenge these mighty landscapes.

While these scenes are far removed from what most of us experience, Chin explains that life in the mountains isn’t totally unlike life at sea level — success in both arenas requires a certain level of mindfulness.

“Climbing mountains is about putting one foot in front of the other, making one move at a time up a face,” he says. “I’ve learned to trust my instincts about people, about my climbing, about the voice in my head that says go for it, or take a step back and reevaluate.”

This simple parallel narrative is one reason that Chin’s photography and film work have been so accessible, not only to climbers, world travelers, and adventure junkies, but also to people who have no interest in following in his footsteps.

“Ultimately, you discover that [Meru] is about loyalty and obsession and friendship,” Chin told Outside magazine last year. “My goal from the beginning was to make a film that told a powerful story about universal ideas that people could relate to. Climbing is an incredible vehicle to tell that story.”

Risks and Rewards

When he’s not traveling, Chin splits his time between Jackson Hole, Wyo., and New York City, where his wife, film producer Chai Vasarhelyi, lives with their daughter, Marina, and son, James.

“I love my home in Jackson Hole,” he says. “It is where I go to get centered again, to see my friends, to enjoy the mountains for fun and not for work. I like to be outside and active. Breathing fresh air and feeling the sun on my face is always a good thing. I don’t have to be up high in the mountains to be happy, but I do find a certain clarity and peace up there.”

He’s rarely in either home for long. He once said that it would be nice to wake up for five days in a row and make breakfast for himself in his own kitchen — and he has grappled with the emotional instability inherent in his chosen professions.

“It’s a challenge on a lot of levels,” he told National Geographic. “Obviously I wish we could spend more time [together]. A lot of people travel for work, but it’s especially difficult when you have two different homes. But we’re both accepting of it, and we’re committed to making it work. I think we both imagine our children having exposure to both worlds, and that’s an incredible way
to grow up.”

Whether at home or on a mountain, though, Chin understands the importance of answering his calling, regardless of the risk. “The thing that I’ve always believed is that you have to follow your passion,” he says. “And if climbing is your calling in life and your craft, to not do it is a tragedy.”

Photography by David Stubbs

Maggie Fazeli Fard is an Experience Life senior editor.

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