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Hailing from Mankato City, Minnesota, Jimmy Chin has soared into the spotlight from humble upbringings to be recognized as one of the world’s most proficient adventure photographer-filmmakers. His most familiar tale has become one of a harrowing climb up Mount Meru, a 21,850-foot climb located in India’s Gharwal Himalayas. Believed by Hindus to be the center of the universe, The Shark’s Fin is renown among the climbing community to be one of the hardest climbs in the world. The trio composed of Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk defy all odds to scale the jagged peak without a sherpa team or base camp for support, all while Jimmy is capturing the climb behind the lens. Jimmy and his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, co-direct the thrilling story of the trek and events that led each man to the slopes in a documentary. Premiering at Sundance Film Festival in 2015, “Meru” is a summation their experience that has brought high alpine mountaineering to the forefront. Inspired by his story, he takes a moment in between a bi-coastal schedule in preparation to promote his “Meru” Academy Award nomination for best documentary to chat with me about his philosophy on life, raising his daughter and building his career.
Did you travel much when you were younger?
I did quite a bit. We drove around the States in the summertime, visiting National Parks probably when I was twenty. 1999 was my very first major expedition that I put together to the Karakoram Mountains in Pakistan.
What advice would you give an emerging climber that is passionate about climbing, but may not necessarily have the funds for an expedition?
Well, I didn’t have funds either. I lived in a car and I sold t-shirts to fund my first trips. If you commit and want to do it, then you make it happen. There’s no easy trick to doing it. It’s hard work and taking risks. And committing; saying you’re going to go do it and doing it. I get asked all the time, “how do you do it?” like there’s some easy way. Nothing great is accomplished without a lot of hard work. Crowdfunding has changed [the game] by providing more opportunities to raise money to do a trip but, the best trips are the shoestring budget, you know, slim trim expeditions where it’s tight.
What’s the one big pull that drives your work as a cinematographer, producer, director, and athlete?
Stories about heart and passion. Stories about incredible characters, landscapes, and people who are tied to the wild places… ultimately it’s stories and telling people’s stories. Hopefully it will inspire people to get outside and be connected with the wilderness. The greatest first step towards conservation and protecting our environment is to actually appreciate it. ‘Meru’ was about friendship and loyalty and characteristics that I find important in in human relationships. It’s what elevates us from just being monkeys I guess.
What is your philosophy on raising your daughter, Marina, with a worldview in this day and age?
I think it’s important for her to have a broad perspective on the world and a broad understanding of all the different ways to live. I want to share a lot of opportunities with her so she has a chance to find what she’s passionate about. I think I want her to be grounded, because I feel like so much of what I see now is kids growing up with a certain sense of entitlement. I want her to know that not everything is given to you, and that it takes work, passion and vision to achieve something that’s meaningful.
During the avalanche in the Tetons, you mention in a diary entry on your blog that you felt moments of clarity during the experience. Did this last for you?
It’s certainly enforced things that you that I already knew in a way, and that everyday counts. You never know when your time is up. You know what is important in life. That clarity is hard to achieve, as there’s a lot of clutter in life. Climbing to the top of a mountain isn’t necessarily about standing on the top of the summit. It’s about life as a process and climbing as a process. The process is actually living. Standing on top of the mountain is fine, but it’s the journey, ultimately.
How is technology paving the way emerging photographers and creators for better or worse?
I built my career without social media. I put all my exhibitions together and got sponsored. It took a lot of work before Facebook and Instagram and I think that my career was a good foundation for building my current social media platform. I think that Instagram has been great for photography, because it’s kind of democratized it in a way. Everybody has an opportunity to shine, share their work, and show their creativity. It’s pushed people to be more creative and you know, some people complain like “oh, everybody can be a professional photographer,” which is probably true, but it pushes people to elevate their work. It continually pushes the standards. You can’t just sit on your ass and expect things to come to you. You have to get out there and push the boundaries a bit, get noticed, and also be really creative in how you build your business as a photographer. I think it makes people access a lot of different parts of being creative, not just in the work, but how they present it, and how they talk about it, how they share it, and how they connect the dots. There’s all these different ways to do it now. And if you’re creative in that way, you can build a career for yourself.
Photography © Jimmy Chin | www.jimmychin.com
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As sunrise lights the huge cliffs to my west, turning them from a dull grey into a golden yellow ripple, the small village and the guesthouse I sit at is lost in the immensity of jagged peaks, ridgelines and forest as far as the eye can see.