Climber-filmmaker Jimmy Chin: Living life on the edge

Credit: CBSNews
Credit: CBSNews

▶ Watch Video: Climber, filmmaker Jimmy Chin: Peak performance

Jimmy Chin knows what it’s like to risk it all. The athlete, photographer and filmmaker has made a life for himself on the edge. “Climbing as a metaphor is really interesting, because climbing is an exercise in failure,” he said. “You try climbs that are a little too hard for you.”

Correspondent Lilia Luciano asked, “That is literally the process?”

“You train, you practice the move, eventually you get it. Then, you get to this other move that’s too difficult, and fail. And you fail, and you fail, and you keep trying and trying until you can do it.”

“So, failure is how you set your goals in climbing. That’s a great metaphor for life.”

“Yeah. You can’t be afraid of it.”

Climber, photographer and filmmaker Jimmy Chin. 

CBS News

Chin was on the first expedition ever to ski down Mt. Everest from the summit – and carrying a camera at the same time makes his challenges twice as hard. “Often the best photos are the hardest ones to get,” he said.

“Have you ever regretted not taking out the camera when you look back?”

“There are a lot of images that I know and remember I didn’t get,” Chin said.

“Probably why you’re still here.”

“Yeah! Sometimes they’re very high-stakes.”

Those high-stakes photographs are collected in a new book out this fall: “There and Back: Photographs from the Edge” (‎Ten Speed Press).


Ten Speed Press

It’s all part of a life Chin could have never envisioned for himself as a kid growing up in Mankato, Minnesota.

Luciano asked, “Did you experience racism or discrimination at any point growing up?”

“Yeah, for sure,” he said. “It’s like, when you grow up in it, sometimes you don’t even realize it’s happening. You experience it all the time and you kind of internalize it.”

His parents, both librarians, escaped China’s Cultural Revolution. They had extremely high expectations for their kids: “I started playing the violin when I was three, and I swam competitively. Life was really about academics and competing every weekend. And if I got an A-minus, honestly, it would be like, ‘Why wasn’t that an A?’

“In fact, when I left college and moved into my car and started climbing full time, you know, they were extremely distraught. My mom would say, ‘The Chinese language is 5,000 years old, and we don’t even have a word for what you do.'”

Chin lived in his car for seven years, climbing and skiing and doing odd jobs around Yosemite and Jackson, Wyoming. “I loved being a dirt bag climber. I joke that I’ve spent my entire career trying to get back to being a dirt bag climber!”

Chin’s first film didn’t begin as a film. He was documenting an expedition up the legendary Meru, a 20,000-foot granite crag in the Indian Himalaya. But after running out of food while being stranded in a snowstorm for more than two weeks, Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk and Chin turned back. Three years later, they finally succeeded.

Chin struggled with the footage, until he bumped into a young documentary filmmaker named Chai Vasarhelyi. He asked her if she would look at what he had put together.

“Narrative in storytelling is kind of, like, my craft, or my muscle,” Vasarhelyi told Luciano, “and when you find amazing material, that’s what makes it work. And so, like, I saw a way through it.”

To watch a trailer for the documentary “Meru” click on the video player below:

The two become co-directors … and fell in love.

Their next film, “Free Solo,” about their friend, Alex Honnold’s climbing of Yosemite’s El Capitan without the use of ropes, won them an Oscar.

The couple’s latest cliffhanger, “The Rescue,” is about a global effort to save a Thai boys soccer team trapped for 18 days in a flooded cave, led by a rag-tag team of amateur cave-divers. “They’re like electricians and an IT consultant, they’re volunteers,” said Chin. “They jump into these dark, muddy caves, they’ve really put their lives on the line to do the right thing. They were all there with the common humanity of wanting to save these kids.”

Jimmy Chin, with correspondent Lilia Luciano.

CBS News

Chin and Vasarhelyi themselves have two young children, James and Marina.

Chin said, “It took me a long time to get to a place where I was comfortable with the level of risk I was willing to accept in order to even think about having children.”

Yet, a few weeks ago Chin and his climbing partner, Conrad Anker, welcomed a new teammate for an ascent of the Grand Teton. “Because we’re in the climbing world, people obviously recognize Conrad and I. And they’d say, ‘Oh, wow … You’re Conrad Anker!’ Or, ‘You’re Jimmy Chin.” ‘ And then Marina would come up and they’d be like, ‘How old is she?’ And then she would steal the show!  

“They’re full-grown, like, athletic mountaineer climbers up there saying, ‘This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’m 38. And you’re seven years old!’ you know?” Chin laughed. “I told Conrad, ‘That was the most meaningful climb I think I’ve ever done with you, after almost 20 years of expeditions together.’ I feel like that was one of the best days I’ve ever had in the mountains.”

Having lived a life on the line, Chin was asked for his best piece of advice. His reply: Commit, and then figure it out.

“I often get asked, like, ‘What’s the greatest risk you’ve ever taken in your life?’ And I assume people think it’s on a mountain somewhere deciding to continue on,” Chin said. “It’s clear to me in my life that the biggest risk I ever took was deciding to commit to the dream I had.”

To watch a trailer for “The Rescue” click on the video player below:

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Story produced by Anthony Laudato. Editor: Karen Brenner.