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Free Solo director Jimmy Chin documents life at the edge of human capability

Professional climber, cinematographer, and director of the Oscar-winning Free Solo, Jimmy Chin is a man that has captured and endured some of the most awe-inspiring human achievements ever documented on film. We sit down with the Panerai ambassador to hear more about his incredible life

Jimmy Chin, professional climber and Free Solo director, interview

About an hour and fifteen minutes into the vertigo-inducing viewing of Free Solo, director Jimmy Chin wrenches you away from the dizzying heights of El Capitan and Alex Honnold’s pursuit to climb the most formidable rockface on the planet without the assistance of a single rope, to remind you of the grim reality of what you are watching.

“OK, everybody knows what to do if something goes wrong,” Chin says in the scene as he orchestrates the small group of professional climbers and photographers in their final preparations for Honnold’s death-defying challenge. But defy death is exactly what Honnold must do, should he succeed in free soloing the 2,307m granite monolith in Yosemite National Park.

Chin and his team talk about calling 911 and allowing the authorities to take control of the situation, should the worst happen. “Tell them there’s a climber…” Nobody dares finish the sentence. The grave countenance etched onto the face of each group member creates a funeral-like atmosphere.

I get chills every time I watch it. Even though you know the glorious outcome and that everyone gets home safe, you can’t help but brace for impact – literally.

Then we’re at the foot of the wall with Honnold, staring skyward, taking in the sheer scale of the challenge he’s about to undertake. No ropes. No safety net. No second chances. The audience holds their breath. We begin to climb and, with it, Free Solo ascends into one of the single most captivating documentaries ever filmed.

It would go on to win Chin and his wife and co-director, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, an Oscar for ‘best documentary feature’, as well as seven Emmys and a BAFTA. The culmination of more than 20 years of living on the rockface as a professional climber and videographer, Chin’s art – highly respected within the climbing and National Geographic fraternities – had finally made its way into the wider public discourse.

Not since Man on Wire (the equally thrilling story of hire-wire daredevil Philippe Petit) has the profile of a real-life individual been so keenly felt by so many. Chin walks his own tightrope between the interplay of his fascinating subject matter, the thrill of chasing the impossible, and outwardly reflecting on the morality of shooting the film in the first place: Are the film crew pushing one of the world’s best climbers too far? Is it possible that the production team could cause a fatal accident on the rockface? Are we all complicit viewers and documenters in Honnold’s flagrant attitude towards his own mortality?

(Honnold says at one point: “The idea of falling off is – obviously I’m trying to avoid that – but it’s kind of OK if I’m just by myself. But I wouldn’t want to fall off right in front of my friends because that’s messed up.” It’s a flummoxing perspective.)

It’s questions that we never truly get to the bottom of, as we bask in the adrenaline rush of Honnold summiting El Cap just after a picture-perfect Yosemite sunrise; Icarus’ wings, mercifully intact. Rarely has the distilled essence of human capability been captured so beautifully.

We begin to climb and, with it, Free Solo ascends into one of the single most captivating documentaries ever filmed

If Chin is a masterful filmmaker, it’s worth remembering he is an elite athlete first and a photographer second. In fact, he discovered photography purely by chance. He took a shot of his sleeping climbing partner, taken with a borrowed camera, and later sold the image to Mountain Hardwear for $500. (He split the earnings with the camera’s owner.)

During his time on the rockface, he has climbed Mount Everest multiple times – including becoming the first American to successfully ski down the world’s highest peak in 2006. Later he, mentor Conrad Anker, and world-class climber Renan Ozturk would make the first ever ascent of the perilous Shark's Fin route on Meru Peak. As documented in Chin’s film, Meru, the three men barely escaped with their lives.

This is a man that has not just documented what is humanly possible, but has been to the edge himself and stared into the abyss.

For all his Chinese immigrant parents (librarians by profession, the antithesis of the ‘Great Outdoors’) may have preferred he found a more respectable upstanding job in the community – and that his Mum would still “prefer if I didn’t go on expeditions”, as he laughingly tells me during our one-hour conversation – I think it’s safe to say that the Chins made their peace with their son’s decision to live his life as a “homeless climbing bum”.

In this fascinating insight into the visionary director’s life, Chin talks about his childhood, discovering his passion for rock climbing, and the ethics of watching his friend Alex Honnold risk his life in pursuit of the impossible.

More than once he references the ‘dare to dream’ mentality he has documented throughout his filmography – finding meaning and happiness in pursuing your own truth. It might sound a little philosophical, but in these most trying of times it’s not a bad ethos to live by.

Let's start right at the beginning. So your parents are both librarians. What did you want to be when you were a kid? Did that align with what your parents wanted you to be or did they kind of want you to follow in the family business, so to speak?

I think as a kid, I didn't really have any idea what I wanted to be. You know, it's funny because my parents were immigrants, they came from Taiwan, but they were both born in China. Like many people of their generation, they had to escape from China during the communist revolution and move to Taiwan. And then, of course, you know, moving to the states in the in the late 60s for graduate school, they faced a lot of different challenges, you know? I think it's kind of typical that parents of that generation had charted a path for their kids. My parents were very focussed on my academics and giving me every possible opportunities that they could – with the best intentions. But to when I was growing up, I literally thought there were only a few different career paths for myself. It was like being a doctor or a lawyer or going into finance. But they were very encouraging, they would say things like, "you could even be the president of the United States" or like "you can do whatever you want, you just have to study hard and work hard".

I started playing the violin when I was three and studied martial arts from a very young age, probably around five or six, I swam competitively starting when I was like six or seven. Between three things and school, I was really, really busy, I was competing every weekend, sometimes going to swim meets and, you know, martial arts competitions. And then I was playing the violin. And, you know, I had to practice all of those things every day because they really believed in excellence – you pushed yourself to be better every day.

As I grew up and went to college, while I appreciated those activities, I kind of found my own things, I picked up the guitar and stopped playing the violin, so I still love playing an instrument, the guitar I thought was so much cooler. I played in a band in college, things like that. But I also started skiing very young as well. Skiing was the thing that I really loved and my parents basically said, "Hey, look, if you do well in everything else, you get to go skiing." And so I worked really hard so I could go skiing.

In college, I decided to race as a skier. It wasn't like a very competitive team. But, you know, I got out and skied. And I also found rock climbing, which, you know, basically totally took over.

Here I was launching off, essentially in my mom and dad's eyes, like a homeless climbing bum

At what point did you discover climbing for the first time?

I was probably like 17 when I was first introduced to it, and I just fell in love. I think there were aspects of it that were really interesting to me because there had to be a lot of physical awareness, but there was also this sense of adventure and the whole lifestyle of it. From early on, my parents would take me on summer vacations and we would drive around the country to different national parks and we would often go to these mountains.

Glacier National Park definitely sticks out in my mind as a place where I first really thought, wow, I want to live in the mountains for sure when I grow up. I was even a little upset at my parents thinking, "Hey, you know, you two are adults. You get to choose where you want to live. Why aren't we living here? This is awesome. I want to just be in the mountains." And that was pretty young. I was probably like seven or eight, maybe even younger. The mountain lakes, the woods, the landscape. I fell in love with this with that idea from very early on.

So later on rock climbing and skiing later became an access point to going into the mountains. I was never interested in driving through the national parks. I always wanted to be out in the woods and be out in the mountains. So climbing was just this amazing way to actually interact with the landscape, literally, like climb it.

Growing up the way I did, it felt very restrictive in some ways because I was constantly either studying or practicing something. The open road of the West and travelling around to different areas to go climbing just represented a lot of freedom to me. But I was still applied to it. There is still something really challenging about it and and exciting.

I've read the story about you basically living out of your 1980 Subaru after you left college. That must have been a little different from what your parents imagined!

I think that they were very concerned. In their eyes – and I knew this – in their eyes, this was like a major disappointment. We grew up in a pretty straight-laced middle-class family, you don't make a lot of money as a librarian but they saved up all their money to put my sister and I through private schools and university. And then here I was launching off. Essentially in my mom and dad's eyes, like a homeless climbing bum.

It's funny because I think so much of what the outside world perceives of 'the adventurer' is this idea of quite a selfish pursuit, "the call of nature" and all of that kind of thing, is very much geared around the self. I don't know. I've never really believed that were necessarily true, especially when you see films like Meru and Free Solo.

I often think about what we're here on Earth to do. The best way I can distill it is that it's the pursuit of meaning and purpose. I guess that if you think that adventurers are selfish, then I feel like anybody pursuing meaning and purpose in their lives could be considered selfish. Does it contribute to society or contribute to family? I don't know. But I think that great musicians, great artists, great doctors, there are people who I consider really selfless in what they do and and their focus on contributing in ways that I really aspire to and am inspired by, but it's still that pursuit of meaning because it gives them meaning in their lives, it gives them purpose, it gives that motivation to excel.

It's a debate that will probably always exist. I feel pretty comfortable in the choices I've made and the things that I do. And I think about it for my children. I don't have any specific aspirations for them in terms of a career or what they should or shouldn't do, I only want them to find happiness and find meaning and purpose in what they do. It's the best that I can hope for them.

I think our generation is slightly removed from the post-war perspective were you have to provide for your family at the cost of your personal happiness.

I totally agree. And, of course, I provide for my family through my career, and I've always had that in the back of my mind. Like, somehow I have to make this work so that I can make a life. But I always found that, in the pursuit of the things that I was passionate about, that opened so many doors and that abundance would naturally come with the pursuit of what I did. And I don't need much, you know, to be happy.

I think that's part of how I move through the world is that, you know, you focus on the things that have meaning to you and motivate you. And everything else will come.

At what point did your parents realise you made the right decision?

The big moment for them, I think, was when I did my first National Geographic expedition, because the ideas of expeditions was so far removed from their world. They used to say to me, "Well, there's no word for what you do in Chinese – and we have 5000 years of language. Of course, we're worried!" But when I first published in National Geographic, that was something recognisable, that was something that they thought, OK, that is the standard bearer for being a photographer. And maybe you can make a living as a photographer.

I remember I presented at the Grosvenor Auditorium at the National Geographic headquarters, and my mom had come to to see it, and the lobby had all these photos and artefacts from our trip. I remember that evening how happy she looked and even though she'd still say things like, "I still don't like you going on expeditions." But she at least got it. It's not what she ever imagined, but I was doing something at a high level, and I think that kind of satisfied that Chinese parental instinct "he must make something of himself".

But I do think you're right. When you come from a certain generation, you don't have the luxury of thinking about doing something that you're passionate about, you just have to do what is available because it is so much about survival at that point. I feel grateful, so much so that my parents provided me with what they did with the little that they had to be able to make the choices that I've made. That really gave me the foundation I needed to do the things that I've been able to do, even though I don't study the martial arts or play the violin anymore, there's so many things from that that I apply every day, even now. The physical awareness of my body, training and practicing hard, my appreciation for music and fine arts. Those are things that I'm grateful for it.

I often think about what we're here on Earth to do. The best way I can distill it is that it's the pursuit of meaning and purpose

What do you think is the defining moment of your career? Is there a moment where you think if that didn't happen you wouldn't be where you are today?

I think about my mentors, I think about meeting Conrad Anker [star of Chin's documentary, Meru], who has been such a close friend and mentor since the beginning, and how he opened so many doors for me. If I had never met Conrad, many of the things that have happened in my life I don't think would have happened. It's because he saw potential in me and believed in me.

Clearly, I owe so much to my parents, but I also owe a lot to the people who have taken the time to see the potential. I don't think any of this would have happened if I hadn't have made some really hard decisions in my early 20s – like choosing to stray from this path that had been chartered for me, whether it was by my parents or even by society, I mean going off and being a climbing bum in the late 1990s even wasn't considered very normal for a career pursuit. That decision was very, very hard for me – people often ask me what's the biggest risk you ever took? They think about some climb or being on some mountain. But by far the biggest risk I ever took was making the decision to pursue my own meaning in life and not have other people tell me what that ought to be.

Once I made that commitment and I thought to myself, "Well, if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do it to the best I could possibly do it." I think that kind of drive and motivation in some ways to prove myself to my parents, but also to myself that I could do it. I think that that is where mentors and people like Conrad saw something. That's what I look for when I see this next generation coming up and who I am going to work with and give time to.

I can't remember who once told me this, but they said: "You don't get to find your mentors, they find you." And I totally believe that's true. In a lot of ways you have to pay your dues to have someone really take you under their wing.

I remember this story my dad used to tell me: to become a true disciple of a grand master, you don't just get to show up and say, "Train me". They spent years sweeping the courtyard before they even get to walk through the front door. I think it’s important to pay your dues, because you need to have that kind of time to really try and fail and make mistakes to maintain that perseverance and determination that's so important to progress in life and your craft.

Well, to do what you do, you need a network of people pursuing their own dreams.

It's more like the inspiration of seeing your role models go out there and achieve their dreams. I've spent so much time looking up to people – so many people I still look up to now – and it's that idea that pursuing meaning is OK. That can be very fulfilling, but it can also be really, really challenging, and there's a lot of risks involved, whether they're physical or existential.

I think this feels like probably a good jumping off point to Alex Honnold and Free Solo. From the outside looking in, it would be easy to view Honnold as a very talented guy with a death wish, but I think your film paints him and his ilk much broader light.

Yes, I mean, I think free soloing and climbing has been misperceived for a very long time. Clearly within the community, it would be in a way a tight knit kind of club, because if you knew, you knew, if you didn't know, you didn't know. I think that what people are attracted to right now is really what's behind all of it, because in a lot of ways, I think climbing and pursuing excellence within climbing and in that craft, people understand that represents a pure sense of the idea of pursuing meaning.

You don't go rock climbing to become famous or to make money. I mean, maybe now you kind of can, but in general you go climbing because it provides joy and it provides motivation and purpose and it gives you moments in nature with your friends and with your family to enjoy. I think it represents something pure. Climbers do this thing purely because they want to. There's a term French climber Lionel Terray coined called "the conquistadores of the useless": that's what climbers were, they'd go off and just do this thing. It was kind of an ironic statement because all the climbers know how much meaning is found in it, but it is kind of in society's eyes, totally useless. But that's a bigger debate. 

How did Free Solo come about in the first place?

We originally wanted to make a profile profile on Alex [Honnold] – and really Free Solo is still a profile piece – and then at some point early on in the conversations, he told us, "Hey, I'm thinking about free soloing El Cap." At which point I said, OK, well, we can't make that movie because I don't think I can handle the stress. I was highly conscious of the pressure that that might put on Alex to do it, because I'm also a professional athlete, I know what it feels like to have a camera being pointed at me and there's a big aura around something.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion to go ahead after talking to a good friend and mentor of mine, Jon Krakauer, the author. I asked and I was like, is it even OK if I make this movie ethically? And, like any great mentor, he didn't have an answer, he asked me a couple of questions. He said, "Well, is he going to do it anyways?" Yes, he is. "Do you think there's someone better equipped to make that film, given your very close relationship with him and your understanding of the difficulties on both side of the lens?" No, there wasn't. Then he said, "Do you trust him?" And I said, I do.

Even from that point I actually stalled out for like six months to make that decision and then we really went into the film with very clear intentions, myself and I explained to the team that Alex’s needs were always going to be more important than the film. We would never put the needs of the film ahead of Alex's needs. And the intention was that we are here to support Alex, our friend, to achieve his goal. If we are able to film while we are supporting him on this project, then great, but let's be clear what the priorities are. So we went into the production of the film with that mentality, which I thought was really important, and I think that that's how we were able to do it.

There are no shortcuts to achieving a great dream. And that's what Alex did. He had that singular focus to achieve.

The whole thing blows my mind, the fact that he was able to do it. Funnily enough, though, the more you watch it the more you can see why he was able to do it. He's just unique.

Part of the film is also just like you can have the greatest dreams in the world, you just have to work really, really, really hard to achieve them. There are no shortcuts to achieving a great dream. And that's what Alex did. He had that singular focus to achieve. In some ways, you can say that's really selfish: the risks he was taking, the people who were worried about his safety. But I mean, think about all the people he's inspired 

It's like creating great art or great music. You have to be very, very focussed and you have to achieve great excellence in your craft to to be able to to do something like that.

What was it like winning an Oscar for the film?

There are many sides to that. In a lot of ways, it's nice to be recognised for your craft. Making Free Solo was a culmination of 20 years of climbing, and going on expeditions, and working with teams, and making decisions in high stakes situations. It required all of my being, my experiences, my successes and failures, my belief systems, everything I learnt from my mentors. It took everything I had to make that film. Kind of like what I was saying if you work really hard towards something and you try to achieve greatness in your craft – the craft being the focus and the process being the focus – the abundance. In a way the Oscar represented that.

I wasn't making that film to win an Oscar. I made the film because I believed in Alex and we were passionate about telling that story, and pushing the craft of cinematography in that high angle world. But also in all of the shooting we did on it, you know, we were really very focussed on making it a beautiful film. But I did not start making that film saying "I'm making this film to win an Oscar". It was a by-product of everything that everybody put into it, not just me and not just my wife Chai, but our composer, the rigging team, the mixer, our editor Bob Eisenhardt everybody elevating their craft to meet Alex's craft. What came of that was an Oscar and seven Emmys.

We were clearly, grateful and overjoyed for the recognition, but on the backside of that experience, I also found that here is the pinnacle of the filmmaking world which has been achieved. You know, you could say that's been achieved now, yet it was very clarifying for me that the choices I made in my early 20s and the things that I find the most meaning in are still the same things, which made me feel good. Because, OK, it's great to win an Oscar, but being in the mountains and being in the ocean, or being with my family, my kids, I wouldn't trade those for an Oscar, you know.

When you're doing a big shoot, talk us through your essential equipment. What do you have to have on every trip?

In my universe, I do a lot of travel. There is travel that is expedition oriented where I am going to do something technical in the mountains and oftentimes for months. And then there's travel for the other side of my life, which is speaking engagements and meetings for development projects or events, kind of like the opposite end of the spectrum where you're in very urban environments.

So, thinking about what I have in my carry-on, that's always with me. I always carry a camera. I've always got one of my Panerai watches. If I'm going on an expedition, it's the BMG Tech, which is built to take a lot of abuse – whether it's temperatures below zero, atmospheric changes, or just being banged about while climbing. I also have this really beautiful watch that Panerai gave me for the Oscars. That's the one I kind of wear when I'm on that other kind of travel show going to the New York or London or Paris or travelling for awards events or that kind of thing.

It's ironic how scheduled my time is, because time is so precious to me, and time is the one thing that you never make back, so I'm usually paying attention to time. On the flipside, it's also such a wonderful thing when you lose track of time. 

It's the human spirit that pierces the ceiling that we build for ourselves. Those are the stories I want to tell.

Have you ever dropped a camera on a trip halfway up a mountain or something?

I haven't to date, and that's a very bad question to ask a photographer, so I'm knocking on wood that you haven't jinxed anything! It's kind of unbelievable, actually, given everything I've done, but my cameras and lens have been safe so far. 

I interviewed Nirmal Purja from Project Possible a few months back. How does he rank as a climber for you?

I don't necessarily categorise him. You know, when I think of them, the thing that inspires me about Nims is his capacity to dream the impossible dream, and then go and do it. The physical aspects of it are clearly extraordinary. He is a physical anomaly, clearly very, very strong and functions very well at high altitudes. That it is impressive to me, but what's more impressive to me is his view of the world and his philosophy of life and pursuing the impossible and literally making it possible – thinking outside of the box and saying, you know what, I don't care what people tell me to say, whether I say if I can't do it, I'm going to go do this and I'm going to do it my way. And he did. And that's not easy. That is hard.

I think the thing is, when you're spending time with the likes of Nims and Alex, all of a sudden I think your view on the world is slightly more open to where human capabilities finish.

Yeah, exactly. I mean, a lot of my focus and the stories that I choose to tell are about the human potential and they're about the human spirit, and how infinite those are, because I think that most people don't realise how much potential we have.

It's the human spirit that pierces the ceiling that we build for ourselves. Those are the stories I want to tell.

Jimmy Chin a Panerai ambassador. For more information, see panerai.com

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