Earlier this year, Jimmy achieved one of his longtime goals: landing a photograph on the cover of National Geographic. He photographed the cover story on rock climbing in Yosemite, Calif., for the May 2011 issue of the magazine.
For much of September and October, Jimmy was hard at work climbing, filming and photographing the first ascent of the Shark's Fin, a 4,000-foot high-altitude big wall on Mount Meru in India, with fellow The North Face athletes Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk.
I had a chance to catch up with Jimmy, 38, and talk to him about his life as a professional photographer and athlete.
REI Blog: You recently returned from climbing the Shark's Fin on Mount Meru with Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk. In 2008, the 3 of you attempted the same climb and were forced to turn back just shy of the summit. How did things go this time?
Jimmy Chin: We were really lucky on the weather this year. It was just a phenomenal high-pressure system. But it's still really cold because the range is pressed up against the Tibetan Plateau so a lot of the really high and cold, dry wind and temperatures are coming off the Plateau. Also, it's a northeast facing wall so it gets very little sun during the day. The cold is constantly an issue and obviously at altitude it's a lot harder to stay warm.
The general nature of the climb, every aspect of it, is fairly challenging. It's a very technical route, and there's no doubt it is an intimidating climb. We burned a lot of energy just thinking about it. The climb involves steep snow, ice, mixed terrain, free climbing and several pitches of modern A4 kind of aid climbing at 20,000 feet, so it's got some exciting climbing on it. There were a few ice and mixed pitches Conrad led that would have been really serious if they were just up in Hyalite Canyon or Vail. And you're climbing them at 20,000 feet. A4 is serious on El Cap. You put that all of these pitches into a high-alpine, remote wall in the Himalayas and it starts to feel pretty real. (updated 11/22)
REI Blog: What kind of camera equipment did you take along on the Mount Meru expedition?
JC: Because we're filming and also shooting stills, we have to bring HD SLRs [high-definition single lens reflex cameras] and we're filming with a lot of different equipment. I carried the Canon 5D on this whole trip. We have a bunch of spare bodies. We're filming with it and shooting stills. We have a whole rack of lenses and lighting equipment and cranes and dollies, tons of tripods and timers and all kinds of pretty techy equipment for filming. We bring all that equipment to base camp and then you start to pair it down as you hike stuff up to advanced basecamp. And then by the time you're on the climb it's one lens and one body.
REI Blog: On the Shark's Fin, you were not only a photographer but also a part of a climbing team that was attempting to reach the summit on a very technical route. How do you balance photography and climbing in that situation?
JC: I'm barely shooting at all. In reality it's literally a tenth of what I would be shooting. You're just in full survival mode. Just carrying the camera alone on this trip was a very significant deal. That's a lot of weight over that amount of vertical. You're burning energy in order to document it. It's worth it when you make it and you come back. But it could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
REI Blog: How do you make sure you come away with the footage and photographs that you want on a climb like the Shark's Fin?
JC: These days with filming and shooting stills you're pretty focused on filming because you have to cover it a lot better. You're constantly trying to balance what kind of footage you need and what kind of photos you need. It's hard to say. On this kind of climb I was just pretty focused on the climbing. I have a lot of years of experience shooting these kinds of climbs. It's fairly second nature. You're just pulling out the camera whenever you can.
REI Blog: How did you get your start in photography?
JC: I picked up a camera in Yosemite. One of my best friends was a photographer and he showed me how to use his camera. I took one photo with it and then when he was trying sell his photography he had a company pick up one photo and it was the photo that I shot and he sold it. At the time it was for what I thought was a lot of money. I was like, "wow, I could take one photo a month and I could live forever on it" because I was living out of my car at the time and I could live on very little.
REI Blog: You photographed a story about climbing in Yosemite for the May 2011 issue of National Geographic. How did it feel to photograph that story and have your image on the cover?
JC: I was really, really happy to land that story as well as land the cover on it. It was definitely on the life list of things to have accomplished or done. There's a few of them now. I think skiing Everest, climbing the Shark's Fin, shooting that story for National Geographic. Just getting to go on an expedition with Galen Rowell and Rick Ridgeway. They're things that I didn't know were on the list and once I did them I was like, wow, I guess they would have been on the list if had even conceived that they could be. Climbing Everest with David Breashears and Ed Viesturs. Things like that you just don't even think of doing and then they happen and you're like, wow, that's awesome.
REI Blog: In the National Geographic issue there's a 3-page fold-out image of Alex Honnold climbing the Regular Northwest Face route on Half Dome without a rope. How were you feeling when you were photographing this? Were you scared or nervous for him, or were you completely focused on getting the shot?
JC: I know Alex pretty well, and I know his ability. I'm pretty confident that what we were shooting on was well, well, well within his abilities so I could focus a little bit more on it. He's a professional climber and he's good. Someone else in that position, yeah, I'd be terrified. Alex wasn't too worried and I was pretty focused on getting the shot. I have shot him though when I have been worried. But, in that particular instance I was like, he's well within his abilities. He's solid here.
REI Blog: You're a sponsored athlete by The North Face and Revo and you're a professional photographer. You travel the world and get paid to do it. Do you have the best job in the world?
JC: It doesn't matter who you are or what you do or how much money you have, you have good days and bad days. There's a lot of really challenging aspects. It's the nature of the work. It's very extreme in the physical sense but also just in the sense of the lifestyle as well. I've been home 6 days, maybe 8 days since the beginning of September. It's pretty intense. You're just constantly on the road. You get back from a month-and-a-half long expedition to the Shark's Fin and you're home for 3 days and then you're on the road speaking in front of hundreds of people. Going from the extremes of a really intense remote location to being in New York City and speaking in front of several hundred people; it's a lot for sure. Between photography and being an athlete and then also running the production company it's pretty crazy. If I had one job I think it'd be a little bit easier. But it's a choice for sure.
REI Blog: What's next? Do you have any big trips lined up?
JC: We're right in the process of sorting out next year. Nothing is confirmed, but there are trips potentially to Nepal, Oman, Argentina and France.
Images are provided courtesy of Jimmy Chin. Jimmy Chin is a professional athlete for The North Face and Revo. To keep up to date on Jimmy's latest adventures, check out his website, visit his Facebook page, and follow him on Twitter.