The climber and Academy Award-winning filmmaker raises the stakes in every cinematic endeavor
Words by BRADLEY SPEWAK
Alex Honnold’s rope-free climb of El Capitan, a 3,200-foot slab of vertical granite in Yosemite National Park, in 2017 has been called one of the most stunning physical feats in human history.
Nearly as impressive is the fact that it was documented at all. Free Solo, the Academy Award-winning film that depicts Honnold’s feat in all of its death-defying pathos, was conceived and directed by Jimmy Chin, a world-class climber in his own right, and his wife, documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi.
Chin followed Honnold’s ascent, lugging a 50-pound camera on his back with the rest of his gear. “It gets heavy pretty fast,” he says modestly. The filmmaker, 45, grew up in one of the flattest places in America — Minnesota. His parents, first-generation Chinese immigrants, demanded excellence: He practiced martial arts, played the violin and swam competitively. The rest of his time was spent studying. While attending Carleton College, he discovered rock climbing. “Climbing requires a lot of the things that I grew up with, like discipline and training and pushing myself physically and mentally, but it also had an element of adventure. And it was freeing. There were no rules.”
“Climbing requires a lot of the things that I grew up with”
After graduating in 1996, Chin moved to Yosemite to become a “dirtbag” (a term for climbers who do just enough to get by so they can spend their days scaling walls). His parents were nonplussed. As fate would have it, one climb changed the trajectory of his career: Chin took a photograph of a friend sleeping atop El Capitan and later sold it for $500. “That’s two months of climbing supplies,” he explains. “When you’re living out of the back of your car, it’s a lot of money.”
He has since documented countless expeditions, including to Mount Everest, and moved from photography into film. His 2015 film, Meru, follows Conrad Anker’s attempt to summit the famed peak in the Himalayas.
Chin has two children, ages 5 and 3. Does having a family give him pause? “It’s actually the reverse,” he says. “I got to the point where my acceptance of risk meant that I felt like I could responsibly have children.”
Next up for Chin? A documentary chronicling the lives of North Face founder Doug Tompkins and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard is in the works. Or, for those looking to relive the thrill of Free Solo, the filmmaker has made a selection of seven stills from the film available as prints through his website, with 25 percent of the profits from each sale contributed toward the Alex Honnold Foundation, which supports solar energy initiatives worldwide.
Feature image: JIMMY CHIN. Photo courtesy of the Jimmy Chin collection.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 Men’s Edition of C Magazine and has been updated as of June 25, 2019.