Photograph by Marco Grob
Photograph by Marco Grob

Why I Take Pictures While Dangling Off a Cliff

Disapproval from mom and dad didn’t keep filmmaker Jimmy Chin from documenting his ascents of the world’s highest and most perilous peaks.

This story appears in the July 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Jimmy Chin’s parents were “mortified” when he moved to Yosemite National Park to live in the back of his car after college. Now 42, Chin’s a Geographic photographer, trailblazing ski mountaineer, and award-winning filmmaker. He produced, directed, shot, and starred in Meru, about making a brutal ascent in India; it won the U.S. Documentary Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Finally, Chin says, his parents have warmed to his career choice.

When did mountaineering become your path? Between the expectations of my Chinese immigrant parents and society, there was a picture of what life is supposed to be. I decided if I was going to climb, I was going to take it as far as I could, so I put together an expedition to the Charakusa Valley in Pakistan in 1999. It’s still one of the greatest adventures of my life. You can never re-create your first expedition exactly—that sense of a total adventure. But every expedition feels like I’m going into the unknown. I still get the butterflies.

What did it feel like to ski off Mount Everest’s summit? It wasn’t really emotionally climactic until after we got down to base camp two days later. We were starting to hike out of the valley, and I looked up and could see the summit. It was one of those very rare moments in my life where I felt completely gratified, satisfied, and content. For a moment I let myself enjoy it, but there’s always something more. Those kinds of pinnacle experiences only come from dreaming big and thinking of things that seem unattainable. And then you try.

How do you incorporate filmmaking? Climbing mountains is all about efficiency; every wasted effort is very expensive. So when you’re shooting on top of climbing, sometimes it feels exponential. But nothing great comes easily: It can be climbing a mountain, making a film, writing a book, or getting a degree. Making films is a lot like climbing mountains, but the nice thing about films is they outlive you.