Jimmy Chin Weighs In
Skiing Mount Everest, filming with Sherpas, and the $500-or-something photo that changed his life
Words: Shelby Carpenter
Jimmy Chin’s work has never been for the faint of heart.
As an athlete sponsored by The North Face, Chin can carve and shred with the best of them. In 2006, he took part in the first American ski descent of Everest with Kit DesLauriers—and not only skied the mountain, but served as expedition photographer documenting the entire thing. He’s also one of the co-founders of Camp 4 Collective, a film production company for mountain athletes by mountain athletes, and works as a photographer for National Geographic on the side.
Most recently, Chin and others at Camp 4 joined forces with Sherpas Cinema to create Into The Mind, one of the most mind-bending ski films of the season. Read on as Chin shares the secrets of his process, and what else we can expect from Sherpas and Camp 4 in the future.
POWDER: You started as an athlete, but then moved in to filming and photographing your adventures. What made you decide to start documenting what you do?
Chin: I never studied photography. But a friend of mine was an aspiring photographer. He handed me his camera in Yosemite one day and showed me how to use it.
Later that month he was trying to sell some of those photos, and this company bought only one, and it was the one that I took. My friend was totally jealous. I got paid $500 or something. At the time I was living out of my car and $500 would pay for months of living on the road, climbing, and skiing. So I figured I could only take one photo a month and do this for the rest of my life.
What was it like to ski Mount Everest?
I’d already been to Everest before in 2002 and 2004. Then, in 2006, Kit DesLauriers asked if I wanted to go with her and her husband, Rob DesLauriers, to the south side of the mountain. By that point, I had spent many years obsessing about it—when I was climbing it in 2004, I’d look and go, “that section looks skiable, that other section looks skiable.” It was one of those outrageous goals that sounds completely impossible. Those goals are my favorite.
Once I was on Everest again, the hardest part was definitely skiing the Lhotse Face, because just the day before we had summited and skied back to camp four. So the next day you’re totally annihilated, and dropping into a 5,000-foot face of 50-degree no-fall-zone skiing at 26,000 feet. And then you get down, and you’re all alive. It’s incredible.
When you’re on a trip, how do you balance being a member of the team with your role as more of an outsider documenting the team?
It can be really difficult to get a shot on ski expeditions. Sometimes you’re hauling a sled or a bunch of other shit. You have to prepare ahead of time, often times you need to be faster, be out in front of everyone. If you take four seconds longer to drink your water, then all of the sudden you’re in the back of the group, but often you want to be at the front of the group to get the shot. Shooting upward at the back of people is usually not as interesting or beautiful as shooting down towards people’s faces with a huge vista or peak in the background.
So it’s about being hyper-efficient with everything you do. Where are your memory cards? Where are your batteries? You have to be super dialed, because that extra moment is often the difference between getting the shot and not getting the shot.
How did you get involved with filming Into The Mind?
I’d known [Sherpas directors] Dave Mossop and Eric Crosland for a while—they were friends in the industry and really creative. Into The Mind was really Dave and Eric’s brainchild, and they wanted to bring Camp 4 in to help with the Nepal sections, just because we’re very familiar with that area, that space, and the people.
The old Sherpa that is threaded throughout the film was someone that [Camp 4 co-founder] Renan Ozturk and I had known for many years, so we brought him to the table. And then there were certain sections where we’re climbing the mountain—the metaphorical ultimate mountain—and they just wanted to show more the sense of ski mountaineering, so we worked with them on co-producing that segment.
There’s that scene in Into The Mind where your partner—the skier in purple—drops down and gets caught in an avalanche? So… That actually happened?
The wipeout scene in the film was real. It was one of the worst crashes any of the guys from the Sherpas had ever witnessed. So they put it in the film to ask the question: Just what are people willing to risk to do what they do?
Tell us about what you’re working on next? Will you do more with Sherpas in the future?
I’m working on a feature documentary with Renan Ozturk about this expedition that we did to the Shark’s Fin in Northern India in the Garhwal Himalayas. Really it’s a story about risk, sacrifice, and friendship.
We did a short cut of this for Reel Rock, but it didn’t get into a whole lot of the real backstory of what was going on. So this will be a feature documentary. The goal is to take a core adventure film out to the mainstream audience. It’s hard to do. You have to have a lot of elements to make that happen… Mainly a really compelling story. It helps if it is beautifully shot.
And yes, we do collaborate with a lot of different production companies, like Brain Farm and Sherpas. There are some pretty great projects coming up that I’m not allowed to talk about yet… Stay tuned!
Jimmy Chin helped Sherpas Cinema with Into The Mind, which is nominated for Movie of the Year at the 14th Annual POWDER Awards on Friday, December 6 at the Depot in Salt Lake City. Find out more details about tickets and the show at PowderAwards.com.
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