For a guy from Minnesota who regularly spends 40-night stretches sleeping in cramped tents on glacial peaks, Jimmy Chin gives surprisingly relatable travel advice. Chin, who in his 20s decided to indulge a then “directionless” passion for death-defying mountaineering, says he didn’t have a photography and filmmaking career in mind when beginning to travel the world as a young climbing bum. “[Each trip] gave me the confidence to do the next one, and I pushed a little harder and further,” he says. Chin’s been the first to scale Asia’s Karakoram Mountain, to summit India’s Meru Peak via the Shark’s Fin route, and to descend Mount Everest on skis. In his mid-20s, he found himself on El Capitan peak in Yosemite with a friend’s camera in hand, and just started shooting. His resulting turn into the creative spotlight—with numerous National Geographic covers, two climbing documentaries, and one Academy Award for co-directing Free Solo with his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, under his belt—still mystifies him 20 years later.
“I’ve easily been away from home 250 days a year for many, many years,” Chin says, during which time he has racked up a list of trips across the seven continents (think Nepal, India, Greenland, Antarctica, Mali and more) that would make anyone rethink their life plan. But between his climber’s temperament and artistic vision, the real lessons you can glean from Chin are on perspective: for one, planning deeply the variables you can control, and letting go of the ones you can’t.
Most recently, like all of us, he’s been riding out the pandemic at home with his two kids on the range in Wilson, Wyoming, a few miles outside of Jackson Hole. But with commercial and editorial shoots picking up again, and with Chin finishing up his next film—a documentary about conservationists Kris and Doug Tompkins and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard—it’s once again becoming harder to nail him down. Here’s what’s consuming and driving him now, and how he preserves a Zen-like calm along his busy path.
You’ve seen the planet from heights and vantage points most people will never get to access. What kind of perspective have those views awarded you?
It’s funny: To me, so much of it is the process of getting there. A lot of it often has to do with being engaged in a way where you’re completely present in a moment. Once you get up, it’s nice and it feels like a little reward to get to see the world from that place. But you’re there because you enjoy the process, and the process of being lost in time. Usually through that process I’ve worked through a lot of things, so when I come back down, I try to retain the sense of well-being and balance and satisfaction I’ve gained. That lasts for a little bit…and then you’ve got to go do it again to regain perspective.
As someone who’s so at ease in nature, how do you feel when you’re traveling in crowded cities?
Certainly part of what I do is about being adaptable. Adapting to the environment, particularly on expeditions, means you come to kind of embrace whatever is served to you and try to live in the moment. Probably the most challenging environment for me to be in for an extended period would be a very urban, New York City–type of setting. But I do appreciate urban settings and cities like New York and what they have to offer. One of the biggest challenges for me is training and staying fit [in these environments], because that’s how I feel good and stay inspired and motivated. So when I’m traveling in cities, I run a lot, or end up doing workouts in my hotel room, using body weight or doing yoga.
You have to be at peak physically on so many trips. How do you get adjusted when you’re in a new time zone?
It’s tough. I easily have many 10-to-12-hour work days a week. And sometimes I’m only in a city as far away as Singapore or Tokyo for one or two nights. There isn’t really a chance to stay in a rhythm sometimes. I have learned to sleep as much as possible on the flight no matter what. And in general I find exercise helps with everything, so if I’m wide awake at two in the morning, I’ll train for an hour and a half and then try to go back to sleep.
Now that you’re traveling so much for business, what constitutes taking time for yourself while there?
Climbing is my “me time,” and being in the mountains. Or surfing and being in the ocean. Or going for a run. I’ll run through cities as a form of tourism, for sure. If I’m in D.C., I’ll run around the [National] Mall and stop in a bunch of the different sites there. I was just in London and would run around Regent’s Park. I’ll people-watch, listen to a podcast and kind of be floating in this different world. So it’s not really training hard. Those are what I call “maintenance runs,” where you’re just getting in maybe five to eight flat miles. I can run for so much longer when I’m out in the mountains and getting this incredible fresh air. I can just keep running forever when I’m out there.
Throughout all your journeys, what’s moved and inspired you most?
The thing that has moved me the most and has been consistently and clearly reinforced is that happiness and joy are not tied to things or material goods. [Where I’ve traveled, I’ve] seen a huge spectrum of people and economics—from the wealthiest people in the world to people who have very, very little. It’s most interesting to travel to places where you see people who don’t have that much that are so present, have meaning in their lives, and have really strong family connections.
What does “luxury” mean to you in travel terms?
There are moments when staying in a high-end hotel is the right thing and can be a really wonderful experience. I definitely appreciate it when I do a really hard trip: At the end, maybe for a few days when you’re coming off from an expedition, sometimes you’ll splurge for the two nights after. That’s when you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is sooo nice. I haven’t eaten more than gruel for 40 days or seen a tree in two months. I’m ordering myself a salad from room service.” But the appeal is short-lived. I couldn’t always [travel like] that.
If I’m thinking of what’s truly luxury to me, it’s when I get to go to a place somewhere in the world where I have friends that are local to an area and spending time with them. It could be anywhere, like Chamonix, where you’re going off the main path to see their favorite places, or Hawaii, where they might take you to a favorite diving spot where it’s not crowded and it’s the most spectacular diving. Getting to see things from a local’s perspective—that’s when I feel like I’m really lucky.
You’ve photographed some of the coolest places on earth. How much do you feel like you’re ever really able to capture what you see with a camera?
I very rarely feel like I’m actually capturing the entire moment. But this happens all the time: I’ll go home and right after a trip I’m editing photos and I’ll think, “These are all horrible and they don’t even come close to capturing the place.” But over time, going back to [the film] to edit, I’ll feel differently about it. The feeling of being there and the power of that moment has gone down or has lessened past the point of what this photo is now bringing to you. So there is value to [photos], and hopefully the photo will evoke the spirit of that moment enough from then on.
During Covid times, what advice would you share about satisfying a need for adventure?
I feel very grateful and fortunate because I live in a place like Jackson [Hole, Wyoming]. It’s easy to just give the advice to people to “explore your own backyard.” But I’ve lived here for 20 years, and there actually is still so much I haven’t seen or done. One thing expeditions have taught me is that you really have to embrace the positives and what you do have and focus less on what you don’t have, because that rabbit hole is really not worth going down. It does nothing to serve you. In the moment, it’s asking what are the things that you have that you can appreciate. I feel so fortunate I had this time with my family and my kids. I treasured every moment of that knowing that this isn’t always the way you get to live. [During expeditions], sometimes you’re forced to be in a tent for 10 days because it’s storming. And you’re just… stuck. But then you can finally really get into that book, or something else. We call it active resting. My job right now is to rest and not spend too much energy, and to prepare for when things get really good again and the storm lifts and I can do the things I want.
Where will your next vacation be?
Kaua’i. Well, I was in London for three weeks for a big shoot; now I’m headed back to Jackson for a few days, then probably Yosemite to do a few climbs, and then to Kaua’i. I’ll be there surfing and working for a month and a half, I hope. I stay on the North Shore.
The thing you can’t travel without?
When are you happiest when traveling?
Whenever I am lost in a moment in a new place.
If you could live in any hotel, which would it be?
I never want to live in any hotel.
The place or trip that challenged you most?
My first expedition in 1999 to Karakoram [Mountain] in Pakistan. Just because it was so far out of my comfort zone. Putting together a major expedition to one of the most remote corners of the Karakoram when you’re 24 and trying to climb these huge, high-altitude alpine big walls and huge towers. We actually climbed a bunch of new routes and [that trip] helped launch my career. I brought a camera and took some photographs and had never really done that before. It made me realize that it was really possible to do what I wanted to do: To walk away from what society expects you to do, which was go to school, get your internship, and get a stable job and go down a career path. I was always like, “Fuck that. I don’t want to do that.” But I didn’t know if it was possible to be a climbing bum for the rest of my life.
What is your room service indulgence?
I always eat the gummy bears in the self-service bar if they have them.
The strangest place you’ve spent a night?
In a portaledge [suspension tent] hanging off a wall at 20,000 feet on a remote high-altitude peak in the Garhwal Himalayas.
What is your favorite market in the world?
I have always loved strolling around Thamel in Kathmandu.
What are your showoff spots in your hometown?
My backyard. It’s really nice and has a good view of the mountains. We have a fire pit, and it’s the best place to hang out and watch the sunset.
If you could travel to any place in any epoch, which would it be?
The Silk Road during the Han Dynasty or Byzantine Empire.
Which places would you happily spend a weekend, a week, a month, and a year, and why?
Home in Wilson, Wyoming. Because I love it there.
Where are you embarrassed that you’ve never been?
Stacy Adimando is a cook, creative consultant, James Beard Award-winning cookbook author, and the recent Editor-in-Chief of SAVEUR magazine. Her latest cookbook, Piatti: Plates and Platters for Sharing, Inspired by Italy, is a modern look at regional Italian-inspired antipasti.