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The Accidental Career of Photographer Jimmy Chin

Nicole Davis
for National Geographic News
March 23, 2004
 
Last August a wall of ice and scree nearly swept Jimmy Chin and his
climbing partner from the North Face of Everest. "It was much closer
than you ever want to get to an avalanche," the soft-spoken
photographer said in a recent telephone interview from his home in
Jackon Hole, Wyoming.

Chin admits the experience was probably his closest shave with death—the air blast alone thrust him 30 feet (9 meters) down the mountain. But he also made it sound like one of the best experiences of his life.

"To be given an opportunity to go to the North Face of Everest and try to climb it [in a fast and light] alpine style is not something you're offered very often," Chin said. Everest wasn't even on his list of must-climb summits until extreme snowboarder Stephen Koch asked Chin to join him.


Chin was tasked with photographing Koch's potentially record-breaking (but ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to descend the mountain's North Face. "I would have loved to bring back photos that nobody else could have," Chin said. "That's definitely part of the appeal for me."

Now, at the behest of climber and filmmaker David Breashears, Chin will make another summit bid to shoot background scenes for a new film about the mountain's infamous 1996 climbing season.

For someone who never intended to go to Everest, Chin has been pretty successful in finding work there. You might even say the 30-year-old has reached the height of his career, but that would be premature.

Five years ago, Chin didn't even own a camera.

Accidental Career

Rewind to 1999. At the time Chin was training in California's Yosemite Valley for an expedition to Pakistan's Karakoram Range. After a six-day climb of El Capitan, Chin picked up the camera of his climbing partner, himself a budding photographer.

"I had woken up early with the morning sun and took a photo of Brady sleeping in his bag next to all of the gear we had strewn across the ground," Chin said. Out of the entire roll, the frame shot by Chin was the only one that sold.

Chin put the proceeds toward his own camera. In Pakistan he photographed four friends climbing the alpine rock towers of Charakusa Valley, and sold those pictures, too. "I still had to learn the technical skills," Chin said. "But it came to me pretty easily, and I just followed along with it."

"He has a great natural eye," said Matt Stanley, a senior editor at Climbing magazine. "It's a big comparison to make, but I think he shares the same characteristics Galen Rowell had—the ability to put the climber in the context of the landscape."

It's difficult to discuss Chin's career without paying tribute to Rowell—he essentially pioneered the participatory style of wilderness photography Chin practices today. Chin sought the famed photographer's advice before his trip to Pakistan, and in 2002 he actually got a chance to work with his mentor for two months in Tibet.

The serendipitous break came when David Breashears dropped out of a National Geographic Society-sponsored expedition to document the calving grounds of the endangered Tibetan antelope in 2002. (See related story.) Tapped to replace Breashears, Chin was set for the most formative trip of his career.

There was just one catch: Chin would have to shoot video of the four-person expedition, something he'd never done before. "The joke on the plane was that while everyone read their novels, I was reading the instruction manual to the XL1 camera," Chin said. As with photography, however, he developed the necessary skills instantly.

Chin spent two months in Tibet with Rowell, the last time the pair would ever share. Shortly after the expedition, Rowell returned to California and, with his wife Barbara, died in an airplane crash near their home.

Chin was floored when he heard the news. "Particularly because I'd finally made this connection with [Rowell]. But he and his wife had had so many experiences and were able to impact so many people," Chin said. "I was just thankful he'd gotten as far as he had. I know a lot of people who haven't."

High Expectations

Growing up in southern Minnesota, Chin's parents, both Chinese-born immigrants, expected much from him and his sister. He talks of running from violin practice to orchestra rehearsal to swimming before starting his homework—all before he entered high school.

"He was a tough kid," said his sister Grace, recalling the winter Chin broke his leg on a nearby slope. "He immediately wanted to go to the ski shop so he could order new skis. He was furious that I insisted on taking him to the hospital first." Skiing was the one pursuit Chin discovered on his own, and his devotion to it was unparalleled—until he discovered climbing.

A trip to Joshua Tree National Park, California, sealed his love for the sport in 1992. Physically interacting with the landscape was a big part of the draw, and he quickly began to view climbing as a vehicle to travel, unencumbered, anywhere in the world.

For six years after college, Chin dedicated himself to the sport full-time, living out of his station wagon while cutting his chops on multipitch and backcountry climbs in Utah and California. During the winters he skied the Tetons in Wyoming and Mammoth, in California's eastern Sierra.

"My parents thought I was completely out of my mind," Chin said. "But I'd found something I was passionate about, which is difficult to find in life. And since I had it, I was going to follow through with it."

But talent is only part of the equation to Chin's success. In addition to time spent running his stock-photo agency and organizing expeditions, Chin trains a few hours each day to recover the muscle mass and weight he loses on each trip—and to prepare for the next expedition.

The work has paid off. Last year Chin spent nearly eight months climbing and trekking across the world. His photo of Koch snowboarding Everest made the cover of Outside magazine this month; National Geographic named him one of their Emerging Explorers last fall; and People magazine anointed him one of the most eligible bachelors of 2003 (the one title Chin found embarrassing).

"I don't expect to change anything with what I've done so far," Chin said. "But I like to think that images of people doing amazing things may open people's eyes to the human potential, to the idea that people can do the extraordinary when they set their minds to it."
 

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