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."

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