Jimmy Chin on Training, Balance, and Being a Climbing Bum

Jimmy Chin is one of the world's most accomplished adventure and climbing photographers, and a true renaissance man of modern adventure. His extensive career as an alpinist and ski mountaineer includes being on the first American team to ski from Everest and a first ascent of the legendary Shark’s Fin in the Garwhal Himalayas. His photography has graced covers of magazines including National Geographic and The New York Times Magazine, and his 2015 film, Meru, won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Jimmy’s schedule is a whirlwind of filmmaking, shooting, climbing and family, but he was able to take some time to talk with Momentous about his life, his training and his dreams for his kids.

Jimmy Chin climbing in yosemite.

I still have a hard time answering the question, “What do you do?” I guess I wear a lot of different hats. Some years are more focused on filmmaking, some years are more focused on photography, some years are more focused on climbing, skiing and expeditions. Some years, like the last couple, I have been focused on all of them simultaneously, which can be a lot to manage.

Staying in shape and finding the time to be outside in order to stay true to the original inspiration behind my work and my life are probably the biggest challenges of juggling my career. I do a lot of travel, but right now I have a good balance living part time in New York City, and Jackson, Wyoming, and a life on the road. There are moments when it can feel a bit overwhelming with a lot of expectations and pressure, but I try to take everything one day at a time, have a sense of the long game, and also stay focused on the tasks at hand.

You only have 24 hours in a day, so you really want to make the most efficient use of time. For training, there's so much involved — everything from nutrition and diet to recovery and sleep. I try to keep some consistency by doing something every day and finding windows to do bigger days at least once or twice a week. I always like to do something on travel days. I hate losing travel days.

In the summer when I am in Jackson, I can climb the Grand Teton in the morning, jump in the stream to wash off and still catch the 2 p.m. out of Jackson to NYC. That’s a perfect example of not losing a travel day!

Jimmy Chin climbing the Shark's Fin

 I realized that I could make a career of photography when I started to shoot for National Geographic and The North Face. I wasn’t ever sure I could make a living as a professional athlete, so I always felt like I wanted to produce something tangible beyond being an athlete. I wanted to shoot, and I was excited to get the most epic photos I could to capture a moment. I wanted to tell a story of what my friends were achieving.

I've never considered myself purely a professional athlete. I always think of the people around me as being the real professional athletes, and my role has been documenting the expeditions, their feats. I'm the supporting cast member, and they are the lead, which I much prefer.

My parents didn’t grow up in the mountains, so climbing wasn’t even on their radar as a way of life. It took them quite a few years to come to terms with the choices I made. I don’t hold it against them, because they just wanted to ensure that I had the means to support myself, but for me it was about finding a life that I wanted to live, and I knew I didn't need much in terms of material wealth to be happy.

I think the next generation of athletes understands that to really push the edge of their sports, they have to take training seriously. Just within climbing and skiing, there is so much more specialization. The best athletes now train a lot more specifically and so much better than what I saw 15 years ago. It’s much more systematic, much more methodical, much more focused. You have to consider diet and training. Everything has to come together, because to be at the top of your sport these days, you can’t just be talented, you have to put it all together.

I never waste an opportunity to get calories on expeditions. Expedition meals are often lacking in protein that is usable and absorbable. So I always bring Momentous to have in a hot drink. One in the morning, one during the climb, and one at night. It’s good for recovery, it’s lightweight, and it's not your random chunk of goat or chipati from a street stand.

If I’m going to put my best foot forward in the work I do, I expect the same in the company whose products I’m going to consume and endorse. Momentous looks at all the ingredients out there and really focuses on the science and development behind each product. They take the time to dissect the best ingredients from the best sources for recovery drinks. I appreciate that the ingredients have been put together by some of the best professional sports nutritionists out there.

base camp below Meru

Climbing is a process of self-discovery. There are all these different layers – trying hard, facing challenges, taking risks, understanding how you calculate risks. It’s like playing a game of chess, but physically. Some people say that it's like meditation in motion as well. I think ultimately the draw is that it makes you very present. It forces you to focus, it forces you to be in the moment, and not be all up in your head thinking about what other people think about you or whatever it is. When you’re out there in the mountains or in the ocean, it's therapeutic.

I had a very simple life living out the back of my car with very little and I was extraordinarily happy.

I always joke that there's a leisure class on both ends of the economic spectrum. You can live as a dirtbag and have everything you want, and yet have nothing. We used to pride ourselves on how dirtbag we could be. Most importantly, I was surrounded by my tribe and the raw experiences were what motivated me. You can focus on pushing yourself, accomplishing your objectives. It was a lot simpler and very fulfilling.

Clearly you don't become a climber to make money. You commit to becoming a climber because it feeds a hunger within you. It gives you purpose and meaning as well as something to look forward to. It also provides an environment where you can have intense shared experiences with your friends.

When younger climbers in Yosemite ask me, “How do I get to where you are?”, my joke back to them is that I started exactly where they are, living in the back of a car being a vagabond, and I've spent my entire adult life trying to get back to where they are right now.

You have to take life day by day and week by week and figure it out. My wife, Chai, is also a filmmaker with a crazy production schedule, so the biggest challenge we have is the amount of travel we do, especially with having two kids. It's not easy, but it’s going surprisingly well. 

I hope my children find something they're passionate about. I don't care if it's poetry, music, art, climbing, surfing or dance, as long as they find something that gives them direction and meaning, and makes them happy. I do want them to know how to climb and ski and surf, so we can go on cool family vacations, have fun together, play together.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned in the mountains and the ocean that are humbling and help you keep your feet on the ground. These sports are great vehicles for people to spend time in nature, which I think is more important now than ever. You want your kids experiencing something other than their screens and their devices. I know that when you connect with people in the mountains and the ocean, or go for a hike or a walk outside, that's where you can still make real human connections and that’s really important.

Sometimes you find your passion and sometimes your passion finds you. Sometimes it comes easy. Sometimes you have to fight for it. At the end of the day, everybody has the potential to be passionate about something. If it happens to be climbing, then great and hopefully they find it. I truly believe, either openly or quietly, people all want an adventurous life.

Interview by: Patrick Crawford


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