© Cheyenne Lempe
Over the Top
For 20-plus years, no one has done more to document the limits of climbing than Jimmy Chin.
Now, with a new anthology of his life’s work, it’s time to honor an artist and climber who has transported intrepid souls to the edges of the world.
Jimmy Chin is describing what drives him to the edges of the world, to document adventures in foreign lands and hostile conditions. “My original inspiration was simply to live out of my car—to live the life of a nomad,” Chin tells The Red Bulletin. “And that sense of curiosity is still with me, this deep need to explore the world and different landscapes, and also to explore my creative potential.”
That profound curiosity and creative searching has taken Chin to the top of Everest (twice), to intensely technical climbs on every continent, to wild places dominated by rock, snow, ice and the elements—and it also has yielded dozens of magazine covers and multiple award-winning films (including Free Solo). Over the course of his 20-plus-year career, he’s done nothing less than transport us to the boundaries of human potential, to bring outsiders inside the era’s greatest adventures, to share the soul of exploration with the masses.
And now, thanks to his new photography anthology— titled There and Back—the full scope of Chin’s work is finally on display in one place. “This is a deeply personal book and project,” says Chin, who admits he’s been pondering the idea of this retrospective for a decade. “As I have pursued my explorations I’ve had these pinnacle moments, moments that were difficult or extraordinary. I put these little markers in my life’s timeline, that these were moments that would land in the book.”
The big reason I pursued this career is to cultivate intense relationships and experiences
Of course the anthology is full of legendary mountains and soaring granite walls, but it’s also full of people— iconic climbers who joined Chin on the summits and everyday people from different cultures he visited along the way. “The big reason I pursued this career is to cultivate intense relationships and experiences,” Chin says. “Honestly, assembling all these memories in the book was an emotional journey. It celebrates all these people and mentors I forged relationships with—and some of them are no longer with us.”
Chin says he was surprised at how emotional it was to finally hold a bound copy of There and Back. “I was moved—carrying the weight of the book in my hands felt so good because I’ve been carrying the weight of these stories and images for a long time,” he says. “I haven’t opened up like this because it always felt like I was telling someone else’s story. This time it’s personal.”
The renowned photographer, filmmaker and adventurer dedicated this highly personal project to his two young children. “They don’t really know what daddy does,” laughs Chin. “I had them in mind with this book— to create an archive that they could go back to and look at and share as a piece of their family history.”
Chin, who began climbing Yosemite’s big walls as a teenager, returned to the park in the fall of 2009 to document the climbing culture in that cathedral of granite. Here he captures two unnamed BASE jumpers in flight at dusk.
Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell
In January 2015, Chin spent the better part of a month high above Yosemite Valley as Jorgeson and Caldwell grinded their way up the seemingly impossible 3,000-foot slab of granite called the Dawn Wall, an effort that also was documented in a film named after the face.
In 2004, Chin made his first trip to Mali. Here he captures Cedar Wright climbing on Kaga Pamari, one of five fingers on the so-called Hand of Fatima, a complex of the tallest freestanding sandstone towers in the world.
In 2003, Chin joined Koch—a snowboarder on a quest to ride the so-called Seven Summits—to take a stab at Everest’s north face. Here Koch climbs an ice tower on the Central Rongbuk Glacier. After nearly dying in a huge avalanche at 23,000 feet, the duo abandoned the expedition. Chin says it was a reminder that the goal in climbing is to come home alive.
In February 2014, Chin ventured to the remote Kamchatka Peninsula in far eastern Russia to document the adventures of snowboarder Travis Rice. Here Rice leans into heavy winds as military-grade Russian Mi-17 helicopters lurk in the background.
New York City
Taking his climbing skills to the urban jungle, Chin ascended to the top of One World Trade Center in 2016 with Walsh, one of two Americans certified to climb the spire for annual inspections. Chin says that interference from the building’s massive antenna rendered some of his equipment useless and required last-minute improvisation.
In April 2009, Chin traveled to Borneo with a crew that included Conrad Anker, Kevin Thaw and Alex Honnold, then only 24 and on his first international expedition. Here Honnold rappels down to a hanging camp high above the South China Sea after a windy and rainy day of climbing.
When Honnold, after 3 hours and 56 minutes, summitted El Capitan on June 3, 2017, after a free climb of mind-blowing proportions, Chin captured the exaltation of the moment. Along with his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Chin spent two years tracking Honnold’s quest for the Oscar- winning film Free Solo.
Chin captures Honnold on a pitch high on the Freerider route on El Capitan, thousands of feet above the valley floor. He says that Honnold was climbing so fast that it was a struggle to keep up and use the viewfinder of his camera. He shot this image with the camera on his hip.
Here Honnold free solos the so-called Enduro Corner, a 5.12b pitch 2,000 feet off the deck that is one of the cruxes of the Freerider route up El Capitan. Though Honnold seemed quite relaxed, Chin says that he found filming and photographing the climber on such challenging pitches to be quite stressful.
In 2004, Chin was asked to join an all-star team—which included Breashears and Ed Viesturs—to climb Everest and capture scenic footage. This would become one of Chin’s two successful ascents of the world’s tallest mountain. Here Breashears mounts a series of creaking ladders on the Khumbu Icefall.
This is a deeply personal book and project
All images from There and Back: Photographs from the Edge by Jimmy Chin. Copyright © 2021 by Jimmy Chin. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.