Meet the alpinist who took on a 4,000ft "shark's fin" in the Himalayas... twice
Jimmy Chin has made a documentary about his four-year quest to scale Meru - and it's a fascinating insight into the elite climber's psyche
There's no need to be a climber to enjoy Jimmy Chin's film chronicling his ascent of Meru, a 4,000ft sheer peak in the Himalayas.
Actually, "enjoy" isn't really the right word – "sucked in and shaken up" is more accurate. I won't ruin it but let's just say there are more downs than ups – including two near-death experiences – as Chin and his fellow alpinists Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk attempt to summit the Shark's Fin (as it's nicknamed).
So when I caught up with Jimmy, my first question had to be – was it worth it?
Was it worth it?
Everybody has their own reasons for climbing. In the film, my intention was to show that climbing isn’t just about getting to the top – it's about the friendships and the experience. You do it because you love it. It’s like a musician has to play music, and a painter has to paint because that’s how they express themselves. Climbing is very similar but it’s misperceived…
In that people think it’s all about the glory?
Yeah. And when you climb the big mountains, there are a lot of inglorious moments!
Which you don't shy away from in the film... Was there any damage done?
Nothing permanent. I definitely frosted my feet and my hands, and they’re probably a little bit more sensitive to the cold than when I started doing this.
How about mentally?
No, I do this because it’s therapeutic for me. I don’t see a therapist; I go climbing. But then again, maybe I should see a therapist, I don’t know! We call it "cleaning out the pipes" because it resets your priorities – a big expedition strips away a lot and brings you back knowing yourself. And that’s part of the reason that I do it.
Renan, Jimmy and Conrad refuel on frozen couscous
Some of the footage is breathtakingly good. Did you shoot it all yourself?
Renan and I shot it with a Canon 5D. We would literally hand the camera back and forth. I've been shooting climbs for almost 20 years, but it was still challenging because you can’t recharge batteries up there, you have to shoot really judiciously and you can’t look at dailies. And of course you can’t drop the camera!
The only way is up... and then back down
You're a climber first on an expedition like this. I didn’t ever want the shooting to hold up the climbing. So I shot a lot of moments in between – on the portaledge, when we’re sitting trying to figure out what to do, which is also where a lot of the tension happened.
Were you filming when you were buried under the avalanche?
No. That would have been the million dollar Go Pro footage as I've been reminded many times. "Why didn’t you roll?" Well, I was kind of trying to survive!
Did you ever consider early retirement after that?
It was very intense but when you’ve climbed a lot – and you’ve lost a lot of people to it – you have a fairly close relationship with death because it’s ever-present. Death is obviously an inevitability for everybody and having that relationship with it is actually fairly healthy. It gives you a bit of perspective on life.
No time to put his feet up as night draws in
Would you recommend climbing as a career choice?
I probably wouldn’t recommend it to my kids but if that’s what they decide they really, really love to do – I'll be happy as long as they find something they're passionate about.
Are they already following in their father's footsteps?
My oldest is only a little over two but I have taken her climbing. Kids love climbing. I always say it’s not learning how to climb – it’s re-learning because you always knew how to climb.
Rise and shine
Are there many female climbers?
Yeah, there are some great female climbers. I skied Everest with Kit DesLauriers who’s a very close friend of mine. She was the first person to climb and ski the seven summits.
In terms of sport-climbing, probably one of the best climbers in the world right now is a 14-year-old Japanese girl, Ashima Shiraishi. Flexibility and poise is often much more important than being really strong and burly. Climbing is a sport for anyone who wants to have a physical and intellectual experience because it’s like you're a human puzzle.
What drives an elite climber?
There’s a sense of adventure that’s part of our DNA and a deep love of being outdoors – in the wild, in the blowing wind, watching the sunrise and sunset. Most people can probably relate to that but this is obviously at a more extreme level. As you develop and evolve, you start to push the edge like in any sort of craft.
Spot the elite climber
Why are first ascents such a big deal in the climbing world?
A first ascent is a legacy – it’s like writing your book and you leave that behind. That’s how climbers look at it but non-climbers don’t necessarily understand that aspect of it. All climbs – especially first ascents – are a form of self- expression in the sense that people find a climb that is inspiring to them. They look at a route that gets them excited and make choices about what kind of climbs they want to do.
Do you have any others planned?
Not right now but there's always one in the back of my mind...
Meru is out in cinemas via ourscreen and on digital download now, and is available on DVD & Blu-Ray from 7th March. Watch the trailer below: