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Mountaineer, film director shares journey of photographic success

Sarah Smith | The Feather Online

Jimmy Chin visited the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall to talk about his Oscar winning movie, Free Solo, Nov. 19.

World-renowned Nat-Geo photographer, film director, mountaineer and skier Jimmy Chin spoke at the San Joaquin Valley Town Hall, Nov. 19. Residents from all over the Valley packed the Saroyan Theatre to hear from Chin about the determination it took to film his Oscar-winning documentary, Free Solo.

Love for the outdoors develops

Growing up in Mankato, MN, Chin’s parents, Frank and Yen Yen Chin, expected him to follow in his family’s footsteps by continuing their educational stature. They raised him with the understanding that there were three occupations he was allowed to pursue – doctor, lawyer, or businessman. 

Chin enjoyed the outdoors as a child, especially a 350-foot hill behind his house called Mount Kado. Chin’s parents restricted him from skiing down the hill so that he would focus on his education and practice the violin. He was only allowed to spend time outside and visit the hill as a reward for doing well in school. 

After graduating from Mankato West High School, Chin attended Carleton College in Northfield, MN, where he graduated with a BA (Bachelor of Arts) in Asian Studies. To continue his passion for the outdoors, he landed a spot on the Carleton ski team which then exposed him to the idea of climbing.

Alex Honnold makes his final ascent free climbing Yosemite’s El Capitan, June 3, 2017, captured for National Geographic by Jimmy Chin.

Once Chin graduated from college, he moved to the Bay area in California in search of a job. He tried following the desire of his parents but nothing in the professional realm excited him. He decided that taking a year to focus on skiing and climbing was the best idea for him, even though it disappointed his parents. 

In lesson 19 of Chin’s Masterclass lesson plan, he explains the struggle it was to stray from the path his parents had envisioned for him. 

“The biggest risk was defying the expectations of my family,” Chin said. “When I told my parents after college, ‘I’m just going to take a year off to go climbing and skiing’, they were not very happy. I felt like I needed to find something that gave my life meaning and purpose and climbing for some reason took hold of me.”

His actions greatly upset his parents due to the fact that Chin’s one-year plan of climbing turned into a seven year plan. His mom claimed that she had “raised a homeless man” and was ashamed to think that her son was unemployed and living in his car.

Passion for photography evolves

Throughout his seven year break, Chin spent most of his time in Yosemite, CA. He felt that the friends he had there shared the same passion for climbing that he did and it gave him a sense of community. 

During one of his hiking trips, Chin borrowed a friend’s camera and shot a picture of that friend sleeping on El Capitan. His friend ended up submitting some of those photos to the outdoor clothing store, Mountain Hardwear. The company liked Chin’s photos and paid him $500 for the images.

During a live feed from National Geographic, Chin talked about how he never thought of photography becoming a full time job. 

“At the time I could live on nothing, but then they paid me $500,” Chin said. “I thought to myself that if I took one photo a month, I would be all set. I took the money that I got from selling that photo and I went and bought a camera with it. I didn’t really have a sense of wanting to be an artist or photographer in any other way, but to continue what I loved doing.”

The following Instagram post is a recent picture shot by Chin in Middle Teton, WY.

Chin now sells his photography to worldwide companies such as National Geographic, Outside, Men’s Journal and Patagonia. His photography has also won many awards including one from the American Society of Magazine Editors.

In the following podcast, Chin talks about what it feels like to be able to capture all of his outdoor adventures through the lens of a camera and gives advice to those struggling with their life goals.

Free Solo climb

Ever since 2009, the idea of free soloing El Capitan intrigued Chin’s friend, Alex Honnold, an American rock climber. El Capitan is located in Yosemite National Parks on the north side of the Yosemite Valley. It is considered to be the largest granite block of stone in the world, standing at 3,200 feet.

For six years Honnold wanted to begin preparing for the climb, but his nerves halted him from ascending the mountain. In the early months of 2015, He decided to start his two-and-a-half year road of preparations for his free solo climb on June 3, 2017. Honnold gathered a team of his closest friends to document his journey and advise him with his climbing. The directing team consisted of Jimmy Chin, his wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, and producers Shannon Dill and Evan Hayes.

Sarah Smith | The Feather Online

Megan LeBlanc, ’20, interviews Chin about the feeling of capturing the world through the lens of a camera.

Honnold spent those two-and-a-half years climbing the route called “Freerider”. He was attached to a rope to help him perfect every move he had to make before his free solo. In a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Talk from October 2018, Honnald talks about his strategy to learn each specific move he had to make on El Capitan. 

“Once I found sequences that felt secure and repeatable, I had to memorize them,” Honnold said. “I had to make sure that they were deeply ingrained within me that there was no possibility of error. I did not want to be wondering if I was going the right way or using the best holds. I needed everything to feel automatic.”

During Honnald’s preparations, he climbed El Capitan around 50 times with ropes before attempting the climb free soloing. Once the day came, he began ascending the mountain with Jimmy Chin by his side. 

While Honnold was focusing on his every movement, Chin was beside him with 50 pounds of gear to film his entire journey. During his talk at Fresno’s Town Hall, Chin explains the struggle it was not to disturb Honnold while trying to film him. 

“This was a big day we were preparing for,” Chin said. “My directions to the team were to not get distracted because being anxious and fearing for Alex was not going to serve anybody. On that day I think Alex performed perfectly and so did the directing team.”

After his two-and-a-half year waiting period, Honnold officially became the first person to successfully free solo El Capitan with a time of three hours and 56 minutes. 

Impact of Free Solo, legacy

The documentary Free Solo was released in theaters on Sept. 28, 2018. Free Solo dates back to the beginning of Honnold’s two-and-a-half year journey of preparations to his free solo climb on June 3, 2017. 

University High student Elsa Macias heard of Chin through her school’s rock climbing team and enjoyed listening to him after seeing his film. She attended the SJV Town Hall to hear more from the world-renowned photographer.

Sarah Smith | The Feather Online

Feather students (left to right) Ethan Hamm, ’20, Megan LeBlanc, ’20, and Kyle Clem, ’21, were able to meet Jimmy Chin before his talk at Fresno’s town hall, Nov. 19.

“I came to this because I am on the rock climbing team and the counselor had told us Jimmy Chin was coming so I wanted to go,” Macias said. “I had heard of him before because last year when I joined, I watched movies including Free Solo.

“I learned that it’s important to take risks even if it doesn’t seem like you are benefitting from them,” Macias continued. “You never know where it’s going to lead you or what opportunities you could get.”

Free Solo has been nominated for 48 global awards and has won 30 of them. The nominations cover all areas of the movie such as “Best Documentary”, “Outstanding Achievement in Productions” and “Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing”.

Charis Gray from University High had never heard of Jimmy Chin or Free Solo before her school’s rock climbing team was given the opportunity to visit Town Hall and hear from him. Gray shares her experience from hearing Chin speak and what she enjoyed about his session.

“I came to this event because I am on my school’s rock climbing team,” Gray said. “I learned that having that physical and mental drive to pursue your passion really means a lot and will get you where you want to be. When you give up certain things to do what you love, it shows how much of a mental drive you have.

“Through his background, thoughts, stories and humor, you could tell how motivational and inspirational this man is,” Gray continued. “The effort he puts into everything he does is so remarkable which inspires me to be a better person.”

Jimmy Chin talks to students before the SJV Town Hall and Feather senior Ethan Hamm captures the talk and Megan LeBlanc’s interview in the following video.

At the 2019 Oscars, Free Solo was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Documentary Feature”. The competing documentary films were, Of Father and Sons, Minding the Gap, RBG and Hale County This Morning, This Evening

The following post is from The Academy’s official Instagram page of Jimmy Chin holding the winning Oscar award for Free Solo


View this post on Instagram


When you realize you won an Oscar. #Oscars

A post shared by The Academy (@theacademy) on

Continues to inspire

Because of his successes, Chin has the ability to travel all over the world sharing his story of how a boy with a love for the outdoors transformed his life to a world-renowned photographer and filmmaker. Chin talks about pursuing your dreams and how important the road to achieving your life goals is. 

“You know what it takes to do anything great,” Chin said. “It is going to be challenging because there is probably a lot of anxiety and doubt but you have to overcome that. There is no shortcut to doing anything that is meaningful and I don’t think anyone should expect a shortcut.

“The important point is that people focus so much on getting to a specific place that they don’t pay attention to the process, the failure and fighting through the challenges and doubts,” Chin said. “That is actually the experience you want and that you’re looking for.”

Free Solo is available to stream for a price or subscription with YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, Hulu or Disney+.

Have you ever seen Free Solo? Comment below something you learned from the documentary or your favorite part of the film.

For more articles read EDITORIAL: Selflessness promotes communal growth, requires self-care practices and Disney+ launches, provides streaming alternative.

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