On Sunday, February 24, Jimmy Chin ’96, along with fellow film-maker and wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, took home the Oscar for Best Documentary for their work as directors of Free Solo. Free Solo documents climber Alex Honnold’s ropeless climb––or free solo––of El Capitan: a 3000 foot granite monolith in Yosemite National Park. One of just a small number of climbers who attempt free soloing, he is the first person to ever free solo El Capitan. Free Solo is as much a film about climbing as it is a character study of Alex Honnold. The film dives into Honnold’s world, immersing viewers in the life of a free soloist through interviews with friends and family, along with climbing footage. Free Solo also addresses pressing ethical questions regarding documentary film, weighing the possibility that Honnold could fall thousands of feet to his death with a single mistake.
Chin has made a career out of being both an adventure sports athlete and an outdoor photographer, often working in incredibly high-risk environments. He began his career with National Geographic in 2002, and in 2006, was part of the first American group to ever ski off the top of Mt. Everest. Chai Vasarhelyi’s and Chin’s 2015 film, Meru, documents his 2011 ascent of the Shark’s Fin route of Meru Peak in the Himalayas. Chin has a unique ability to perform at the most extreme level of sports, whether climbing, skiing, or mountaineering, and to document these sports with cutting-edge photography and filmmaking in the moment.
The Carletonian spoke to Chin about his journey from Carleton to the Academy.
Q: What aspects of Carleton contributed to your interest in climbing and filmmaking?
A: My first climbing trip was with CANOE—is that still around?
Q: It sure is.
So I mean, my first real climbing trip was with them in Joshua Tree. I was introduced to full on rock climbing at Carleton. I had messed around a little bit, but that was my first real thing. I never thought I would go into media arts, though. Carleton was definitely a major influence in terms of the people whom I met, the friends that I made there—who all went on to do incredible things. We went to Joshua Tree and I immediately knew that it was something that really moved me. And that’s where I was first exposed to the outdoor and climbing lifestyle. The lifestyle of it was pretty amazing.
Q: Did you climb buildings at Carleton? Which was your favorite?
A: Yeah, I did a bunch on Scoville and bouldering around on Scoville. I remember going over the arch, the entry was kind of a bold climb. You’d land on the rail or something if you fell. Landing wasn’t great. I think that was the main one.
Q: In your wife’s acceptance speech, she spoke about inclusivity in the outdoor industry. Can you speak to the importance of this, especially on college campuses?
A: Even in the time I’ve been in the industry it has changed a lot, especially in gender parity. Yosemite, and Jackson, you know, when I first started climbing and skiing there weren’t that many women. Now that’s changed quite a bit. At Carleton, people understand, you know…its a very liberal arts college. It’s focused on those issues, the students have the awareness and sensibilities of those issues, which is great. There are so many angles here. For me, as a parent, having a five-year-old daughter, it’s about encouraging everybody, regardless of sex, color, or sexual orientation. It’s about encouraging what you get out of that human experience of being in the wilderness and outdoors. It’s a human experience. Everybody brings something different. I’m probably a living example, I’m a first-generation Chinese kid, I grew up in the States. I found climbing and hopefully I’ve contributed to it. It’s so important to have those voices, and to have those different perspectives. It enriches the overall experience and knowledge and creativity in the outdoor space and that should be totally embraced. There are a lot of programs out there that encourage that because there are great lessons to be learned out there. It’s about getting people out there. You never know who’s gonna be the greatest climber in the world…someone of color or a woman.
Q: As a climber, what’s it like now that climbers like Alex Honnold are becoming household names?
A: I’ve had some of my most powerful experiences in life climbing. I’ve learned some of the best and hardest stuff climbing. It’s an incredible vehicle to challenge yourself mentally and physically, but it also requires someone to dig really deep and question what they’re doing, cause sometimes you’re facing questions of mortality. It’s also very cerebral. I think it’s a great activity for all those reasons, not that it’s better than anything else, but it can really enrich people’s lives in a lot of ways. It makes me happy to see that people in the climbing world are inspiring other people to face their fears, or inspiring role models. Alex is an incredible person and I love that he will be a role model for my kids. He’s very intentional about what he does with the environment and how he spends his time, so I support it all the way.
Q: Finally, what advice do you have for climbers at Carleton? Or filmmakers?
A: Generally, the advice I think about is less climbing and film making specific. Its broader. I think that college is a time for exploring different things and ideas, different ways of thinking, different lifestyles, and expanding your mind. In terms of what possibilities are out there, you never know what’s gonna strike you. The last thing I would ever expect to find at Carleton is rock climbing. Being open to finding the things that really move you and paying attention to your instincts and that feeling, you know, pay attention to that and explore it. Otherwise, all the other advice from adults..is like there are no shortcuts, and that it usually comes down to old fashioned hard work and perseverance. Sometimes in college you feel like the decisions you make now are gonna decide the course of your life but there’s a lot of time to explore. It’s about finding the time to move you, and knowing that everything is transient and things can change. People make pivots way late in your life, so it’s at least worth exploring things and going down the road for a while.
Staff writer Meredith Oldham ’20 contributed reporting.