Expedition Photographer Jimmy Chin On Balancing Family At 29,000 Feet
The professional climber, ski mountaineer and expedition documentarian on how becoming a father has changed his perspective on world travel...and what he looks for in a backpack.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming’s Jimmy Chin has four jobs. As one of the only people to climb and ski Mount Everest from the summit, he’s an athlete ambassador for The North Face; he’s also a PDN award-winning photographer trusted by the likes of National Geographic when they need cover-worthy pictures from a Himalayan peak or a sandstone tower on the edge of the Sahara. Chin’s currently finishing a documentary about a harrowing first ascent in India and, as of 9 months ago when his daughter Marina was born, he’s a father.
Do you have any stats that begin to explain how much you’ve traveled for your jobs in the past 15 years – number of countries visited, or frequent flier miles earned, something like that?
You know, I don’t, but now I’m curious. I did have one flight last year where we paid over $25,000 in excess baggage fees, though.
As a professional climber, expedition photographer and filmmaker, you do dangerous stuff in sketchy places. Are there any specific stories you tell to illustrate that?
I’ve been held up at knife point by bandits in the desert of Chad, five days from the nearest road. I barely survived a 2,000-foot avalanche here in the Grand Tetons. I also survived an avalanche on the north face of Everest.
“My daughter is 9 months old and she has her own passport with stamps from Japan and Senegal in it. She probably has 30 flights under her belt.”
So, at what point in all the death-defying work and travel did you think, “I can fit a kid into this”?
At no point did I make a conscious decision to have a baby. I’m fairly established in my career; I’m in a place where I’m confident about getting jobs, but this isn’t a 9-to-5. As a photographer and filmmaker you’re always hustling and there are no guarantees. It’s all based on your previous work, so you need a strong foundation, but you also have to be evolving and be relevant, so you can never get too comfortable. But, I wasn’t getting any younger. I had the baby 3 weeks before I turned 40.
What advice would you give someone following in your footsteps if they want to have kids?
It’s not a lifestyle that lends itself to a stable family life, but if I can do it, they can do it. And the reason I can do it is because I married an incredible woman who is capable of dealing with me. So, I guess if I was going to give any piece of advice, it would be, “Choose your partner carefully.”
Your wife, Eizabeth Vasarhelyi, is a documentary filmmaker who works a lot in Africa – do you two have to schedule your trips around each other so someone is always home with the baby?
It’s pretty funny. We did a screening not long ago of a film I’m working on and a film she’s working on. My film is a really intense story about some stuff that happened to me in the mountains; her film is about the elections in Senegal a few years ago when they were rioting in the streets and that footage looks like urban warfare. She was pregnant when we did the screening, and I think a lot of people were thinking, “This baby is going to have the craziest parents.” But she’s done the lion’s share of the parenting, for sure, because I have to travel a ton for work. Documentary filmmaking isn’t exactly lucrative and my work pays the bills, so there’s an understanding. But she’s not just sitting idly by; she’s a producer on my films and our films went into post production at the same time, so she’s been working on both.
How has expedition travel prepared you for being a father?
I’m comfortable with the unknown. On expeditions, you have to adapt all the time and be prepared for anything, and that’s what it’s like to be a parent with your first child. On an expedition, things can go sideways pretty quickly, and there are always blank spaces on the map. You can know how you’re getting from Point A to Point B, but Point C – you’re going to have to figure that out. You have think on your toes, which is the beauty of an expedition. And that’s the adventure of having children – there’s all these unknowns and spontaneously beautiful moments that you wouldn’t ever get to experience if you didn’t go on this expedition.
Your peer group is comprised of guys who ski the world’s most dangerous mountains and climb the world’s tallest rock walls. How have your conversations changed as more of you become fathers?
I had coffee with Jeremy Jones yesterday, he’s got two kids and we talked about the challenges of being a father in the work we do. He does 6-week expeditions all the time. His kids are 5 and 9 and he told me about how much harder it is to leave. A week, 10 days, no big deal, but leaving for 4-6 weeks? He told me to expect that to get harder and harder. Guys make different choices; some settle down a lot more, and some just don’t have kids. But quite a few do, and guys like Chris Davenport, they still go pretty hard. I go pretty hard. I mean, my daughter is 9 months old and she has her own passport with stamps from Japan and Senegal in it. She probably has 30 flights under her belt.
What’s the one piece of kid’s gear that you can’t live without?
My wife [laughs]. I have a hiking backpack I put my daughter in from Vaude called the Wallaby – you can take them hiking anywhere. I use a BabyBjorn if I’m just cruising around the city, but it hurts your back. The Wallaby is awesome. I heard about it at The North Face Athlete Summit from one of the ultra runners – these guys are super intense about everything, really analytical about their calorie intake and what shoes they’re wearing. So I asked this guy Timothy Olson and he was immediately like, “This is the one. I looked at 30 of them and this is the lightest weight, most comfortable pack.” So I didn’t even have to look because I knew he already looked way more closely than I would have. The North Face athlete summit is a great place for baby beta.
Who’s responsible for filming the family movies in the Chin household – your or your wife?
We both do, but it’s always with iPhones or GoPros. We haven’t done a lot of real filming. I filmed the birth on a Canon 5D, but I didn’t get the graphic end.
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