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Jimmy Chin: the Gear, and the Will, for Summits -- and Central Park

Jimmy Chin: the Gear, and the Will, for Summits -- and Central Park

'Meru' finds the soul of Chin, climbing

Author: Reilly Capps/Wednesday, August 12, 2015/Categories: adventure , humor

[Chin on Meru. Photo by Renan Ozturk]

By Reilly Capps

You can't conquer without gear. For weather-chapped, Everest-skiing, North Face-sponsored mountain climber and explorer Jimmy Chin, gear's piled up in the front of his apartment. All kinds: lightweight and minimalist gear for moving quickly, heavy-duty and long-haul gear for sustained adventuring. And every day before he goes out, he has to ask himself, what kind of day will today be?

Will it just be a quick out-and-back ; a run to the grocery store for more milk and Gerbers? Or will we camp out; like maybe in Central Park's Sheep Meadow all day, playing epic peek-a-boo with daughter Marina?

Yes, Chin is not a dirtbag climber living in his car anymore. He's splitting time between his Jackson Hole, Wyo., home and his wife's apartment in New York City, doing the dad thing, and being an East Coast media dude.

Ironically, many of the changes in his life have to do with a dirtbag climbing adventure to one of the spindliest, shakiest climbs I've ever seen, and the movie that came out of it, "Meru," opening his weekend across the country. Working on the movie, he helped tell climbing stories in an accessible and beautiful way. And he also met his now wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who ended up being the film's co-director. Here's the film's trailer: 



"Meru" hasn't slipped through a cultural crack, the way most films featuring cracks, bolts and jugs tend to do. It has summited, winning the Audience Prize for documentary at Sundance, earning a so-far 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and gotten press everywhere from RiledUp to the Wall Street Journal to Variety to Newsweek, which called it one of the docs of the year. Folks whisper about Oscars. If it gets one, we hope Chin attends in a puffy jacket.

One reason for the standing ovations is the simple yet deep story that it tells: deep motivation causes interesting people to attempt challenge. It centers on Conrad Anker, legendary climber and friend of RiledUp. Anker has, for a long time, been feeling the call of the Shark's Fin of Meru, a deathly spire in northern India, which Anker's mentor had attempted and failed.

With Renan Ozturk and Jimmy Chin, both great photographers and videographers, Anker set out to climb Meru, taking into account all the risks involved, including the possibility of widowing his wife (for the second time in her life -- after the death of Alex Lowe). As they tried to churn out a movie themselves -- Chin was the director -- it was much more about the climbing itself, and what makes a climber a climber. "People have all these ideas about climbers, that climbers are crazy, that they're insane," Chin told RiledUp. "I don't think of them as crazy, I think of them as highly functional individuals. ... The film gave an honest look at what the stakes are, that people die. Death is the great equalizer. We are all fated to die at some point, and most people ignore it. I think that perspective on death is actually something that can motivate your actions and intentions in life, to make you live in the present."

That's a salient and universal perspective. But audiences thrill to know WHO is risking death; what is this person about; why should I care if they die? One of the hardest parts about making the movie, for Chin, was showing himself. In early cuts of the film, he was virtually absent. "I'm much, much more comfortable behind the camera," Chin says. Then, after meeting Vasarhelyi at a conference, he showed her a cut. She pushed him to include his story, which is compelling, too: parents who fled the Chinese Communist Revolution, who demanded lawyerly or doctorly success from Chin, who were scared and disappointed when he dropped out of society. Would his hard-charging dad be proud of his son living out of his car for seven years? Could the film mine the family angle?

Vasarhelyi, helped by film editor Bob Eisenhardt (RiledUp story here), located the pulse of Chin's story, and humanized him and Ozturk in a way that few climbing bums ever are.

"She was highly intelligent, and she knew exactly what she was doing," Chin says. "I needed someone from the outside to really help define what was critical about these characters."

Chin and Vasarhelyi fell in love in the editing room. And that's just one of the reasons "Meru" could be the filmic equivalent of a first ascent in Chin's life.

"This [project] has broken through a ceiling for me," Chin told us. Winning the Audience Award at Sundance, for instance, was as much of a pleasure as a shock. When the emcee announced that "Meru" had won, Chin says, "I didn't even get up until someone behind me tapped me on the shoulder and was like hey, that's your film."

Chin, just past 40 now, is trying to keep his bumish, Taoist perspective. "I think life ebbs and flows; classic Buddhist ideas; you can't let too much of the good things affect you, and you can't let too much of the bad things affect you," Chin told RiledUp. "Sure, I'm the cool guy right now, but in six months you kind of evaporate off the scene, which is fine. I don't need much to be happy. If I have a small bungalow in Mexico and a surf break and I can surf a few hours a day, I'm happy." It says something about Chin's standards that "beach house and surfing" represents a small goal.

Now, there are simpler, more universal challenges, and similarities between, say, skiing down Everest and being a dad.

"Sleep deprivation," Chin told RiledUp. "Fear of the unknown.

And, of course, gear. Where he and his friends used to gawk about the new Armada twin-tip skis with the 115 mm waist, now they gossip about Bugaboo's new "all-terrain" stroller, which won't conquer K2 but might conquer the Upper East Side. 

Chin keeps separate residences from Vasarhelyi, he near Jackson Hole, she in New York. He uses old climbing ropes to build swings for Marina. He dresses her in baby North Face. And his father, who wanted him to be a lawyer, can now see his son's name on a marquee in New York City. "I'm very proud of you," he tells his son. That's not a happy ending, because this week's movie opening is not the end of Chin's story. But it is a nice little end to this particular story.

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