by Tracy Ross
It’s 2002, and Jimmy Chin is dangling from a cornice on a remote peak on the Changtang plateau in northern Tibet. Part of an expedition with his mentor, the photographer Galen Rowell, Jimmy is next in line to access the summit when he turns to face Galen, who’s still ascending. Jimmy’s head pokes through just as Galen hikes toward him. “I knew the moment would be lost, so hanging on by one arm I squeezed off three shots,” he later told National Geographic. One of the photos earned him a two-page spread in the magazine.
That was back when Jimmy was still an up-and-coming photographer-documentary filmmaker. Meaning he’d just become sponsored by The North Face, (both as athlete and shooter), and had just attempted the direct North Face of Mount Everest without oxygen, but was yet to summit Everest, yet to direct the award-winning documentary Meru, or have his work—and life—featured twice in the New Yorker. To that magazine and to most of the world, Jimmy is known as a professional mountaineer. But to those who know him, Jimmy is a skier first—even if he rarely publishes ski photos.
“I started skiing at eight or nine on a tiny hill in a river valley behind my house,” says Jimmy, who grew up 15 minutes from Minnesota’s Mount Kato ski hill—vertical drop: 240 feet. “My parents put a big focus on academics…I was rewarded with skiing.” Still, he stumbled in high school—stealing a car and getting exiled to, and then expelled from, an Episcopalian boarding school. But he eventually ski raced and graduated from Carleton College, before blitzing west, to Bozeman, Montana, to wait tables and ski Bridger Bowl—the same hill that taught Scot Schmidt and Doug Coombs how to bomb steeps. A few years later, he was in Jackson Hole during the “swift, silent, deep” era instigated by the Jackson Hole Air Force.
Jimmy found his own posse—a next gen version of the Air Force, but with a passion for the vertical world—and chased them to Teton Pass and into Grand Teton National Park. “We explored every little nook and cranny inbounds, then hit the backcountry, and then, all of a sudden, we were spending all of our time trying to ski the Grand Teton,” says Jimmy’s longtime friend Eric Henderson. They attempted The Grand once in February of 1999, and again in March, before nailing it in April. Eric permanent-inked the date on a Therm-A-Rest he still owns. But tellingly, there are no photos. “We never let Jimmy bring a camera skiing,” says Eric. “We weren’t patient enough to let him shoot us.”
When Jimmy wasn’t chasing snow, he was pursuing his other outdoor passion: big wall climbing. And on those trips he taught himself to shoot photos. Along the way, he realized that his expedition climbing skills were the perfect foundation for ski mountaineering. He’s since attempted Everest three times, summiting twice. On the second trip he recalls scouting the southeast ridge. “The whole time I was looking at Everest as a skier,” he says. “Up top, I saw that with good snow you could ski it from the summit.” A year later, another Jackson athlete, Kit DesLauriers, approached him with a third Everest offer. But this time he was to bring skis.
In October 2006, Kit, her husband Rob, and Jimmy topped out. Jimmy photographed the DesLauriers’ descent from the top. “I was the last person up there, and I had a really nice moment,” he says. “I said, ‘You’re not in a rush, calm down, keep it cool, and bring your ‘A’ game.’ I stood there for 30 minutes taking it all in.”
And then the kid from Mount Kato, who’d soon become the most celebrated outdoor photographer in the industry, skied Everest.
“Jimmy has an amazing eye. What makes his work so remarkable is not only his innate gift for recognizing a beautiful shot—which all great photographers possess—but his ability to make such shots in the moment, without posing anyone or setting anything up, in extreme conditions and extreme settings. Plus, he is a really strong climber and skier, who is able to carry his share of the load and take the sharp end of the rope on his share of scary pitches.” –Jon Krakauer
“Jimmy’s demeanor is so gentle and he’s such a Buddhist in character. He has this ability to get into your psyche and make you feel comfortable. He’s so smart, calculated, and creative—but he can’t cook for shit.” —Eric Henderson
From our Gallery 2016 issue.