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“It’s managing the risks, and how do you do that without having a lot of experience? I think it’s what you said, it’s a lot of working on the foundations and building blocks and paying your dues.”–Jimmy Chin
One of the world’s greatest adventure and award winning photographers Jimmy Chin (@jimkchin) talks to Commander Divine for his 100th episode! Jimmy has had a very interesting path to his adventures in climbing and in film-making. He has crossed the Chang Tang Peninsula of northwestern Tibet on foot and skied from the summit of Everest. He also claimed the first ascent of the central pillar of Mt. Meru in India, known as “The Shark’s Fin,” which is the subject of his latest and critically-acclaimed film “Meru” co-directed with his wife. Find out his stories as he captures athletes and adventurers who are pushing the absolute limits.
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Transcript & Shownotes
Hey folks. Can you believe it’s our hundredth episode? It’s amazing. I’ve only been at this a couple of years, and this has quickly become one of the most… one of the coolest things that I’ve ever done. And I really have enjoyed doing this podcast, even though I gripe with my producer Allison about the time it’s taking and what it’s done to my schedule.
But ultimately it’s just been an unbelievably rewarding thing to do to meet all the incredible guests. And to have all of your support, and help from sharing it and from recommending guests. And from talking about the podcast on Facebook, and generally just being part of the tribe. And learning along with me from all these great guests, and just being part of the thing.
We’re at a hundred episodes. Close to 2.5 million downloads. We’re heading toward 5 million. I’m looking forward to continuing this journey for as long as possible. I know there’s a ton of noise out there. Ton of other podcasts, ton of other things you could be doing with your time. Like more showing up every day.
It seems to me like everyone’s getting into podcasting. We’ve got some… a lot of momentum. I’m going to add video podcasts to the mix pretty soon. At any rate… couldn’t do it without you. You guys rock. Thanks so much for your support. Really appreciate it. Keep spreading the word.
Now this 100th episode is awesome. I’ve been wanting to interview Jimmy Chin since he spoke at the Unbeatable Mind retreat last year. I was in awe at what he did and the Zen like quality that this guy possesses. And Jimmy and I really hit it off. We both have a martial arts background, and his venue is extreme sports. He is an alpinist, doing big, big mountains like Everest and Meru, which is his documentary.
And not only that, but he takes photographs and now documentaries while he’s in these extremely challenging situations. And he’s an extreme skier, so one of my favorite feats that he did, was hike up Mount Everest and ski off the top. That doesn’t get… you don’t get any cooler than that.
So really just wanted to take this time to celebrate the hundredth episode. I did a hundred burpee pull-ups this morning with John, my coach John over here at SEALFIT so that we could kick off the 100th celebration properly.
And if you haven’t, put your email on our email list. Check that out on unbeatablemind.com/podcast. Drop your email in. You can also get the shownotes, see all the great sponsors we have, and also get transcripts of the episodes if you like. All right, enjoy.
Hey folks, this is Commander Mark Divine coming at you with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Thanks so much for coming back and joining me this week. I do not take it for granted. I know we are all super-busy, and we have a thousand things to do and this is just one more. So I know though that your time today will be well worth it. I can’t wait to introduce our guest today who has become a good friend of mine. His name is Jimmy Chin who spoke at our last Unbeatable Mind Retreat.
But before I get going, let me remind you: those 5 star reviews have been unbelievably humbling and I’m so grateful for it. I think we have over 300 of them. And that happened because I asked you all to go rate the show on iTunes. That’s the only way other people can find it.
So if you haven’t, and you feel like you have the time, or you’re just… this pops in your head when you’re back at your computer then just go to iTunes and look up “Unbeatable Mind podcast with Mark Divine” and just rate it. Hopefully 5 stars. That’d be really cool.
Also, a quick update for those of you who follow what we’re doing at SEALFIT or Unbeatable Mind which are the 2 companies that I have that kind of spread this philosophy of mental toughness, resiliency, and being unbeatable. Got a couple cool things coming up: one is we’re launching a new program through SEALFIT which’ll be a functional integrated training program called SEALFIT boot camp. And if you imagine Crossfit without the barbells and the things that might lead to injury, along with the mental toughness training laced in. So it’s going to be a video series kind of like P90X that you can follow along and the videos are named after values such as “courage” and “honor.” So you’re going to get a lot of cool dialog.
I’m really super-excited about this program and we’re going to soft-launch it in March. So just keep an eye out for that.
Also, really excited that I’m working on my next book, which is going to be the Unbeatable Mind leader’s edition. So Unbeatable Mind Leader. That’s the code name for it. I’m pushing to get it done in April, but I’m super-stoked about it, because it’s going to be I think a really neat tool and kind of update of the whole philosophy for those of you trying to lead teams, and using some of these principles.
All-righty. Jimmy Chin, man. Jimmy is super-… one of the most interesting guys I’ve met in a long time. I mean, Jimmy is an expert mountaineer and extreme skier. He’s done things that… you know, as a Navy SEAL, I mean… I wouldn’t even consider doing.
And he’s a world-class photographer and documentary film-maker. And his recent documentary, “Meru” is fantastic. Gotta watch that.
So Jimmy, thanks for coming to join me. Super-stoked to have you here. I can’t wait to talk about your life and what inspires you.
Jimmy Chin: Yeah, thank you for having me here. It’s an honor to be here.
Mark: Yeah, I appreciate that. The honor is all mine. So you mentioned you’re back in Washington, DC at National Geographic headquarter so clearly you work with them… for them… You’re working on a new documentary? Can you tell us a little bit about that before we kind of dig into your life?
Jimmy: Yeah, the documentary is about a climber named Alex Honnold and it’s still fairly under wraps. So I can’t talk too much about it, but it’s a feature length documentary. We’re in the middle of making it. I can’t wait to share it with you when we’re finished, cause I think you’ll probably appreciate a lot of it.
Mark: And he was a… he’s a climber, so help me understand who he is.
Jimmy: He’s a climber. Yeah.
Mark: And what’s your timeline? Do you have a general sense of when you’ll be done?
Jimmy: It’s the type of project where it’s kind of open-ended. We’re hoping to wrap production this year and post-production and hopefully share it next year. But it depends on how things go.
And documentary film-making is like that. You often have to take a deep breath and let it unfold as life unfolds.
Mark: I can see that. That makes sense. Lot of uncontrollables. Weather, people, availability, schedules…
Jimmy: Yes, yes.
Mark: So you told an incredible story at the Unbeatable Mind retreat in December. And what was super-intriguing I thought was just how your early years and your parents… and I guess this isn’t uncommon, you know… whether good or bad. But in a positive sense your parents really influenced you in unique ways. And not always in the ways that they were hoping of expecting. So give me some insight into Jimmy in your early years. Where did you grow up? And what was life like for you? And how did your relationship with your parents kind of influence your trajectory?
Jimmy: Sure. Well, for a mountaineer and alpinist I grew up in a very unlikely space. I grew up in Mankato, Minnesota, which was this small town in south central Minnesota. Probably one of the flattest places you could ever find in the United States.
My parents were both Chinese immigrants. They were professors at the university in Mankato. And, you know, I think of them as stereotypical Chinese parents… or maybe any immigrant parents that were very focused on academics. Very focused on providing opportunities for their children to live a good life. Be able to make a living and to really excel hopefully.
And so my father was particularly tough. He came from a military family, and was also, you know, from a very early age taught me martial arts. Wanted me to understand kind of the tenets of Chinese Kung Fu and martial arts and mental toughness…
Mark: Did he teach you himself? Or did he just encourage you to get engaged in the martial arts program in you town?
Jimmy: He taught me himself. And then because the only martial arts available there for competition was Tae Kwon Do, so I enrolled in a Tae Kwon Do dojo, and was very, very fortunate. My Instructor was a 2 time… I think he was 2 time international lightweight champion in sparring. Just kind of randomly… Somehow he wound up in Mankato teaching at this dojo, which was incredible.
And he was an incredible resource for me to have. And I competed for 10 years in the martial arts. I also swam competitively from 8 until I was through high school.
My mom, on the other hand, was much more on the arts and music side, and she had me playing the violin by the time I was 3 and a half. I played violin all through high school as well, for 15 years.
And so there was a lot of focus on excelling and doing the best that I could in each of these sports and in music. I found skiing when I was pretty young, but that was kind of the activity that I got to do if I did everything else well.
Mark: And there was a ski area somewhere near your home, huh?
Jimmy: Yes, there was a little teeny ski area right behind my house that was called Mount Kato which is basically where the cornfields dropped off into a river valley. And that was the hill.
Mark: (laughing) Interesting. Okay. That reminds me of my upstate New York ski experience. We’d go every weekend to this place called “Snow Ridge” and it was just… they had 2 chair lifts some t-bars… and it was like 20 minutes up and 30 seconds down all day long.
Jimmy: Yeah. It’s not even a hill. My place wasn’t even a hill. It’s more like… it’s where the ground dropped into the river valley. (laughing)
Mark: (laughing) But that’s where you learned how to ski. That’s really cool.
So it sounds to me like your parents because of their culture and the arts and the martial arts, they really had a strong… kind of paradigm of refining your character. They understood the value of the movement and the cultivation of the mind that the arts provide. I think that’s really interesting. Cause you can see that playing out in the way you operate today.
Jimmy: Yeah. I think that it had a big influence. Especially now that I’m a parent, and I can see kind of how your kids are malleable. You know from your life experiences what has been really valuable lessons. And you know, I think that we live in a time where life can be really easy, and you can go through life without ever experiencing any true hardships in the sense of having to struggle. And so having these kind of activities where, you know, they’re tough. And they require endurance. And they require pushing yourself, you know?
Mark: Did you push back against any of that or resist it or did you actually enjoy it all?
Jimmy: I think I embraced the physical aspects of it because I enjoyed it. I think I had a lot of energy to burn, and I wasn’t burning it. I don’t know where I would have put it. So obviously in retrospect I think it was a really good idea to get me engaged. But what I really found that’s been important in my life is… you know, especially in the martial arts it was like the perfection of movement and the discipline and the training and, you know, oftentimes there were things that, you know, were difficult kicks or moves that you didn’t think you’d be able to do and you realize that through training and through practice you could do these things that you never thought was possible.
I think it’s the same with swimming. It’s just like, when you first start out, like the distances I could swim by the time I was 12 were inconceivable when I started. Also just getting into that flow, you know? Just knowing your body and like having that body awareness. Knowing how far you can push your body. Those are things that I’ve carried through the rest of my life, for sure.
Parenting and the martial arts[14:07]
Mark: So clearly, though, you had a strong physical aptitude and intelligence. And so that these things that your mom and your dad got you into were natural… or seemed like they were natural. And you didn’t resist it.
And let me tell you a little story I’ve shared before. My son Devon, who’s an incredible kid. And I had similar ideas. Like I wanted him to be a martial artist, and I was going to train with him. And we got into Kenpo karate and we were on our way, you know, to our black belts. And I also got him into Crossfit and all these things that I thought, “Hey, I experienced these. They’re great for discipline. They’ll be part of his whole repertoire as he grows up.”
But one day, I took him to the dojo, and now we were testing from green to brown belt. And this required us to get out and on the mat and spar. Not together, but just spar.
And of course I was comfortable. I had several black belts at that time and sparring was a blast for me. But I couldn’t get him out of the car, right? He just had no interest in getting out of the car and going and clashing with another human being. And that was a real lesson for me as a parent. I was like, “Holy cow. Even though this could be really valuable for him, he has no interest in it, so therefore he’s just not going to do it. And if I force him to do it, then that’s going to create other challenges.”
I don’t know, it just seems to me that when there’s a resonance in the type of lessons and activities that your parents bring to you, and you actually uptake them and learn to enjoy them, that provides a lot of, you know, opportunities for real synchronious growth I think. Like you were in harmony with your parent’s needs. They were providing, you know, a framework for some real development. As you know, arts and martial arts, that development is happening at many, many levels.
Jimmy: Sure. Well, I… maybe I should go with your story and mine, I do have to say that, like, there was a point… I pushed really, really hard. And then there was point at which… and this is something that has kind of followed me around in life as well. But there was a point at which I thought, “Okay. You know what? I feel like I’ve gotten what I need out of this. And then the switch would flip, and you know, with martial arts I stopped competing when I was probably 17… 16 or 17… I went to state. Swimming after high school… I was over it. I was done. The violin I essentially stopped playing after high school, and I picked up the guitar. I started playing the guitar. But in college, you know, I really went to the things that I loved, which was skiing. And which I still can’t get enough of. And I really went into climbing… threw myself at climbing.
So in a way, it wasn’t so much rebelling but I did get to the point where it was like, “Okay, you know what? This doesn’t interest me anymore. I learned what I wanted to learn, and now I’m gonna take that stuff and I’m going to apply it somewhere else.”
Mark: So in a way, maybe my son just got that lesson a little earlier. He was like, “Okay, dad. It’s time for me to take care of my needs instead of yours.”
Jimmy: (laughing) Well, I’ve been told that before as well. Like… and I’m aware of it, so when I’m sharing things with my daughter and my son… who’s only 1. I haven’t gotten him training yet. But my daughter I’ve taken her skiing. And I’ve taken her to do a few different things. And I’ve been very conscious about… less about pushing them, than to showing her these different things.
Mark: Yeah. Exposing her, and yeah…
Jimmy: Yeah. And if she has a natural inclination towards it then great.
Mark: Yeah, there is a dynamic balance between kind of leading your children into things that are healthy, and pushing or forcing them. I think my parents and your parent’s generation was. “Hey, you’re going to do this. Period.” And so we kind of lined up and saluted and went with it. But our kids these days aren’t that way.
Well, this isn’t a podcast about parenting. I just think it’s fascinating because the older I get and the more work I do on Unbeatable Mind, the more I realize that literally the first 10 to 15 years of our life seem to define the next 80 or so. And so I can start to see some of your… like when you’re on the rock face on Everest, or skiing off of Everest… that part of you is that little kid who’s in that flow state in his first martial arts experience, because that was foundational to everything else that came, you know?
Jimmy: Absolutely. I agree.
Rock Climbing Dirt bag[19:18]
Mark: That’s really cool. So let’s kind of shift focus. Let’s talk about how you got… you told this really cool story about being… I forget the word you used, but it cracked me up. One of the broken, destitute climbers living on the floor of Yosemite.
Jimmy: That was “dirt bag.”
Mark: (laughing) Yeah, you’re a “dirt bag.” Which you used in kind of loving, endearing way, which was awesome. So how did you go from being this college guy and your parents having, you know, hope that you would come back and be a doctor, I think is what you said. And all of a sudden, next thing you know, you’re a “dirt bag.”
Jimmy: Yeah, well, I mean, this is my classic logic and I told my parents after I finished school–and I studied international relations at Carleton College–and the way they had laid out my life for me is you know, “You have 3 or 4 choices. You can be a doctor, you can be a lawyer. You can be a business person. Or professor.” You know. And as I started to find that that wasn’t necessarily true and I found these passions that I was like deeply committed to, I explained to my parents after 4 years in college, “Hey look, I’m going to take a year off and I’m gonna climb and ski full-time just to get it out of my system.” which they were obviously very skeptical about. And I essentially moved to Yosemite, California and started rock climbing. And if you’re a rock climber and you wanna go anywhere as a real climber, you need to spend time in “the Valley,” as we call it. Kinda like if you’re a surfer, you need to spend time on the north shore and surf pipeline. That’s where you gain credibility, your experience and cut your teeth. So I lived as a typical, what we call “dirt bag” climbing bum. And in Yosemite and in the climbing world at the time, “dirt bag” was a compliment. In fact, you wanted to be more “dirt bag” than the next person, because that showed that you were more committed than they were to being a really hardcore climber.
Mark: And what were some of the qualities of the best dirt bags?
Jimmy: Well, I mean, you’re living on nothing, right? So I lived in the back of my car. And you essentially hid from the rangers, because you weren’t allowed to live in Yosemite for longer than 2 weeks, so you found all these different ways to, like, hide from the rangers. You’d sleep in the caves. You’d run off into the woods and just throw your sleeping bag down behind a boulder. We used to sit at the cafeteria and wait for people to finish their meals and before they would take their pizza and throw it in the trash, you’d intercept them on the way there and be like, “So, are you gonna finish that?”
Mark: (laughing) That’s awesome.
Jimmy: I mean, essentially it goes in line with… in a way of being a climber and being in the mountains. You essentially have to be very, very resourceful and use anything that you have on hand. On not take anything for granted or waste anything.
Mark: And not be distracted by material things and worldly things.
Jimmy: No. And that’s the funny thing about climbing is you don’t climb to become rich.
Mark: (laughing) Obviously. There’s not a pot of gold on the top of the mountain.
Jimmy: No, no. And it’s not like you really climb to become famous, either. It’s a very niche, fringe sport. Although it’s become much more mainstream now. And sure there are a lot of sponsored climbers, and I’ve made a living out of it.
But that’s certainly not why you go into it. I mean, it’s not like the glory of spooning with your climbing partner on a cold ledge in the middle of a face…
Mark: Yeah, it’s not very glamorous, is it?
Jimmy: No, it’s not that glamorous. But you do it for the love of the adventure, the camaraderie. And the experiences. Where you really get to test and see what you’re made of.
“Type 2 fun”
Mark: You know, on that point, in the SEAL teams I remember… some of my fondest memories were the most miserable. You know, on that beach in an unnamed country for days on end, freezing my ass off. You know, like you said, spooning with my teammates and wondering what the H I am doing there. I can’t wait to get out of this job.
And then as soon as I’m on a submarine and I’m drinking a warm cup of Navy coffee and I got a blanket around me, its like, “That was freakin’ amazing.” Is it like that with climbing where it’s awesome when it’s done?
Jimmy: Soon as possible. We call it “type 2 fun.” It’s fun when it’s over. And you just can’t wait to get back for more.
Because I think it’s, I think certain people… we’re probably cut from the same cloth in the sense that you want experiences where everything is stripped away and having the rawest experience you can have as a human being, you know.
Mark: In a way, our society has gotten so soft and so easy like you alluded to before that some of us are kind of forced to seek out those experiences so that we feel alive. And I think that’s why SEALFIT and Spartan and all these companies are starting to be successful is because people are like, “Man, I feel kind of flat-lined.” I know this wasn’t your experience. You had a real passion by this… it probably speaks to the growth of extreme sports in general.
Jimmy: No, I absolutely agree. And I mean, I’ve worked with a lot of the top athletes in the States, whether it’s the top snowboarders or skiers or climbers. And there’s a very similar thread that runs through a lot of these people. There’s the drive, there’s the ambition, there’s the need for that experience. There’s also seekers. You know, they’re looking to find meaning and purpose and a lot of people–myself included– don’t really find that unless you’re out on the edge. And that to me is really important in my life and has taught me my most important lessons.
Mark: Yeah, I get that. And boy, out on the edge you were. You know, I wanna talk about your 1st and 2nd trip up Everest and then Meru, but just to cap this idea, there is kind of a danger for people going too quickly into some of these extreme arenas. And I’m reminded of the wing suit jumping kind of craze. We have a fellow… I’m good friends with Andy Stumpf, who’s a Navy SEAL who briefly held the distance record. I think he flew like 17 miles in a wing suit. And of course, someone had to break that record like a month later.
And then someone at my office at SEALFIT has really gotten into wing suiting. So he’s got a couple hundred jumps. He was telling me that over… not last month, but the month before–over 30 people died doing that sport. Wow. Cause they didn’t do what you did. They didn’t have the dirt times, the dirt bag… in the SEAL teams, you weren’t considered a jumper until you had at least a thousand jumps under your belt. I mean, you were a novice.
So, I guess that’s a little warning… (laughing) there’s really nowhere to go with that except to say, “Be careful.” If you’re interested in going out and climbing Everest, do the work. Do the dirt time. Be very careful, or hire someone very good
Jimmy: No, I think there’s a lot of space where you’re going with that, because I think it comes down to the classic dilemma of you need to make mistakes to gain experience. But…
Mark: But those mistakes could be deadly.
Jimmy: Yeah. But really it’s managing risks and how do you do that? And how do you do that without having a lot of experience? I think it’s what you said, I mean, it’s a lot of working on the foundations and the building blocks and paying your dues. I think a lot of… I feel like life is really accelerated these days. I feel like people really expect or feel entitled to take really big leaps and bounds in terms of improvement. When at the end of the day, you can’t really do that. You can kind of have some certain life-hacks, but at the end of the day it’s paying your dues, it’s doing the work…
Everest 1st attempt[30:23]
Mark: Patient, plodding, planning. Let’s talk about your first attempt up the north face of Everest. You know, this theme of it’s probably equal parts skill and equal parts planning, right? And so there’s skill in planning, of course, but like that foundational work of just preparing for the trip so you have the right gear, you’ve studied your route religiously. Your teaming is, like, fantastic. All that which requires thousands of hours off the mountain.
And then you have the performance of “here we go.” 3-2-1 go. And you put up your first pitch, and days later you’re standing on the summit or not.
Tell us about both sides of that experience for your first attempt at Everest which I understand was unsuccessful from the story. That was the trip with Stephen Cook? Or Koch?
Jimmy: Yeah, Stephen Koch. Yeah. I mean I would say that that was probably one of the most formative expeditions. I mean, I’ve had a few formative expeditions. I was 28. Stephen and I were talking about climbing the direct north face on Everest, which is not a climb that very many people do. I think only one team has done it successfully. And we modeled our climbing after them. They were 2 Swiss climbers. But the face starts at 20,000 feet and is a 9,000 foot face that tops out at 29,000 feet. And basically the line bisects the north face. And we wanted to climb it and ski and he was going to snowboard down it. It was in my mind the biggest, most outrageous objective one could possibly think of. So at 28 that seemed like a really good idea.
But we also wanted to do it in alpine style. And for people who aren’t indoctrinated in alpine climbing or mountain climbing–style counts. Like how you do it, counts. And alpine style is…
Mark: In the industry you mean. It counts to various other people who are watching.
Jimmy: Sure. Yeah.
Mark: And to yourself, I guess.
Jimmy: Yeah. To yourself. It’s the purest form, because you are attempting to climb it with no fixed ropes, like, not putting fixed ropes before you try to climb it. Or have other people put fixed ropes up for you. Doing it without supplemental oxygen. We’re not putting any fixed camps in. We basically start from the ground, and you go up. And you turn around if you can’t make it, but the commitment level for alpine climbing is by far the highest. That’s the purest form, the most committing type of climbing.
It’s also the lightest, leanest form. So that’s why we call it alpine style. I often use that term and apply to other things when I’m talking to my climbing friends. “Let’s do this alpine style. Let’s do this light and fast, and surgical.” And so I trained my ass off for it. I mean, I essentially spent the year climbing in the Tetons. When I first moved to Jackson, Wyoming, climbing the Grand Teton was a big deal. Skiing it was even a bigger deal. Not a lot of skied the Grand, and when I was training for Everest I was climbing and skiing the Grand 3 times a week.
And I did a lot of…
Mark: So, can I stop? Just so people who are listening can get a sense of this, you are literally hauling your skis up to the top of a near vertical slope, strapping them on, and then dropping into that never-before skied terrain. And just zooming to the bottom. Hoping to survive. I’m sure it’s a little bit more than that, but… that’s incredible.
Jimmy: Yes. Ski mountaineering is essentially climbing with your skis on your back. With all your climbing equipment. And then when you get to the top, you put your skis on and you ski down. And so the Grand Teton…
Mark: And you bring all your climbing gear down with you, obviously in your backpack, right?
Jimmy: Yes. Yes. You’re carrying all your ropes and your climbing gear in your pack as you ski down.
Mark: The risk of avalanche or the route just ending in this massive rock pile. I mean, what are some of the major risks in doing that?
Mark: I mean, most of us are used to skiing on a groomed slope. Even if it’s a double black diamond, you know it’s skiable at least for the most part.
Jimmy: Yeah. That’s why one of the kind of maxims is to… or one of the approaches is to climb what you ski. So you know what kind of snow conditions you’re in, you know what the route feels like, and then you can make all those assessments on the way up.
Mark: That makes sense. So you’re not climbing up one side and skiing down the other. You’re trying to assess the exact route down while you’re heading up.
Jimmy: Yes. Sometimes you do climb up a different way and ski down a different way, but for these bigger kind of objectives… in an ideal situation, yes, you climb what you ski.
And that’s not always the case. You can kind of bypass that if you know the terrain really well. You’ve been there before, or it’s, you know, somewhere that you’re familiar with. But sometimes that even backfires when you’re familiar with the terrain.
So it’s ideal to climb what you ski if you’re ski mountaineering.
I think other major hazards are usually avalanches, temperature–like if it’s a warm day and you’re climbing up in the mountains, and it gets too warm. Let’s say there are rocks and ice that are kind of held into place by ice, and the ice melts, then you get a lot of rock fall during the mid-day. So oftentimes you have to turn around, let’s say because your fitness level wasn’t good enough. You weren’t moving fast enough because you were supposed to get to a spot by a certain part of the day to avoid getting hit by rock fall. And you realize, “Okay, it’s way too late in the day. It’s a lot warmer than we thought it was going to be. This area that we’re about to enter has a lot of rock fall potential, so now we can’t go. We need to turn around.”
So those are the types of decisions that we have to make. And oftentimes they’re based on your preparation and your fitness. Let’s say your gear isn’t organized the right way. And it takes you a few minutes longer every time you try to eat something because you’ve packed it wrong. And you need to stop 10 times over the course of a day–that’s an hour of time wasted, and if your weather window was for that hour, you’ve missed it.
Mark: That sounds so much like a SEAL op. That’s amazing.
So what happened on Everest when you did that attempt?
Jimmy: So we made 2 attempts. On the 1st attempt, there was a serik fall which is essentially a fall from a nearby peak that released and basically almost took us out. This thing fell probably almost close to a mile. Over. And we got kind of blown away by the air blast, but fortunately not by the actual ice.
Then we went back on another day, got partway up the face. Started at midnight, it was a full moon. Started up the face, and then just the snow was a little too deep and we weren’t moving as fast as we should have been. And we needed to get above a certain area to be safe from this avalanche slope, and we couldn’t make it. And we had to turn around. And that was that.
We spent 2 months there. And when we went it was the monsoon season because we needed there to be a lot of snow. So we were literally the only people on the mountain, which is a pretty cool experience to have on Everest.
Mark: I bet.
Mark: Now you went back again and conquered the mountain and skied off the top. Now did you go on a different route or was that also the north face?
Jimmy: No, so I went the… I’d attempted the north face in 2002. I went back in 2004 on the southeast ridge to work on a film project, and obviously I was looking at it like a skier, so the whole time I was climbing up, I was thinking, “Well, is this skiable? Is this section skiable?” And I summited in 2004, and I thought, “Well, you know, this all looks skiable except for the Hillary step which we can rappel.” And a couple years later a friend of mine Kit DesLauriers and her husband Rob asked me about going back and what I thought about skiing it.
Kit was a 2 time women’s free skiing world champion. She’s an extremely accomplished skier and ski mountaineer. And Rob was one of the first extreme skiers sponsored by the North Face, so he was legendary. So it was a really strong team, and we went back in 2006 and were able to climb it in the post-monsoon… again we were the only team on the mountain. And just spent 2 months there, and were able to get a little weather window in mid-October. Summited October 18th and were able to ski right from the very summit. The very top of the summit.
Mark: Yeah. I mean, I saw that picture. The picture was the same as anyone else who summits. There’s the flag, and there’s that really skinny ridgeline. And so you skied from there, down that ridgeline. I think you mentioned that one side you would have fallen 9000 feet into Tibet, the other side 6000 feet into China. Or the other way around.
Jimmy: Yeah, into Nepal and the Western Cwm (Coom) it was a razorback ridge.
Mark: That’s intense. You corrected me when I actually said you would have fallen, but you said you would have skied into those countries had you gone over the ridge.
Jimmy: Well, no, you could fall off either side. (laughing)
Mark: (laughing) You could, okay.
Jimmy: You are correct.
Mark: What did that feel like? So…
Jimmy: Very exposed.
Mark: Let’s turn this to Unbeatable Mind. What is going on in your mind? Go back to that moment. You’re standing on the ridge. You’ve gotta be doing some deep breathing and centering and using all of your life-skills just to completely clear any mental thoughts or any emotional thoughts and then… what do you say to yourself? What does that feel like? How do you click into flow?
Jimmy: I think the way that I clicked into the flow was through the preparation. Eventually the amount of training that Rob and Kit and I had done–especially after my experience in 2002 and 2004–I knew what it would take. Because the difference between climbing Everest and skiing Everest is that when you get to the top of Everest and you’re planning to ski it, you have to at that point, put on your A game. You can’t be exhausted by the time you get to the top.
And so I knew that. I knew that we had to be 100% when we got to the top. And we needed to feel really comfortable with the exposure that we were going to be experiencing. So that when we were there, we had some margins. Like cause a lot of things can go wrong in the mountains, and they usually happen very quickly, so you need enough of a margin to not only know that you can ski it and feel 100%. But also have the margins to deal with something going wrong. You can’t be so close to the edge that, like, nothing can go wrong. Or you would perish.
You have to have the sensibility, the confidence that even if something goes wrong you have some space to deal with it. And I think that’s basically how it went down is like, we were so in shape, and we had all of our systems so dialed. And we had planned and pre-planned and visualized what we were going to do so many times that by the time we got up to the top we were like, “Okay, we’re totally ready. We’re 100% confident.”
Mark: So you get to the top. How long did you spend on the top? You know, messing with your gear, and getting ready for the descent. Like, 20 minutes?
Jimmy: Probably half an hour or so. I was filming and shooting stills. I was actually on assignment so one of the great moments was I shot everybody getting ready and skiing off. And then I had the summit to myself for about 10 minutes and I remember standing there with my skis on. I was standing there with my skis sticking out over the slope.
Mark: And you’re alone at the top of the world…
Jimmy: Yeah. And really taking a breath and trying to be present and thinking, “Okay, this is a really special moment. You should let it settle in and imprint itself in your mind, because, you know… this is special.”
Mark: So you each went off, kind of like, individually. So it wasn’t like “Point Break,” where you’re like “Whoo Hoo!” High five and three people ski off the mountain simultaneously. You each went independently down the ridge and…
Jimmy: Yes, because we knew that we were only going to get to ski to the Hillary Step before we had to rope up and rappel for that section. And then get across the south ridge to the south summit. And then you have to take your skis off, climb up like 50 feet, and then back down the other side.
We also knew that the most actually technical and dangerous part of the route was the Lhotse face which is below the camp 4. And we did… we spent the night at camp 4 and the next morning we got up and once you roll over that edge into the Lhotse face, you’re committed because there’s not really an opportunity to climb back out. You can’t… you wouldn’t have the energy.
Mark: How far was that pitch?
Jimmy: So that face starts at 26,000 feet and goes to about 21,000 feet. So it’s a 5,000 feet vertical face. But it’s 5,000 vertical but it’s about 50 degrees average slope. Which is… in terms of skiing, if it’s a 50 degree slope and you’re standing on edge, you can almost put your elbow against the face.
Mark: Wow. What’s the steepest you’ve gone down?
Jimmy: I mean, anything much beyond 55 degrees is too steep to even hold snow. So that’s about as steep as you can ski. 55, 60 degrees.
Mark: When you’re skiing… when you’re down. You got your line and you drop in. Do you have a mantra? Or anything that’s going through your mind? Or is it just purely, you know, instinctual? Placement of the skis, and poles and whatever you’re doing?
Jimmy: On Everest a lot of it was timed with your breathing. Just because you’re out of breath. But I try to stay very focused on the task at hand. You know, you don’t want to get in the back seat, cause the one way you could really fall is if you lose your edge and you fall backwards.
So you’re very focused on staying balanced and present. I mean, you don’t want to over think it, cause that can throw you for sure. Which is why–and I’m sure you’re very familiar with this–is it has to become kind of second nature. You have to spend time in that kind of exposure, where the stakes are that high often enough that you are comfortable with it, but don’t become complacent.
Mark: That’s awesome. So we only have a few minutes left, but let’s talk about “Meru.” The documentary was fantastic, but just the act of climbing up that unbelievable feature and filming your ascent was also pretty awe inspiring. So let’s talk about that, and then kind of wrap this up and talk about what’s next for you.
Jimmy: Sure. Well Meru is a peak in northern India in the Garhwal Himalayas and I think it was considered by a lot of the core climbing community to be one of the hardest objectives in the Himalaya. Based on the fact that every attempt had ended in failure, and there had been probably 25 expeditions there over the course of 25, 30 years. And really the reason it is really hard is because it requires every style of climbing. So rock climbing, ice climbing, mixed climbing, aid climbing. I won’t get into the details of what all those mean. But essentially every form of climbing you had to be able to do at a very high level. And there were just attributes to it that made it really challenging.
It’s very, very cold, and so my mentor, Conrad Anker… it was his life objective to climb this route because his mentor, Mugs Stump, it was also his mentor’s kind of objective. So there was kind of this legacy around climbing this mountain.
Essentially we made 2 attempts, and the 1st one was a spectacular failure. And we barely got off the mountain. But again, it was a lot like my Everest experience. I learned a lot from that trip. It really helped us prepare mentally. In terms of our gear. In terms of how we were going to approach things. How we could have done things faster, better, etc.
Mark: And also respect for the mountain, I imagine. You truly got to experience her awesomeness up close and personal.
Jimmy: Yeah. The full brunt of like Himalayan alpine granite and it’s gonna be, you know… It’s a very delicate balance of drive and ambition and also patience and acceptance that I find very applicable to life. But you know, life isn’t fair sometimes and there’s such a thing as being unlucky as well. And there’s a lot of forces out there that are beyond your control. So it’s a delicate balance and for me, climbing is one part of what I’m passionate about. But also filming and documenting the stories and being able to share what we do out there is important to me. Hopefully inspiring.
Mark: Well, I think that that’s… for sure. And that’s 1 of the things that’s really cool. There’s no other way that another film-maker could do that, because you’ve gotta be on the face. Right? Some of the imagery just can’t be captured unless you’re out on that face doing the work. That’s the extraordinary thing about it, you know?
Jimmy: Yeah. It really was a culmination of all my experience as a climber and as a film-maker and photographer. I had to take everything that I knew and put it to use there. Which was agonizing. I have a love/hate relationship with that responsibility…
Mark: I bet. Do you feel like it put you at more risk to be carrying the extra gear, and to be having to think about filming? When every bone in your body needs to be thinking about safety and about the rocks and etc?
Jimmy: Yeah. I mean, the way you manage it is that the safety and the climbing always comes first. And the shooting and the documenting is really a luxury. But if you want to say… if you really were to examine it objectively and say, “Are you putting yourself at more risk?” Sure. Because anything that you add on top of what is already going on is straining the system. So, you know, to say that everything was under control and that I’m not putting myself at more risk wouldn’t be totally honest. I think if I was really to break it down for you, yeah.
Mark: Well it’s a whole ‘nother level of the skill. So now you’ve mastered climbing and skiing down. Now you’ve gotta master climbing, filming and the next will be to film yourself skiing down. (laughing)
Jimmy: (laughing) Well what I learned is that film-making is a lot like climbing mountains as well. You’ve got to navigate a lot of variables and things that are out of your control. It requires patience and drive, and not giving up.
Mark: I love that. That you’ve made the mountain expedition kind of a metaphor for life as well as for your career that’s just getting started it seems like in terms of your success. I think you’re going to have some amazing success with being a photojournalist and a documentary producer. But each one of those is like an expedition, so you put the same, like you said, patience and planning and repetition and intensity of focus into it, then success is there in spite of the failures, in spite of the obstacles.
Jimmy: Sure. Yeah. I totally agree. And I also think that failures are a gift sometimes, so that’s how you learn.
Mark: Absolutely. All right. Jimmy, thank you so much for your time. This has been amazing. I know you’re going to be working hard on your next film, but folks can find “Meru” where? Is it on Amazon? Or how do they find this documentary which I encourage everyone to watch.
Jimmy: Yeah, “Meru” is on iTunes and Amazon and, you know, I deeply appreciate anybody taking the time to watch it. It was one of the most meaningful projects I’ve ever worked on, and I hope that people enjoy.
Mark: yeah, I know they will. It’s just an incredible production. And the imagery and the storyline is fantastic. And I can’t wait to see the next creation. And so good luck with everything and stay in touch. Let us know how we can help you and support you. And I look forward to seeing you in person again.
Jimmy: Sure. Yeah. Look forward to hanging out, Mark. Thanks again.
Mark: Yeah, thanks Jimmy. You take care. Hooyah.
Jimmy: All right folks. That was Jimmy. And until next time, you know, train hard. Do the work up front. Put the planning in. And if you’re an extreme athlete, you know, make sure you have a level of mastery before you really push the envelope.