LOS ANGELES – Mountaineer and photographer Jimmy Chin put himself on Hollywood’s radar when he won the Best Documentary Feature Oscar for his heart-stopping film Free Solo (2018), which tracked climber Alex Honnold’s rope-free ascent up El Capitan, a 2,300m vertical rock face in California.
And after shadowing more extreme adventurers for his new series Edge Of The Unknown With Jimmy Chin, the Chinese-American director feels the way these elite athletes tackle challenges and fears holds lessons for non-daredevils as well.
In the show – which airs on National Geographic (Singtel TV Channel 201 and StarHub TV Channel 411) on Mondays at 10pm, and will stream on Disney+ on Oct 5 – Chin, 48, follows a handful of them as they relive their toughest moments.
There is legendary climber Conrad Anker, who had a heart attack on a peak in the Himalayas; big-mountain skier Angel Collinson, who lost control of her skis while flying down a 300m slope in Alaska; and Chin himself, whose encounter with an avalanche in Wyoming nearly killed him.
Chatting to The Straits Times over Zoom, the film-maker – who produced Edge Of The Unknown with wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, his 43-year-old co-director on Free Solo – says what sets these athletes apart is “they see opportunity in challenges”.
“And they are all seeking something bigger and transcendent in life, and have very high expectations of what life can be,” says Chin, who with Vasarhelyi directed The Rescue (2021), an acclaimed documentary about the mission to save the young Thai footballers stranded in the Tham Luang cave in 2018.
But Edge Of The Unknown shows these daredevils have to conquer fear and self-doubt too, and he believes the way they do so offers takeaways that are “transferable to every realm of life”.
“The idea of not settling for the status quo and not being defined by what’s been done before – that’s the mentality of the entrepreneur,” notes Chin, who gives talks to companies on this very subject.
From the comfort and safety of their couches, viewers may think this is not relevant to them, but Chin disagrees.
“It’s easy to think, ‘Oh, they’re not like me; I could never do that.’
“But we did the series to show they are human like the rest of us. At the end of the day, they’re still making hard decisions about things, what sacrifices or risks to take on. And they worry about coming home at night and being able to take care of their families.”
Another key insight is how these athletes face their fears.
“It’s like, ‘I know I’m going to feel fear, but I’m going to have to manage that fear.’ And the possibility of having this success or this transcendent experience through challenge outweighs the fear of trying.”
Asked if this mindset is more nature than nurture, Chin says he often wonders that himself, especially when looking at daughter Marina, eight, and son James, six.
Last year, he proudly shared images of Marina at age seven summiting Wyoming’s 4,200m-high Grand Teton with him and Anker, 59, after begging to do so all summer.
Chin and Vasarhelyi actively nurture a sense of adventure in their children, but Chin admits he only recently realised the impact of how they spent their girl’s formative years.
“She grew up in Yosemite (Valley, California) while we were making Free Solo. Then, when she was five, she watched it about 50 times because we were at screenings and events for it all the time.
“And I don’t know why it took me a while to think about this, but maybe when you show a five-year-old Free Solo 50 times in a row, it might do something to her brain,” he says, chuckling.
Yet, Chin’s own parents – who migrated from China to Taiwan and eventually the United States in the 1960s, and worked there as university librarians – certainly did not nurture his daredevil streak.
“They were absolutely horrified and didn’t know what to do with me when I decided I was going to be a climber,” he says.
“And I didn’t convince them till much, much later in my career – when I started shooting for National Geographic – that I was on the right path.”
Edge Of The Unknown With Jimmy Chin airs on National Geographic (Singtel TV Channel 201 and StarHub TV Channel 411) on Mondays at 10pm, and will stream on Disney+ on Oct 5.