VAIL — Imagine executing a flawless Olympic-level gymnastics routine, says world-renowned photographer, director and mountaineer Jimmy Chin.
“It has to be executed absolutely perfectly for four hours. And if you make even the slightest mistake — if your hips are 1 centimeter off on some of these moves where you are weighting your feet in a hyper-specific manner on a dime-edge hold — you are dead,” Chin says.
Chin leans closer. He slows his cadence. Widens his eyes.
“A perfect 10. For. Four. Hours,” he says.
Climber Alex Honnold’s beyond-audacious free solo — that means ropeless, with no safety equipment whatsoever — ascent of El Capitan’s 3,000-foot “Freerider” in a mere four hours earlier this month stunned everyone. The vast non-climbing world gulped and wiped sweaty palms just watching Chin’s brief video clip, sponsored by National Geographic. But the climbing world — the people who know — reacted breathlessly, calling it the greatest achievement in the history of climbing.
Chin, who visited the GoPro Mountain Games in Vail earlier this month as part of his brand partnership with Swiss watchmaker Tudor, one of the games’ sponsors, took it one step further.
“I think it’s one of the greatest athletic human feats of our time, for sure,” he says.
He would know. Chin has worked with 31-year-old Honnold for the last decade, silently dangling adjacent to the forcefully focused climber, documenting solo climbing feats that defy comprehension. For laypeople and climbers alike, it’s difficult to fathom the fearless feats of Honnold, whose doe eyes, casual mien and notable ears don’t really invoke his crown as the world’s greatest rock athlete. It’s like he’s an alien.
“Took the word right out of my mouth. That’s why we call him Spock,” says 43-year-old Chin. “His intention, his thought processes, his methodology, his discipline, his passion and love for climbing, how in-tune he is with who he is and why he does things. He studies himself very carefully, not in an obsessive like neurotic way. He has a very clear line of sight into what he’s doing and why he’s doing it and how he’s doing it.”
Chin’s photos and videos of his friend induce blurry-eyed vertigo that wobbles seated, cubicled web surfers. There’s Honnold, breathing deeply, hanging by his fingertips a half-mile above the valley floor. A regular person thinks about the consequences of mistakes. Honnold, Chin says, envisions only success. It was the same for Chin.
“I didn’t think it was an option,” he says of possibly capturing the worst 10 seconds of his friend’s life. “I never pondered that. I pretty much just saw success.”
When cameras enter life-and-death scenarios, the scrutiny of motivation must increase. Is the athlete pushing for the camera? Is the cameraman enabling the athlete to push beyond capabilities? Is either player weighing the expectations of sponsors who are paying the bills?
“The fact it was filmed it one of the most interesting aspects for me. What does that mean? How does that impact the process?” says Tommy Caldwell, the climbing hero from Estes Park who worked with Honnold for several months on the “Freerider” route, rehearsing every move.
But Caldwell, a father of two, left the Yosemite Valley before the big event.
“I knew he would do it whether I helped him or not,” said Caldwell, who climbs regularly with Honnold on major-league projects like the duo’s first-ever traverse of the Fitz Roy massif in Patagonia in 2014. “If I can help up his chances, I feel obligated to do that. But I didn’t want to see it. I did not want to watch my friend play Russian roulette.”
Humans are imperfect. We make mistakes. Even the very best of us. There’s an adage in climbing: There are old climbers. There are bold climbers. There are few old, bold climbers. The same goes for free solo climbers. Not many live to old age. They don’t learn from their mistakes. No-strings-attached pioneers like Derek Hersey and John Bachar are no longer around. Honnold long ago pushed past their once-implausible benchmarks.
Timmy O’Neill, climbing’s visionary raconteur from Boulder, has notched some of the world’s most difficult free solos, including The Diamond on Long’s Peak and Yosemite’s Steck Salathe, the demanding route where free-soloing icon Derek Hersey died in 1993.
Nothing compares to Honnold’s ascent of “Freerider,” he says.
“What Alex did is such a new chapter,” O’Neill says. “It’s a new identity for what climbing is and can become.”
And it should inspire everyone, not just climbers.
“This is all going to end and you may not be able to tell how it’s going to end, but you can decide how you are going to live,” O’Neill says. “Alex’s bold, calculated accomplishments don’t scare me or make me fearful. I see what he accomplished and I’m inspired to find my edge and chase an improbable goal.”
O’Neill once watched a climbing partner fall to his death. Very few days go by where the scene doesn’t replay in his head.
“It absolutely influences my life,” he says. “It’s so strange to have someone’s end be a continual beginning for me.”
Jimmy Chin, Special to The Denver Post
Conrad Anker climbing the Pacific Ocean Wall on El Capitain Oct. 7, 2007 in Yosemite National Park, Calif.
In 2011, Chin was swept away in a massive avalanche in the Tetons, buried among snapped trees in a slide that scoured several thousand feet of mountainside. He remembers clarity as he dug himself out, miraculously unscathed.
He posted an essay on his blog about the experience about the alignment of purpose his found as he crawled from the debris: “I know life will I pull me apart in different directions. I know I will get distracted and I will try to remember the clarity….to live fully, to act for the right reasons, for the right people, to let go of other people’s expectations, to live with intention, that time is short, our life is a gift, use it wisely,” he wrote. “But I know it will not last. Nothing this clear could last. Can I keep it close to my heart? Will it stay? Remember….Remember…..Remember.”
Chin’s career has exploded in recent years. His 2015 documentary “Meru” put him on the other side of the camera as he documented an obsession with the Himalayan peak Meru that prodded him, Conrad Anker and Boulder’s Renan Ozturk to overcome daunting personal obstacles to attempt a nearly impossible route up the 21,000-foot peak. That was heavy, Chin says, but filming Honnold was “the heaviest.”
Chin seems to still be embracing the clarity that followed his brush with death. He says he was very calculated in his approach to this project and spent a lot of time studying his own motivations.
“It had to be for the right reasons,” he says. He was certain he was working with the right person.
He and his crew didn’t speak to Honnold during the ascent. He didn’t offer any assistance. Chin wasn’t there for support. He was there to “preserve this experience.”
“I’m there to document and I’m not there to influence things one way or another,” says Chin, who spent close to 18 months with Honnold during the planning and preparation for “Freerider” for an upcoming National Geographic movie on the ascent, tentatively titled “Solo.”
“He’s almost not capable of making a bad decision because of some sort of external pressure. He’s all heart. He doesn’t even know how to function outside of that,” Chin said. “If I didn’t trust him to be able to function the way I’ve seen him function in the last 10 years, I would not have taken on the project. But I was intimately involved and witness to his process and it was brilliant.”