Jimmy Chin on Making a Climbing Film that Speaks to Family, Friendship, Perseverance
Adventure movie fans fortunate enough to attend 5Point or Mountainfilm festivals in 2012 got a sneak peek of an amazing film project in progress. House of Cards from Camp 4 Productions details the three-year journey of climbers Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, and Conrad Anker as they make an epic first ascent of the Shark’s Fin on the 20,700-foot (6,309-meter) Meru Massif in the Garhwal Himalaya of India. With footage from two expeditions—and life at home in between—the film intimately depicts the many challenges each man faced to turn an unsuccessful first attempt into a triumphant conquest over one of the few remaining unclimbed 6,000-meter peaks. James Mills of the Joy Trip Project spoke to Jimmy Chin about the most challenging mountain of his life and making the film.
Struggling against the demands of home and family, the climbers rally to overcome many obstacles and deliver a story that aims to appeal to a broad audience. Despite a horrific skiing accident that leaves Ozturk with a traumatic brain injury and a cracked vertebra in the lead up to the second climb, the three get it together as a team do what to some might seem impossible. After a screening of the House of Cards rough cut at the Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride, Colorado, filmmaker and climber Jimmy Chin shared a few thoughts.
We just had the opportunity to see a rough cut of your new film House of Cards. Tell us how did you managed to find yourself on Meru Shark’s Fin for the first time in 2008?
Jimmy Chin: I actually had an expedition planned to western China. I had gotten a National Geographic grant to go there to do a climb, and it happened to be during a period of unrest. There were uprisings in western Tibet and also the earthquake. That option was basically shut down. Conrad [Anker], who was part of that trip, said, “You know what? I have a great alternative.”
That sounds intriguing…
J.C.: Yeah, and I had no idea what he was talking about. He said, “Let’s go to the Shark’s Fin.” I really had no idea what it was, what the history was, or the magnitude of the climb. I just figured, “Oh that sounds great!” But I should have known, because the more nonchalant Conrad is about bringing up a climb, the more worried you should be. And he was very nonchalant about it.
You were also there with Renan Ozturk. Was he as clueless about what the Shark’s Fin limb was going to be like?
J.C.: I had no real idea of what was going on. Renan hadn’t even thought about it because he had a big trip to Tibet right beforehand. He just knew that he was going to meet up with us somewhere in the Garhwal Himalaya and climb something. So when he showed up he literally had no idea where we were going. And I think, in some ways, that’s the way Conrad likes it. Just show up and see what happens.
And it wasn’t just any climb. This was a Himalayan peak that had never been successfully climbed before on this very difficult route. Describe for me what this climb is like.
J.C.: The most challenging part about this route is that it requires every form of climbing at a really high level. So ice climbing, steep snow climbing, mixed climbing, rock climbing, and big-wall climbing techniques. The other challenging aspect of it is that it is extremely cold. Because it’s a northeast-facing wall, and it’s basically the buffer of mountains that are right at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. The winds coming off the plateau are extremely cold. And then the final challenge is that logistically it’s stacked in the perfectly wrong order so that all of the heaviest big-wall gear that you need for the climb is required at the top. So you have to drag all that weight through a really complex set of features on the mountain just to get to the real climbing.
So this is a big mountain with all the different kinds of rock climbing required. You didn’t know what to expect. You were there much longer than you wanted to be. What was it like when you came so close to the summit and didn’t actually make it to the top?
J.C.: We planned for eight days of food; and right off the top we got caught in a five-day storm. We were literally stuck on the wall for four days. And that was pretty low on the route, so we spent six days on the route before we had gotten even a quarter of the way up it. But Conrad had told us even before we left that there’s no way to climb this mountain unless you actually sit through storms and then continue climbing. In some ways, we were mentally prepared to do that. But when we pushed to day 16 and 17 and every single day seemed like we would push to our utmost, to the edge of our capacity to climb or to suffer. Every day we thought we would get a break, but instead of getting a break, something else would come up that would just add another layer of difficulty.
So we really had to dig deep on a number of levels just to keep climbing. When we finally got to within a hundred meters of the summit, we were so destroyed. And when we realized that we couldn’t make it because we knew that if we tried to summit, we’d have to spend the night out and we would all get frostbite or potentially die. You come to those realizations, and they’re pretty hard to swallow. But you also don’t really have a choice because you really want to keep your hands and feet. And you don’t want to die. So ultimately the decision really wasn’t that hard. The hardest part about it was living with the decision when you come down, when you were so close and it’s really hard. And despite me saying that I was never going back there you, or I have a hard time leaving unfinished business.
You actually say that in the film: “I’m not coming back.” And three years later…
J.C.: Yeah, I really thought there was no chance that I would ever go back there.
But in 2011 you went back. Why?
J.C.: Well as they often say, the best alpinists have the worst short-term memory.
Over time I though that was one of the greatest adventures of my life. It was one of the most challenging expeditions or climbs I had ever been on. And I loved it, and I wanted to go back. And since we tried it, a few other teams went to try it again and they didn’t get it.
Sometimes when you’ve spent a lot of time away from something, you’re unintentionally formulating how you would have resolved the problems. It’s just human nature to constantly try to solve the problems that you faced before that you didn’t necessarily solve. So after we failed on it, I think all of us, unconsciously or consciously, were solving all these little problems of the climb. Three years later Conrad said, “You know what? We should go back.” We all thought it would be a great opportunity to see if all the solutions we created would actually work.
But there was the added disadvantage of Renan having a devastating skiing accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury and crushed vertebrae. How did that play into your decision to go back?
J.C.: Obviously when Renan first got injured, we were thinking, trip’s done, we’re not going. Conrad and I talked about getting another partner, and it just didn’t feel right. It was our climb and it wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t with Renan. So when Renan starting talking about wanting to go back and he thought he could make it work, we didn’t pressure him. I was resigned to the fact that it’s not that big of a deal if we don’t go back this year. But as he started training and getting stronger and it was getting closer, it was on the edge of being believable. From our perspective as long time expedition climbers, you have a certain understanding and sense of what the body can do that maybe not everybody else accepts or believes in. And within that realm of thinking, in expedition suffering and expedition performance, what we were about to do actually seemed within the realm of possibility.
We didn’t want crush his spirit and say, “No, you can’t go.” We said, “Let’s train. There’s no pressure. If it happens, it happens.” If a week before we leave and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen then we don’t go. And we’re just not going to go without you. But he trained his ass off, and we all kind of prepped like we were going. And he did make a miraculous recovery. The shape that he was in was within the realm of what I thought was a reasonable state to go back on that climb.
There’s a scene in the film, during the climb, when it seemed like he might be having a relapse or having what you thought at the time was a stroke. That night he was not able to talk. How scared were you that this decision might have been a horribly tragic one?
J.C.: Yeah, when things like that happen up in the mountains, you go into a very analytical mode. The first thing that I started thinking about was trying to isolate what the potential problem was and I knew from from his symptoms it didn’t seem like it was cerebral edema or pulmonary edema, which were obviously causes for concern. It was very strange what was happening. I knew that he had to be exhausted, because we were all wasted. We climbed in one day what took on our previous attempt six days. So when he starting going into that state I was really really worried.
But we were also limited in our options because if we tried to break down the camp and come down off the mountain, we would have been in likely far more danger. So we were sitting and I think Conrad stayed up a lot later than I did, just kind of keeping an eye on him. And I admittedly just blacked out. I was so tired. And I fell asleep and thought there’s nothing we can do right now. Conrad was keeping an eye on Renan. I told him to be very vocal if it started getting worse. I thought that rest was probably going to be best thing regardless.
Well apparently, it was because he woke up the next morning psyched to do his lead. How surprised were you when that happened?
J.C.: I was pretty surprised, but I also thought that it was a pretty good sign that he wanted to go lead his pitches. There’s a certain point where your body just doesn’t let you make that kind of decision. And the fact that he was making that decision made me think, Wow! He’s back!
One of the best things about this film is how much we get to know about each of your families. We learn that your sister and her kids live with you. What’s it like having an instant family to be part of your mindset when you’re climbing?
J.C.: It’s been amazing to have my family there because when my sister, my niece, and my nephew moved into the house, it was beautiful. I have this big house that I’m rarely in, and it has space for a family. To be able to come home to the whole family is amazing, and I feel so fortunate to have them there. The other thing is it feels good to do something for my family. It’s satisfying. It gives my work some purpose as well. To be able to support a family feels good for me.
Even though you do a very dangerous job, in the film your sister expressed her concern about you being gone for so long and being in an avalanche yourself not very many days after Renan had his skiing accident. Does having a family at home do anything at all to change how you think about your climbing while you’re on expedition?
J.C.: As I get older, you see enough things go down and you have a better understanding of all the potentials out in the field. I suppose in general I’m becoming more conservative. But I don’t think it makes much of a difference in my decision making because I always plan to come home. That’s what I’m focused on.
The film is done shooting, but you still have a lot of editing to do. What are your long-term goals and aspirations for House of Cards?
J.C.: I think we actually do have a lot more shooting to do, some filler. We might go back to Conrad. The goal for me on the film was to create a climbing film that spoke to family and friendship and perseverance and ideas and themes that apply to everybody, not just climbers and not just outdoors people. I want people who have no idea about climbing to be able to connect with it because it has a human element that everybody understands.
So of course I would love it if we could get it into Sundance or Tribeca or some of the bigger film festivals outside of the outdoor industry and hopefully it has the legs to do that. But right now I just feel really passionate about working on it. It’s been one of the most soulful projects for me to work on in a long, long time. And in some ways I don’t want it to end, because it means a lot to me and I’m learning more and more that projects like this are rare. I’m just going to keep working on it. I will have to cut it off at some point. Another month or so on it and I think we’ll have it in a really good place.
The Joy Trip Project is made possible with the support of sponsors Patagonia, Rayovac, and The New Belgium Brewing Company.