MOOSE — World-renowned filmmaker and climber Jimmy Chin, who with his wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi made the Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo,” said countless people have told him his work inspired them to get outdoors, the first step in the making of a conservationist.
Chin made his remarks after receiving the Murie Spirit of Conservation Award from the Teton Science Schools and Murie Center. The award recalls the work of Wyoming’s first family of conservation.
Chin told an audience of supporters he was honored and humbled as he received recognition at the doorstep of the Murie family cabin in Grand Teton National Park. The modest log building, a national historic landmark, birthed the Wilderness Act and the modern conservation movement.
An adventure photographer who settled in Jackson Hole some 20 years ago, living first in a chicken coop at a climbers’ neighborhood known as Magpie Acres, Chin explained how his craft and pursuits are linked to the preservation of the natural world.
“I’ve come to understand people will protect what they love,” he told a group gathered for the celebration Tuesday. “I can only hope my work inspires people to get outside and to fall in love with our wild landscapes.
“With that love comes a sense of responsibility to the Earth,” Chin said. For those of his clan who climb, hike and ski, “it falls on our shoulders as much or more … to help fight to preserve our wild places.”
Play, learn, serve, work
Chin grew up in Mankato, Minnesota where his parents, immigrants who had fled China’s communist revolution, were librarians at Minnesota State University. In his structured upbringing, which included an emphasis on academics and violin lessons starting at age 3, he said, “I learned early on to appreciate every free moment I had outside.”
The family’s house backed up to a forest that led to the Minnesota River, which drew the young Chin to it.
“It was there I had my first connection with nature, where I first felt that sense of exploration and spirit of adventure,” he said. “It was there where I felt my happiness.”
Chin was hooked on the outdoors.
“That sense of being present, that sense of exploration and adventure and connecting to something bigger than me are things I sought the rest of my life,” he said.
He had at that time a narrow understanding of conservation. “Don’t litter is how I thought about it,” he said in an interview with WyoFile. “That would deface the outdoors.”
His parents’ schedule included substantial time off during the summer and every year they would drive to a different national park, Chin said. A trip to Glacier National Park when he was 10 left an indelible impression.
“It was mind-blowing,” he said. His mother explained how parks were protected: “You couldn’t build cities inside a national park,” Chin learned.
Connecting the dots
Chin, now 45, dedicated himself to climbing in his early 20s. That focus left him only vaguely aware of conservation. As he became more immersed in the pursuit, and with photography, he found mentors.
It was after he met Galen Rowell, Rick Ridgeway and Conrad Anker — towering figures in the climbing world — that he started “paying attention,” he said. If you’re a skier, climber or mountaineer, “you don’t want to see anybody destroy your home.”
Chin regularly shredded the Tetons on skis and undertook bold climbs around the world — from Yosemite to the Himalaya. Somewhere along the line, he discovered a knack for photographing these exploits.
His dramatic photographs — often made while hanging from cliff faces — have graced the covers of magazines like National Geographic and Outside. He later transitioned into filmmaking, and co-founded the documentary company Camp4 Collective (he left the company in 2013) His original route with Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk up a blank face on India’s Meru Peak (21,850 feet) led to the acclaimed feature film “Meru.”
Many people have told him about how his work spurred them to get outside, Chin said.
“I can’t count the number who said, ‘I watched ‘Free Solo’ and I’m climbing now,’” or “‘that really inspired me to get outside, man,’” or “‘I’m going to appreciate these places,’” Chin said.
“When you get to Yosemite, you say ‘thank God this place was protected, this is a sacred place,’” he said. “Connecting that dot to protecting and conservation is not that far. In that way, I feel a sense of optimism or a sense of hope.”
“In the simplest form,” Chin told his Murie Ranch audience, “I’m a storyteller.” Teton Science Science Schools Executive Director Agnew added that there’s “a conservation ethic built into each of his stories.”
“It breaks down barriers, it inspires and connects people to these landscapes,” he said of Chin’s work. “On some of the largest stages of the world, he’s speaking for public land, wild places and conservation.
“In 90 minutes of ‘Free Solo’ or ‘Meru’ [watchers] develop a connection to this place,” Agnew said. “In Jimmy’s work, place is truly a character.”
Chin is only half of the storytelling team. Vasarhelyi is an equal partner widely acknowledged for steering otherwise stunning adventure footage toward a broadly-appealing narrative arc.
With a pair of Academy Awards on the mantle, the couple have received many offers to work on new projects. While they’ve got several underway, a principal pursuit today is a documentary about Kris and Doug Tompkins, the American couple who spent a quarter century preserving wild lands in Chile and Argentina.
“We definitely had a lot of more-commercial films to pursue, but we chose this one,” Chin said. “We feel we have a platform to share a story that [otherwise] may not get as much attention.”
Chin appears to be an embodiment of his own message, a force honed by his environment.
“This is where I’ve come up,” he told his audience in the shadow of the Tetons. “This landscape has been a tremendous inspiration for me.”