Adventurer and Oscar winner Jimmy Chin reflects on near-death experience in new TV series
Jimmy Chin has skied down Mount Everest and climbed the Shark's Fin, the granite wall on India's Meru Peak. But it's his adventures behind the camera that have brought him international fame.
Along with his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, he made the 2018 Oscar-winning film "Free Solo," which chronicled Alex Honnold's ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without ropes or other equipment. That was followed by 2021's "The Rescue," a documentary about the Tham Luang cave rescue.
Before the couple directed their first scripted feature, an upcoming movie about swimmer Diana Nyad starring Annette Bening and Jodie Foster, Chin squeezed in a 10-part series, "Edge of the Unknown," debuting at 9:30 p.m. ET Monday on National Geographic Channel. The show also will be available on Disney+ starting Wednesday.
Each episode deals with fellow explorers looking back at an epic failure and what they learned from their near-death experiences. Chin doesn't let himself off the hook, taking time to share the personal ordeal he went through after almost perishing in an avalanche. He chatted last month in a Zoom interview while being driven through Brooklyn, New York.
Q: What was the goal of the new series?
A: These are the elites of the elite and we wanted to tell their stories from an insider's perspective. I didn't feel people understood what it really takes, so this is a show that examines the process and humanizes them.
Q: You deal pretty frankly with bad judgment calls and the consequences. How hard was it to get athletes to open up on that subject?
A: That's part of what makes the show so special. We get to examine moments that are hard to talk about. When you're a professional athlete, the expectation is that you don't make mistakes. It's a transcendental experience when you're able to achieve that kind of perfection. But we're human. We're fallible. These are very vulnerable stories that are generally hard to access. I'm very grateful that they opened up. It'll help people begin to understand what it takes to be playing at their level.
Q: There's one episode that deals with how you made a bad decision that almost got you killed. How hard was it for you to go back and watch video of that?
A: Well, you can't achieve these incredible goals without failure. If you don't know how to turn failure into something you can learn from, there's no chance of moving forward.
Q: I usually associate these kind of dangerous feats with men. Are women just too smart to take the risks?
A: If you watch all the episodes in the series, you might change your point of view. Three of the 10 episodes focus on women. Sarah McNair-Landry is arguably the greatest explorer alive. [Surfer] Justine Dupont rode one of the gnarliest barrels around at Jaws [in Hawaii]. Angel Collinson is one of the most extraordinary skiers I've ever seen. I think the world is changing. There are a lot more women now in these kinds of sports than when I first started.
Q: When I was watching this, I couldn't help but think about Evel Knievel. What's the difference between what he did and what you and your friends do?
A: He was awesome. But he was a stuntman. That's different. These aren't just adrenaline junkies. They are highly calculated, world-class athletes. In examining their processes, I hope audiences will realize how complex their achievements are and the different layers of being an athlete.