Jimmy Chin Talks Pushing Human Limitations with ‘Edge of the Unknown’ Athletes and What it Means to Be an Outsider (EXCLUSIVE)

by Jon D. B.

Ask Jimmy Chin anything about the human experience, and the core remains the same: “Anyone can achieve the extraordinary in their life, but they have to commit.”

This, he reiterates, is also the heart of his latest project, Edge of the Unknown with Jimmy Chin. The National Geographic series, hailing from Academy Award®-winning executive producers Chin & E. Chai Vasarhelyi, takes audiences inside the minds of the world’s greatest athletes through Jimmy’s own understanding of this world as an unparalleled athlete himself.

To do so, Edge of the Unknown combines pulse-pounding footage of pros at the peak of their powers with the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers in the genre. Through it all, Jimmy showcases the whys and hows of the world’s top athletes achieved mastery of their craft, despite numerous hardships and setbacks.

“Every time you see someone doing something extraordinary, whoever it is, there’s two sides to it. There’s depth there, and so much more,” the NatGeo photographer, filmmaker, and mountaineer told me ahead of the series’ premiere. “There’s a lot of sacrifice involved.”

As NatGeo and Jimmy describe, each story featured in the 10 episode run reveals a main theme of human resilience, endurance and mental toughness on the other side of that sacrifice. These are women and men pushed to their utmost psychological and physical limits; each battling to redefine what is possible for the human body, mind, and spirit.

‘There’s always some sort of sacrifice that you make in order to be able to function at the level they’re functioning at’

For Jimmy, it’s all about how this plays out for the individual. “A big part of the motivation for this show was to help people understand what these athletes go through, because there’s always some sort of sacrifice that you make in order to be able to function at the level they’re functioning at,” he offers of his colleagues.

These colleagues (and the episodes featuring them) include apex climber Alex Honnold’s adventures before Free Solo, world-renowned skier Angel Collinson’s falls from a 1000-ft mountain in one of the steepest spines of Alaska, and legendary climber Conrad Anker, who had a heart attack when attempting a first ascent on the tallest unclimbed peak in the Himalayas, among others.

Edge of the Unknown is, in a word – intense – as a result. But for all the right reasons. When watching, Jimmy hopes audiences gain an understanding of “the pressure of what it feels like to be a professional athlete. And what the pressure feels like externally. But also internally, because these athletes put extraordinary pressure on themselves. And so do I, but that’s the thing,” he adds, “is that we all are capable of pushing our boundaries.”

In many instances, Chin has been the only human with the skillset of capturing these athletes at the height of their craft. Few (if any) others possess the dual mastery of photography and mountaineering that allows Jimmy to do what he’s done for over two decades now.

At their core, “These are stories about the human potential, the strength of the human spirit, and what these extraordinary athletes bring to their craft. And that’s something I’ve spent 20-25 years documenting.”

To Jimmy Chin, Being an Outsider or Anything in this Life is to Know ‘A Sense of Common Humanity’

Jimmy Chin (left), using ropes, jumps from a wall to take a photo thousands of feet above the ground. (credit: Jimmy Chin Productions)

“I also hope audiences get a sense of what it truly means to be an elite pro athlete. These are people that so many others are inspired by, but we know so little about them outside of what we see on our screens. So I hope [Edge of the Unknown] gives audiences a much deeper appreciation for who these athletes are, and what they do. And the level of the artistry and craft that they bring to their sports.”

But the show, hopefully, serves a higher purpose for audiences and Outsiders of all walks of life. One message dominates each finished viewing of an episode, and it’s that shared humanity Jimmy Chin hopes to embolden.

“I want to help people see and get a sense of common humanity. These athletes are extraordinary, but they are also human. And they’re able to do this because they worked really hard towards it. Meaning, anyone can achieve the extraordinary in their life, but they have to commit,” Chin emphasizes.

And to do so, “It’s okay to be scared. It’s okay to feel like you’re way out of your comfort zone, because it’s healthy to be in that space,” Jimmy offers. “Even these ‘superhuman’ athletes, in a lot of ways, are just like [audiences watching]. It’s through their efforts of pushing themselves outside that comfort zone that they achieve greatness. But really, anybody can do that. We all can.”

‘Edge of the Unknown with Jimmy Chin’ Episodes are ‘The greatest stories you haven’t heard of’

Once you reach that level of mastery, Jimmy says, “Athletes, professionals, whatever you are, you all understand what kind of commitment and passion it requires to be able to perform and play at that level, even though it can be in different sports and worlds.”

For Jimmy personally, “One of the best things about this show is the level of mutual respect that I think everybody felt among all of the people featured on the show,” he smiled. “Hearing everyone talk about and praise each other has been amazing. We’ve had a few Zoom calls where we’re all together, and that mutual admiration comes out of all of us. I think everybody recognized that Travis [Rice] is at the top of his sphere, and Alex [Honnold] is one of the greatest of all time, and [Justine Dupont],” he listed, motioning that he could go on for an hour about his colleagues and their masteries.

“The level of respect and inspiration I get from them; sometimes I feel like it’s fallen on me to tell their stories, because I have that access to them. So that’s another big part of this show, we had really extraordinary access to these amazing athletes and human beings. And they trusted us to tell their more difficult stories,” he lauds.

And make no mistake, these are difficult, palm-sweat-inducing stories. Or, as Jimmy puts it, “A lot of these stories are like ‘The greatest stories you haven’t heard of,'” he laughs. “Because we see these athletes in films, on shows, on social media doing all these extraordinary things, and often. But I wanted to tell a side of their story you don’t get to see as often, if ever. That’s always been something that has been a huge part of the motivation of my work.”

‘Would I make those sacrifices? Would I have done that? Or would I not have done that?’

After finishing the 10 episode run, let alone a single episode, Edge of the Unknown makes one thing clear:

“These decisions are hard decisions,” Jimmy says. “And I hope audiences think about that. ‘Would I make those sacrifices? Would I have done that? Or would I not have done that?’ These are the sort of questions I hope others also ask themselves after watching. And I hope they sort of broaden people’s perception of the human experience. Because we all have a lot more in common than not.”

 Stream the full season of Edge of the Unknown with Jimmy Chin on Disney+ starting tomorrow, September 7. Or, catch episodes as they air on National Geographic.

For the world’s top adventure athletes, the line between triumph and tragedy is razor thin. In the pivotal moments when life hangs in the balance, what drives the greatest to continue pushing to redefine what is humanly possible? From Academy Award®-Winning executive producers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, EDGE OF THE UNKNOWN is an epic 10-part series that takes audiences inside the minds of pioneering adventure athletes as they recount the most consequential moments of their lives on their journey to perfect the mastery of their craft.

National Geographic