‘Edge of the Unknown’s Jimmy Chin Talks the Avalanche that Almost Killed Him and Life after Near-Death (EXCLUSIVE)

by Jon D. B.
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“On a climb close to home, Jimmy Chin was caught in a massive class four avalanche. How did he survive, and how did it change him?”

So reads the description for “Live Another Day,” the Edge of the Unknown episode featuring Academy Award®-winning filmmaker, National Geographic photographer and professional mountain sports athlete Jimmy Chin. Chin also serves as executive producer for the 10-part documentary series, and this triple-duty placed him in a unique position when it came to reliving the day he cheated death.

In the episode, Jimmy unpacks the avalanche event’s before, during, and after, and the transformation that it triggered within him. And he does so while reliving those life-changing moments, as they were all captured on film: Including the instant he came back to the land of the living.

Speaking with the man himself before the series’ release, Jimmy delves deep into that day, and how its near-death experience changed his outlook on the risks, stakes, and life his career(s) demands.

“Looking back on it, I’m able to be much more objective about it, just because there’s been some time,” Jimmy offers from his home outside Wyoming’s Grand Tetons, not far from where the avalanche took place over a decade ago. “But risk is something that we think about all the time; I think about all the time. What I’m willing to risk, what I’m not willing to risk. You’re constantly looking at the stakes; looking at the consequences of decisions. But I think the thing that shifts a lot are those stakes.”

‘Edge of the Unknown’s Jimmy Chin on the Stakes of Life and Death

The Jimmy speaking to me looks and sounds much the same as he did in the episodes’ 2011 archival footage. But he’s not.

“I’ve always felt a certain ambivalence about climbing in the big mountains, because I’ve endured a lot of suffering. And I’ve lost some pretty close friends,” he narrates as his episode moves to that fateful April day. Through all of this, and much more, the Jimmy I was speaking to had since taken on a new title, parent; one that now comes before everything else he does.

“It’s a bit different when the stakes are life and death, and those stakes aren’t affecting just you,” he continues. “As you get older, and you become a parent, the stakes change. There’s more people depending on you. There’s also more to life that you want to weigh. Is this climb worth potentially losing out on something else? Whether that’s more years of your life,” Chin laughs, “Or more time with your children and family.”

‘It’s a bit different when the stakes are life and death, and those stakes aren’t affecting just you… But you’d be surprised how strong the call is still for big climbs’

“But you’d be surprised how strong the call is still for big climbs,” Jimmy smiles. Like family, his excursions “give a lot of purpose and meaning to life.”

At the same time, surviving an avalanche after a climb so close to home was “transcendent,” he says. “It’s hard to walk away from those types of experiences, let alone unchanged.”

Despite nearly dying beneath tons of Teton snow, that 2011 expedition remains “part of the greatest experiences of my life. They all are, by kind of a long shot,” Jimmy smiles.

‘I don’t necessarily see myself as a professional athlete, a filmmaker, and a photographer, you know? I just am who I am’

Recovering from that day has meant facing death, and the inherent risks of his life goals, on a daily basis; something Jimmy’s episode captures masterfully. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t time to unwind. Quite the contrary, as life has become much more about the “little moments,” too.

These days, Jimmy Chin spends as much time as possible “getting out there” and living his life with family. The goal can now be living in the moment, he says, instead of being a professional 24/7.

“I do that every day,” he emphasizes. “I’ll go, ‘Alright, I’m going climbing,’ and I’m just going climbing or hanging out with the kids. I don’t necessarily see myself as a professional athlete, a filmmaker, and a photographer, you know? I just am who I am,” he waves off with a grin.

“I go to work, and I do what I do because I love it. And there are moments when I’m asked to be a professional athlete, and then I’m all in. But in day-to-day life, I’m pretty normal, I think.”

When it comes to Edge of the Unknown, the far-from-normal filmmaker hopes audiences gain a deeper appreciation for the humanity on display. “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 to it.”

For Jimmy, that “more” is the lives of those behind the extraordinary, and the families they may potentially leave behind.

‘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’

But Jimmy also wants NatGeo audiences to know “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. 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.”

Jimmy and his team have a few more projects in production right now, but life after near-death has become all about that balance, as he says. Balance between “being an athlete, and being a family.”

“We go out and do a lot,” Jimmy smiles. “We all climbed this mountain called Cody Peak yesterday, and I’m out surfing with the kids a bunch, and climbing with them a bunch this summer. So that’s been super fun, to share the stoke and the love of being out there. Being out there with them, with great people, and being in nature. That’s my happy place.”

Edge of the Unknown with Jimmy Chin‘s premiere episode with fellow climber and Free Solo‘s Alex Honnold hits National Geographic on September 5 at 9:30/8:30c. Jimmy’s episode featuring that fateful climb, “Live Another Day,” airs Sept. 20 at 10:30/9:30c, with the full season streaming on Disney+ Sept. 7. For now, watch the official trailer below:

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
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