Interview: Jimmy Chin Partners With Panerai

Interview: Panerai Ambassador Jimmy Chin Talks Time, Avalanches, And Desert Robberies

Jimmy Chin is a climber, alpinist, National Geographic photographer, Academy Award-winning filmmaker, and now, Panerai’s newest ambassador. Watchonista recently sat down with Jimmy to discuss the partnership and a few of the many harrowing adventures of his career.

By Thomas Hendricks

Jimmy Chin is no stranger to adventure. The Academy Award-winning filmmaker, National Geographic photographer, and mountain sports athlete got his first break in 1999 becoming the cinematographer for a National Geographic-sponsored trek across Tibet’s Chang Tang Plateau. Since then, he’s led and participated in dozens of high-profile exploratory expeditions on all seven continents including skiing from the summit of Mount Everest.

His film Meru won the much sought-after Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2015. And his latest film, Free Solo, created with his wife Chai Vasarhelyi, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2019, with the award announced by his friend Jason Mamoa, of Game of Thrones fame. The documentary follows professional rock climber Alex Honnold’s attempts to conquer the first free solo climb of El Capitan's 900-meter vertical rock face at Yosemite National Park.

Jimmy’s also the newest brand ambassador for Italian luxury watchmaker, Panerai. On a recent evening at New York City’s NeueHouse, Panerai hosted a special pre-screening of their first partnered project, a film short depicting, from Jimmy’s eyes, what success and motivation mean to him.

Early that afternoon, Watchonista sat down with Jimmy to talk watches, winning an academy award, and the perspective he’s gained from the multiple near-death experiences throughout his career.

Thomas Hendricks: So, first off, how's your day going? I heard you just got in from the airport.

Jimmy Chin: Yes, I just got off a red-eye and I actually just came straight here.

TH: Where were you coming from?

JC: I was coming from L.A. Actually, I was coming from Santa Barbara, but L.A. before that, and Singapore before that. So, I've been on kind of a three-week travel bender.

TH: And we're here because of your new partnership with Panerai and the short film screening later this evening. I was wondering if, in your own words, you could tell me a little bit about the film.

JC: Sure. Well, we wanted to make a short piece that kind of shared the parallels between the ethos and motivation in my life and Panerai. These days, I'm pretty discerning about what brands I work with and I have to have a personal connection to a brand. So, the idea was just to give people a little bit of a background on where I come from and what I do. And, also look at where my life is right now given the last few years.

TH: Now I want to ask a little bit specifically about watches. In the watch industry, there's a running joke that nobody really truly needs a watch in day-to-day life. But, a Panerai watch is part of your essential setup on expeditions. So how does your watch fit into your gear kit and what qualities do you look for?

JC: For me, I am kind of a minimalist when I think about equipment. In the mountains, you are very specific about what gear you bring because everything has to have its function. Everything has to have a purpose because weight is such an issue. So, you're always kind of trying to cut weight down and only bringing the essentials. Which is also how I think about life, you know, the essentials. I'm pretty focused on just trying to simplify as much as I can and having the essentials.

But in the mountains, when we look at equipment and gear, I notice that time after time I'm always going back to certain pieces of equipment and I've really gotten to appreciate design. There is always new technology coming through and advancements in equipment but there are some pieces that, in essence, stayed true to its original purpose and design because the design is so strong and the function and the purpose of the piece is so essential that it's kind of timeless.

TH: And do moments like these make you think a little differently about the time you have left in life?

JC: Yeah! I think that even from early on, given the risks of what I do - the consequences and the stakes - that you really have to examine why you're doing it. And I think that examination is really a big part of why I love pursuing the things that I do because it does make you ask really deep existential questions. Why am I doing this? What is the best use of my time while I'm on this planet? And I think that's also really important if you're going to take risks - that you have to examine that pretty closely.

TH: And, looking at a time-related question in a more metaphorical sense - I know you've had numerous near-death experiences. You have been in some of the most dangerous places in the world, also mugged in the deserts of Chad, right?

JC: Oh yeah! I feel like I've had a very broad number of experiences from my work, which is probably one of the original motivations was just to explore the world and go on these adventures and push myself. And, climbing and skiing and photography have all been incredible vehicles that have given me purpose to do all those trips and going on all these different adventures.

But, yes in Chad, we were out in the middle of the desert, and just to get to where we were, we had driven 5 days off-road. So, you fly into N'Djamena [Chad's capital city] and then you go 100 clicks north on this pretty rough road to the Ennedi Plateau where there were all these huge formations that had never been climbed on before. It looks like Monument Valley on steroids, essentially.

So, you're really in the middle of nowhere and, yeah, it was like a scene out of Star Wars or something. A bunch of men had come out, faces totally covered, and yeah, they were basically trying to rob us in the middle of the desert.

TH: I'm interested to know, speaking of time, what was the longest minute of your life?

JC: Well, there have been good ones and there have been bad ones, you know? I was caught in a pretty massive avalanche in 2011.

That was up in the Tetons in Jackson, Wyoming, where I live. It was a class 4 avalanche - and the scale only goes up to class 5 - but class 4 is a pretty significant avalanche. You know, people die in class 1 avalanches. Class 4 is kind of considered un-survivable, but I survived it.

That was an interesting long minute because there's a point when you're really terrified that you're going to die, but there's actually another moment passed that fear when you know you're going to die. That's an interesting space that I never thought of until I experienced it. Where I was like, I know I'm going to die. But then you don't.

But you're coming down this mountain at 80 mph with thousands and thousands of tons of snow chasing you. Every aspect of that avalanche was kind of the worst-case scenario. So, that was a long minute. 

But I think a positive one, that was kind of interesting, was the minute walking from my chair to the stage after Jason Momoa, at the Oscars, announced that we won Best Documentary at the Academy Awards this year. I felt I entered the 4th dimension.

You lose your sense of hearing and it's just - I felt like I was walking through water as I walked up to the stage. It was really, really surreal. That was a very long minute, just trying to get to the stage.

TH: Well, for my last question, can you tell me a little bit about what you have coming up? I know you keep a busy schedule. Where in the world is Jimmy Chin going?

JC: I have quite a few trips coming up. I have an expedition to Antarctica in January. We're making another film where our subject spends a lot of time in Chile. So, I've been down in Patagonia in Chile filming a bunch. We have another film where some of our subjects are in Southeast Asia so I'm kind of dropping in and out of there.

TH: What do you have planned for Antarctica?

JC: Oh! We're trying to ski a new line on Mount Vinson. Much like climbers are looking to do first ascents, skiers are looking to do first descents. And, yes, one is fighting gravity and one gravity fed, so I like to be a balanced person, I guess [laughs].

(Photography by Liam O'Donnell)

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