VanHaren: Films capture the drama of scaling mountains

When he graduated with the Wayland Academy class of 1992, his classmates voted him “Most Likely to Succeed.” Three weeks ago he won the Oscar for his documentary film, “Free Solo.” “Free Solo” also won the People’s Choice Award: Documentary. Additionally, the film received the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary in 2019.

I did not have Jimmy Chin as a student in any of my classes at Wayland, but it was evident from observing him around campus that he had a special knack for dealing with people. Jimmy played soccer, participated in Model UN, was a proctor in the dorm, and worked on the school’s literary magazine.

Today, Jimmy Chin is a professional climber, mountaineer, skier, photographer, and film director. Jimmy grew up in Mankato, Minnesota, the son of Chinese immigrant parents. Living in Minnesota is hardly a good preparation for becoming a world-class mountain-climber and photographer.

Jimmy says, “I was 12 when I had my first epiphany about the mountains. I went on a family vacation to Glacier National Park. The beauty of the mountains … really blew my mind. I was changed forever.”

Photography came later. During a climbing trip in Yosemite, Chin took a photo with a friend’s camera. His friend submitted some photos of the climb to an outdoor clothing company, and they chose one — the one Jimmy had taken. That began his career as a photographer, which he says has become a way to make his climbing financially possible.

“Free Solo” is not his first successful documentary film. “Meru,” in 2015, chronicled the first ascent of the 4,000-foot wall known as the ”Shark’s Fin” route on Meru Peak in the Indian Himalayas. It was co-directed by Jimmy and his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, who was also the co-director of “Free Solo.”

After attempting but failing to summit Meru in 2008, Jimmy and two climbing friends, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk, returned to the mountain in order to conquer its peak. As they climbed, the men also documented their ascent. “Meru” won the U.S. Audience Documentary Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

In “Free Solo” (which has grossed $20 million), we watch rock climber Alex Honnold as he performs a 3000-foot free solo climb (using no ropes or safety equipment) of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in June 2017. Honnold is the only person to free solo the route. Two climbers died trying to free solo the mountain in June 2018.

“Free Solo” is fascinating (and terrifying, sometimes) to watch. The film crew did much of the filming hanging from ropes on the side of the mountain. Jimmy and his crew struggled with how to do the filming without affecting Honnold’s climb. Another difficulty was in capturing sound from Honnold as he climbed because he was often too far away for them to use wireless microphones, and they couldn’t put any body mics on him because they might impede his climbing.

They solved the problem by using a microphone system that could transmit the audio signals to the camera and also store the audio signal within itself when the camera was out of range.

If you have not seen “Free Solo” or “Meru,” I urge you to do so. The photography is amazing and the stories they tell are incredible.

Contact Roger VanHaren at