In early March, Jimmy Chin, a professional photographer and mountaineer, finished back-to-back work trips — climbing in Antarctica, filming in Chile — and flew home to Wilson, Wyo. He was in the midst of plotting the rest of a typically peripatetic year, with trips to Thailand, New Zealand, London and Mexico, when the pandemic hit. “Longest I’ve been home in 20 years,” Chin, who is 46, said recently. He made do, editing a book of his photographs and running nearby trails, skiing in the backcountry and racing up and down the Grand Teton, a 13,775-foot peak that figures on the life lists of most amateur climbers.
“I was trying to figure it out the other day,” Chin said, when asked how many times he’d climbed the Grand. “I’ve got to be up in like 50, 60, 70 times.”
Central to the mountaineer’s life — its curse and gift — is an itch for struggle, and a willingness to scratch it that Mo Anthoine, a great British climber, called “feeding the rat.” By early September, when Chin still couldn’t leave the country, he got to thinking about one of the biggest objectives in his home range. Known as the Grand Traverse, this 17.9-mile romp along the Tetons’ most thrilling skyline offers roughly 12,000 cumulative feet of climbing on seven major summits. It takes ultrafit regular folks three days with guides. Elite athletes like Chin do it on the regular as extreme training — current speed record, 6:30:49 — for Alaska and the Himalayas. “I did it a stack of times 20 years ago,” Chin told me. Back then, he’d just come home from the Karakoram, a mountain range in Asia, and the Grand Traverse felt surprisingly easy
Chin is a filmmaker — he and his wife, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, won an Academy Award in 2019 for directing the documentary “Free Solo,” about Alex Honnold’s climb of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park — and he shoots and climbs for the North Face. He invited three other North Face athletes to join him — to do that thing they all do, for no better reason than the joy it brings — on the Grand Traverse, an excuse to breathe hard up high, move over stone in the sky, suffer enough to feel good later. Chin’s team included Manoah Ainuu, a 25-year-old ice climber originally from Los Angeles who now works in a restaurant in Bozeman, Mont.; Savannah Cummins, who is 28 and climbs full time while living out of a van; and Conrad Anker, an internationally respected 57-year-old mountaineer, also based in Bozeman, who has joined Chin on so many expeditions that, while side by side in a tent recently, Chin on the left and Anker on the right as usual, Anker finally asked, “What side of the bed do you sleep on at home?”
Everyone committed for Sept. 6 to 10. They gathered at Chin’s place and were about to start when forecasters called for a storm on the 7th. Nonpros might have canceled, but, well, “It was the classic thing of like, ‘Let’s just go up there, and we’ll make the right decisions,’” Chin said.