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The First Time Jimmy Chin Nearly Starved With Conrad Anker

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Jimmy Chin needs no introduction, so allow us to cut to the chase; Chin’s book There and Back: Photographs From The Edge released today, highlighting 20 years of cutting-edge expeditions across all seven continents. It is Chin’s first photography collection, with over 200 photographs and behind-the-scenes details throughout the book. From free soloing with Alex Honnold to serious ski descents with Kit DesLauriers, There and Back has it all. Below, please find an excerpt from the introduction and K7 chapter.—Ed.

My parents used to say, “Of course we’re worried. There’s no word in Chinese for what you do.”

As the kid of Chinese immigrants, I was told there were only three careers: doctor, lawyer, or professor. Climbing bum was not on that list. When I finished college, I was sure these traditional expectations didn’t fit me, and I decided to make up my own way through the world. I would spend my twenties drifting between climbing destinations and living out of a stubborn 1989 Subaru Loyale. It was not the graduate program my mom and dad had hoped for me.

Despite their strict view of careers, my parents, both librarians, had unwittingly set me on this path by introducing me to an endless supply of books. The great adventures I read about spurred my curiosity about the world beyond my Mankato, Minnesota, backyard. Thankfully, my parents also instilled in me the work ethic and confidence to strive for a life I didn’t even know I wanted—the life I discovered on sweeping granite walls, desert towers, and knife-edge ridges.

Conrad eyes the route ahead while Brady ascends the rope to our high point. (Photo: Jimmy Chin)

These places stirred a sense of awe and self-reliance in me. I found the best version of myself where the world fell away below me and the rules of life were simple—commit and embrace the struggle. While climbing in Yosemite, I picked up a camera and began capturing the places that I fell in love with and the sublime moments that I experienced. Taking photographs became a way to examine these places and share these moments.

I believe photography can expand our perception of the natural world, and of what humans can achieve in it. Over time, I hoped that sharing the beauty of our planet and our place within it would foster a sense of responsibility to protect and preserve these places, both for future generations to enjoy and for their intrinsic value.

Along the way, I found a second family in the adventurers who seek out the world’s wildest places and devote their lives to accomplishing what others have never dared. The members of this tribe became my most cherished friends, partners, and mentors. I’ve been astonished, again and again, at what these individuals are capable of doing with vision and clarity of purpose, from Kit DesLauriers skiing from the summit of Everest to Alex Honnold free soloing El Capitan and beyond.

Being a witness to grand successes and epic failures, I discovered my own purpose: to share the stories of the people I found so inspiring. Every person I’ve photographed has helped shape me into who I am today. For that I will be forever grateful. This book is a record of our shared adventures spanning twenty years, and a celebration of the places that brought us together.

Conrad Anker and Brady Robinson enjoying the sun from our portaledge high camp after a five-day storm on K7. Charakusa Valley, Pakistan. (Photo: Jimmy Chin)

Most people have never heard of K7, but it’s a magnificent mountain.

Rising to 22,749 ft, it brings to mind an alpine fortress. Seeing K7 during our first expedition to the Charakusa Valley in 1999, Brady Robinson and I vowed to come back to climb it. In July of 2001, we returned to the Karakoram with Conrad Anker to attempt the southeast face.

I first met Conrad in the summer of 2000. I’d already read plenty about him—he was a celebrated climber at the pinnacle of his career: he had made significant first ascents around the world, graced the cover of National Geographic, and recently found the body of George Mallory on Mount Everest. To me, he was superhuman, so I was surprised when he asked to join Brady and me on K7. I worried whether I could meet his expectations.

During our first week in base camp, Brady and I noticed that Conrad always got up before us. We didn’t want to seem lazy, so we started getting up earlier and earlier every morning. But each day, Conrad was making coffee or organizing gear by the time we were out of our tents.

The night before attempting K7, the three of us agreed to wake up at 3 a.m. Brady and I secretly decided to wake up at 2 a.m. to get ready before Conrad. That morning, Brady and I woke early, quietly gathered our gear, and exited our tent in the dark. As we rushed to load our packs, a headlamp clicked on nearby. I looked over to see Conrad leaning casually against a rock with his pack shouldered and ready to go. I shook my head in awe and disbelief.

Brady Robinson making a swinging traverse on K7. (Photo: Jimmy Chin)

We started up K7 on June 10. It was a pleasure to watch Conrad practice his craft. He climbed boldly and steadily in difficult terrain, anticipating problems before they arose. Drawing on decades of refinement, he was decisive about how we should approach the climb, what gear to bring, which risks we should and shouldn’t take. He gave Brady and me confidence, and we tried hard to impress him.

On our third day on the wall, a storm hit. We burrowed into our small portaledge for five days. Retreat was impossible due to the large amount of new snow and the resulting avalanches that swept down around us. Our situation felt dire. But Conrad seemed unperturbed, as if this were exactly where he wanted to be—removed from the small distractions of everyday life and focused only on the simple task of survival.

When the storm cleared, we continued the climb for two more days, struggling up snow-and ice-covered rock. Our rations were dangerously low. When another storm arrived, we finally decided to retreat, only to be trapped again by more avalanches. After a harrowing five-day descent to the glacier, we dragged our giant haul bags back toward base camp. Brady and I collapsed in exhaustion more than once while Conrad stomped ahead, unfazed.

By the time we got back to our base camp, we had been on the mountain for sixteen days. Because we’d only taken enough food for ten, I weighed fifteen pounds less than when I started the climb. This was the first time I would nearly starve on one of Conrad’s expeditions. But it wasn’t the last.

“Reprinted with permission from There and Back: Photographs from the Edge. Copyright © 2021 by Jimmy Chin. Published by Ten Speed Press/Publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House.”