Buckle up, everyone. Filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have a new 10-part series that examines the most harrowing moments of A-List adventure athletes and how they come back stronger from landslides, big waves, high-altitude heart attacks and, in one case , clinical death.
It’s a subject ripe for excess, but in the hands of the Oscar-winning duo behind it Free solo and Meru, it’s a revealing look into the minds of elite climbers, freeskiers, surfers and whitewater boaters. Much of the footage will be familiar to mountain sports fans. The series revisits beautiful big mountain lines by freeskier Angel Collinson and snowboarding legend Travis Rice and travels with mountaineer Alex Honnold to Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains to prepare for his history-making free-solo ascent of El Capitan. It follows kayaker Gerd Serrasolses and crew as they launch massive travertine waterfalls into the 2015 River Roots Classic Chasing Niagara.
What’s new are the filmmakers’ in-depth interviews about the most harrowing moments in the athletes’ lives, many of them shared in visceral points of view. When a 50-foot waterfall dive goes horribly wrong for Serrasolses, we see through his helmet cam as Rush Surges and a wild-eyed Evan Garcia pumps him back to life (all please renew your CPR certificates – Eds).
In another episode, kayakers Ben Stokesberry and Chris Korbulic coping with the emotional toll of losing a friend, an explorer Henry Coetzee, to a man-eating crocodile. How does a person go through something like that, or survive a widowmaker heart attack 22,000 feet up a Himalayan peak, as Chin’s good friend and climbing partner does in episode four, and go on an adventure?
We put the question to Chin, who addresses the question as an interviewer, series narrator and the subject of an episode recounting his own experience with a Class 4 avalanche in the backcountry of the Tetons. Edge of the Unknown with Jimmy Chin streams on National Geographic and Disney+.
Adventure Journal: How did this series come about?
Jimmy Chin: We only perceived it in the early part of Covid. I was asked by all these different people to talk about what I had learned from my most consequential and trying moments that I could perhaps share with people who feel isolated and face the unknown. I had a lot of personal anecdotes in my life that fit that category, but I really started thinking about a lot of my friends and athletes I knew who had a particular way of looking at the world that I thought was useful in a conversation about survival and finding opportunities in what most people would consider very dire circumstances.
I already knew many of these stories and the athletes were people I looked up to and admired. I started thinking about a series as it continued to develop, it was about the most elite athletes—I mean, if you look at this list, it’s the best of the best in each of their sports—and we would really explore some of the most challenging and consequential moments of their careers. And when we explore these moments, we get a sense of who they are and what they encounter in everyday life.
One of the episodes explores your own close call with a huge avalanche. When you explored these core moments that other athletes have experienced, did you naturally see them through the lens of your avalanche?
Yes I did. That moment in my career was very difficult for me to talk about. It was a very vulnerable moment for me, especially because I felt so invincible. And then this thing happened to me where it was very clear that I was fallible and that what I did had consequences.
I had always thought that it would not happen to me, that I am conservative enough and calculated enough. I didn’t necessarily say it out loud, but it’s something that I think all of these athletes have experienced, when you’re on your game and you have these transcendent moments, and it’s incredible. So, when things go wrong, they go wrong pretty quickly. When you experience something like this, you have to be so conscious of going back to these sports. And I think it shows the level of passion and commitment these athletes have for what they do.
I knew these moments would be difficult for the athletes to talk about. It’s a part of the world we inhabit that is often overlooked and we don’t really investigate very much. We do not turn the stone to look below, into that very space. I just felt it was an important place and the stories of how they manage it are really inspiring. It also humanizes people and shows that they are real people who have to make difficult choices.
Was it difficult for you to turn that rock for the episode that focused on your avalanche experience?
It was. I asked all these athletes to do it, and I felt that if I asked them to do it, then I should show up too. And I’m very, very grateful that all of these athletes gave us access to these stories and were willing to talk about these stories and confide in us those stories because a lot of them are very sensitive. They trusted us.
I suspect some of it comes from having been there yourself.
Definitely. I think people agreed to work with us and they trusted us because they know we are sensitive to what these experiences are like. We pride ourselves on keeping things real and authentic and with an insider’s view that hopefully expands people’s perception of who these athletes are and what they do. That was ultimately what we were trying to achieve.
Which of the episodes affected you the most personally?
Gerd’s story was very intense. And I think Ben Stookesberry’s piece was personally very difficult. Honestly, there were some tough ones, and I know I’m doing something interesting when they’re that tough—when there’s so many sensitivities around these stories and we’re trying to get it right because it’s so nuanced. We spent a lot of time making sure we were respectful of these stories and sensitive to all the little elements that make it authentic and honest and truthful. It’s really important to me and Chai that the stories are true to the spirit of what happened and what people came away with.
I would have guessed Conrad Ankers because it really got me and I know your history together. I could feel the love and heartbreak coming through the screen.
Conrad’s story. . . many of them were very challenging and I kept thinking, couldn’t I have chosen an easier story?
I think Conrad’s episode affected me because it was about loss. It touched on the loss that both you and he have experienced with the death of friends in the mountains, but it also seemed that after his heart attack, Conrad faced the end of his career in the high mountains – the end of what has brought him so much joy.
It’s kind of funny though. Not funny, but Conrad went to Antarctica after his heart attack. He met up with me, Jim Morrison and Hilaree Nelson and we had one of the greatest mountain days I’ve ever had. We climbed Vinson, the highest peak in Antarctica, from base to summit. We did the second ascent of the route he laid out 20 years ago, Isstrømmen. No one has done it since he posted it 20 years ago. It was a 10,000 foot day in knee to thigh deep snow where we carried our skis. Bottom to top in a single tap and we were on Vinson in less than 48 hours. Some people spend two weeks or a month there, and Conrad – it’s like, well, he’s put it aside. But what he considers putting it aside is, to most, just insane. I was like, ‘Are you going to do this, Conrad? Because I’m dying.’The opening voiceover seems to be a thesis of sorts in the series. “In those defining moments when life hangs in the balance, what drives the greatest to keep pushing to redefine what is humanly possible, to stare down fear and risk it all?”
Did you find an answer, a common thread shared between these ten athletes and ten experiences?
Ultimately, it is an investigation of why. And it’s really not a common thread as a statement, but more of a common thread as a question. What are you willing to risk and sacrifice to experience these transcendent moments? Because that is the question that everyone weighs. Especially at that level, at that point in each of these athletes’ careers, that question is something that lurks.
And you examine the episode in their careers, in their lives, where that question is asked the loudest.
Where it hangs in a balance. Because when you examine it, you understand their motivations.
Top photo: Alex Honnold free soloing “Heaven” in Yosemite National Park. Photo: National Geographic