Jimmy Chin is usually more comfortable thousands of feet up a rock face or hanging off the end of a rope with a camera in his hand. But when the professional mountain climber talks with CBS News one bright, late summer morning at California’s Surf Ranch, his mind is on other things — like the six-foot barrel rolling out for 700 perfect yards across the wave pool.
“It’s like a perfect wave, and there’s like a really great opportunity of a progression here,” he tells CBS Mornings’ Lilia Luciano at the man-made wave basin, the brainchild of legendary surfer Kelly Slater.
The wave pool is a marked departure from the mountains and cliff faces that have made Chin one of the most recognizable faces of adventure sports – thanks to his 2019 Oscar-winning documentary “Free Solo,” which chronicles climber Alex Honnold’s quest to conquer Yosemite’s El Capitan without ropes or other climbing aids.
By their nature, extreme sports are adrenaline-fueled and at the far end of that, when faced with life-threatening danger, Chin says the best practitioners enter a special state of mental being.
“It’s that transcendent experience where you are in a state of flow, where everything else falls away and you’re in a space of non-thought and the world slows down. And it’s just this incredible experience. And that’s that is an addictive feeling.”
Living in the face of that danger gives adventure sportsmen and women a profound relationship with the forces of nature, he says.
“You know, I love obviously being in wild places and the ocean, for me, has so many of those raw elements that I love. There’s a lot of raw power and you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature.”
His new series explores what being at nature’s mercy means. Documenting the mishaps and accidents – or simply misjudgments about where that edge lies – of some of the world’s best extreme athletes, “Edge of the Unknown with Jimmy Chin” looks at the defining incident that could have ended each of their lives, but instead changed them forever.
From a big mountain snowboarder caught in an avalanche to a kayaker caught underwater at the base of a 60-foot waterfall that they have just plunged over, the stories are as dramatic as they are horrifying.
But for Chin, these moments are ones of growth — the moments the athletes adapt, reassess and go back to the mountain or get back in the kayak.
“The real story is how they deal with challenge and life-changing challenges … pivotal moments in their lives. That, to me, is really inspiring.”
We are all, Chin says, “assessing the risk, calculating the risk, making decisions about how far you want to push it, how close you want to take it to the edge.”
But sometimes, like this bright morning at Surf Ranch, he also enjoys the pressure being off as he explores the watersport.
“I’m not a professional surfer. I’ve been a professional climber for 20-plus years, but this is just something I love doing, and I love that progression. I’m still on the steep part of the learning curve, so it’s really, really fun for me.”
“Edge of the Unknown with Jimmy Chin” airs on National Geographic Channel on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT, with all episodes available to stream on Disney+.