In 2018, when free solo Busy with breaking box office records and mind-blowing, Jimmy Chin – who filmed and directed the film with his wife and collaborator Elizabeth “Chai” Vasarheli– Have you ever been asked the same question: How did Alex Honnold not become paralyzed with fright as he clutched El Capitan’s face without a rope? Some wondered aloud if he wasn’t just afraid.
Before becoming an Academy Award-winning filmmaker, Chen enjoyed a decades-long career as a mountaineer, rock climber, country skier, and photographer. He knew the answer to the question was that fear is always there for those who risk it in the most dramatic and harsh of environments. However, it was hard to explain in passing conversation given where most of us get the content of our outdoor adventures now. The one-minute videos on social media deliver the adrenaline and triumph, but they aren’t long or precise enough to capture the will and craftsmanship that enables the best of the best to connect with their fear, and put it all on the line regardless.
Chin and Vasarhelyi’s new National Geographic series Edge of the Unknown with Jimmy Chen—their first foray into television, Which premiered on Disney+ last week– Pierce that veil. “It’s a series I’ve always wanted to make to give people a sense of what it means to be a truly outstanding athlete in the field,” Chen said during an interview prior to the program’s launch. “The level of passion, commitment, purpose and meaning that sport gives to each of these individuals. Because in the end they are looking for that kind of superior experience, but there are two sides to that.”
edge of the unknown It is all about that b side. In each of the 10 episodes (all released at once), Chen and Vasarhelyi trained their lenses on one or a small group of elite athletes, but they dispensed with their greatest victories in favor of their most stunning and near misses. Attack of polar bears and crocodiles. The bones are broken. Minds rush. Hearts stop beating.
Some athletes are more famous than others. Most people reading this will know snowboarder Travis Rice, great surfer Justin Dupont, great mountain surfer Angel Collinson, Ice and rock climber Will Juddand legendary alpine climber Konrad Anker. Honnold is there, too. But this is also the case for the great kayak maker Gerd Cerasolsis, and the young polar explorers Sarah and Eric McNair Landry.
If you see 2015 Mero– A historical account of Chen Anker and photographer Renan Ozturk’s first ascent up a shark’s fin on Mount Meru in the Indian Himalayas – You’ll remember that Chen was terrifyingly on the verge of losing himself, as he steered clear of an avalanche that in the film seemed impossible to survive. Chen delves into that story for the eighth episode of the series, “Live Another Day.”
Interviews are intimate and often emotional. That’s partly because when adventurous athletes in front of the camera talk to Jimmy Chin about their darkest moments, they trust him. “I feel like my understanding of what these athletes are going through is a little sharper than my understanding of someone trying to tell the story from the outside,” says Chen. “I think they trusted us with these stories because they knew we would be sensitive and rational about telling them.”
None of these stories are particularly new. If you are one the outside For as long as I have (or even half as long), watching this show is like browsing the back pages. There are moments when you feel as if Chen is reusing material from his archives (didn’t we see Honnold climbing in Morocco in free solo?), but the intent here is not just to please the core fan, but to entertain a more mainstream audience that doesn’t know or care. Plus the stories are classic stories. Human dramas that keep you energized, and stimulate your thirst for adventure. Not because the athletes seem fearless or vulnerable, but because you see them as survivors. They are not social media avatars. They’re human beings that haven’t materialized on their nerves, and are inches away from death. However, they walk out touched but not retracted from what they have been through.
“They live with a deep structure,” Chen says. “That’s the other thing that I think people don’t necessarily understand about these athletes. They live with the deepest intention because their lives are at stake in what they do. They have to decide every day and every moment to follow through on that.”