By Jonathan Thesenga
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"This is James Pearson making the sketchy first ascent of the Arch of Bishekele in Chad's Ennedi Desert. Besides the challenges of a remote location and technical rigging, I had to deal with extreme heat, sandstorms, and knife-wielding bandits before I got this shot."
Jimmy Chin's career-changing moment came in 1999, after an ascent of Yosemite's El Capitan. He'd been living out of his beat-up Subaru for seven years, traversing the States to feed his climbing and skiing jones. On the wall, he used his climbing partner's camera to take some pictures, which the friend later sold for him to outdoor gear manufacturer Mountain Hardwear for $500. He couldn't believe it. "I realized if I sold 12 of those a year, I'd be living large," recalls Chin, a sinewy 38-year-old with a neat ponytail of raven hair.
Fast-forward to 2012. Chin's dirtbag days are far behind him, and now he's a high-profile, sponsored climber as well as one of the sport's most sought-after photographers. He's almost certainly the only person to both shoot a cover photo for National Geographic and appear on the cover of Outside as an athlete.
From the Sahara to the Himalayas, Chin performs the dangerous balancing act of documenting the action and staying alive. Last winter, he survived a 2,000-foot avalanche ride in the Teton backcountry while shooting some pro snowboarders. "Trying to be creative under duress is the challenge I thrive on," he says. "I'm constantly assessing when I can shoot and when to focus on the climbing—when it's time to put the camera down and deal."