Panerai ambassador, Jimmy Chin, puts the rugged Submersible BMG-Tech Carbotech to the test with an independent film project made exclusively for the launch.
By Blake Rong
You may have heard this kind of story before. A couple flees a revolution, lands in America. In the unlikely cold of the Midwest, they raise a son. They pin their hopes and dreams of the future on him. He learns two languages, takes violin lessons, takes martial arts and swim lessons, reads books, enrolls in SAT classes. Earns straight As at boarding school. Learns patience, hard work, humility, the wisdom of keeping his head down. Every opportunity afforded to him off the sweat of their backs. He goes to a good university, where he studies international relations, with law school ahead. And then, he buys a 1980 Subaru wagon, drives to Yosemite, spends a year in the wilderness—then another. And never looks back.
“I was brought up with this idea of excellence: If you were going to pursue something, it was really not about whatever pursuit, it was about the craft,” said Jimmy Chin, 45, youthful and lean, who first fell in love with rock climbing in the late 90s. Back when it was still a fringe activity, Chin was living in Yosemite among the proud, Thoreau-like devotees who dubbed themselves “climbing dirtbags.” Among these characters—incredible athletes, said Chin, who were living on the fringes of society—he found his people, made lasting friends, and thrived.
During one climb Chin borrowed the camera of his climbing partner, Brady Robinson, and took a picture of him hanging in a bivouac off the side of El Capitan. Robinson developed the photo and sold it to the clothing brand Mountain Hardwear for the princely sum of $500—a fortune among the dirtbags. They split the money. Chin, still living in his Subaru, used his share to buy his first camera. He was hooked.
“I’ve been told, and I believe it’s true, you find your mentors, or the mentors find you,” said Chin. “I didn’t go to school for photography, I didn’t go to school for filmmaking, I was really fortunate in the sense that when I committed to the craft of photography, filmmaking, career, the universe would provide.”
In 1999, Chin and Robinson organized their first major expedition to Pakistan’s Karakoram mountains, the second-highest range in the world. The expedition lasted three months. The team climbed the 6,325-meter Fathi Brakk, a jagged granite spire that rises dramatically over pools of glacial water, like a fantasy castle inhabited by dragons. In an era before the Internet or widespread GPS, Chin and Robinson were to venture to one of the most remote places on Earth.
“I took a big leap in terms of making commitments to make that expedition happen. Convincing a group of my peers to trust me and making it happen and then going off and climbing these big alpine high-altitude, fairly complex climbs, that was a big leap for me, gave me a lot of confidence in trusting myself and following my instincts. I was the expedition leader, and it was a lot at the time. but I trusted myself, trusted in the universe, trusted that things would work out.”
The team climbed a dangerous and unproven new route. They endured falling ice blocks, rock slides that nearly crushed them. It was Chin’s first time shooting with an SLR camera. When they returned, his expedition photographs found their way to clothing catalogs, and suddenly, Chin was hot.
In 2001, Chin began shooting campaigns for The North Face, which became his sponsor. The next year, Chin participated in a 300-mile trek across Tibet’s Changtang Plateau; his photos were featured in the April 2003 issue of National Geographic. Chin’s parents saw their son give a talk in Washington D.C., surrounded by his photographs, and they understood: how one can build a life in circuitous routes, much like a snakelike climb up a rock face. Meru, the first documentary directed by Chin and his wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, debuted in 2015 at the Sundance Film Festival. It won the U.S. Documentary Award there and was shortlisted for an Oscar. It detailed his team’s climb up Meru Peak in India’s Himalayas, ascending a route evocatively named the “Shark’s Fin.” Last year’s follow-up, Free Solo, won an Oscar and a BAFTA, and at the 2019 Emmy Awards, racked up 20 trophies across seven categories. In Free Solo, the camera was on Alex Honnold attempting to freehand climb Yosemite’s legendary El Capitan. Now, Chin was returning home.
“I was brought up with this idea of excellence: If you were going to pursue something, it was not really about whatever pursuit, it was about the craft.”
“We’re constantly referencing time in relationship to where we are on the mountain,” said Chin. “It affects your decisions.” Time is of the essence: It is the one consistent variable among the unpredictable, a potentially lifesaving source of stability. Climbers check their progress by how much time has elapsed, which in turn determines their route, their energy levels, and weather conditions. Knowing when to turn around or whether there’s still time to push forward is vital. “I’ve always said that time is the only true currency, and I still believe that,” said Chin. “In the mountains, you could do big expeditions and big climbs. You’re constantly checking the time in terms of progress, in terms of where you are on the climb, how you make decisions moving forward or retreating.”
That’s the basic premise of a timepiece, anyway. But when, say, skiing down Mount Everest’s Lhotse Face, as Chin did in 2006, a watch’s ruggedness takes on another dimension. Panerai recently appointed Chin as a brand ambassador—at the Emmys this year, he wore a Luminor 1950 GMT—in the hopes that its latest ultra-functional timepiece, the Submersible BMG-TECH, can keep up.
Panerai is attempting to harken to its past of building properly rugged hardware. The BMG-TECH series recalls the dive watches issued to the Italian Navy as a fount of never-ending inspiration—one that has sustained the brand as it went from obscure foreign curiosity to fashion icon. Watches, said Chin, are like climbing gear: “Some of the most useful pieces of gear are the timeless and the most well-designed pieces that we still always use … it’s almost less about the watch getting me out of a bind but keeping me from getting into a bind.”
BMG-TECH is a bulk metallic glass, an alloy of zirconium, copper, aluminum, titanium, and nickel that is heated and rapidly cooled, a process similar to glassblowing, but where the atoms retain a chaotic structure at the microscopic level. It can never corrode, says Panerai. It is shockproof, scratchproof, and resistant to magnetism. It is super light, and the carbon fiber bezel only adds lightness. All the better to protect the P.9010 automatic calibre, an in-house movement with a three-day power reserve and 28,800 beats per hour. Two different types of Super-LumiNova differentiate the small seconds dial from the main functions, and the light blue adds a chic contrast. That beefy crown lock has always been a polarizing Panerai element; here, it aids in the watch’s 300-meter water-resistance rating. If the watch is as bulletproof as Panerai suggests, then it will survive anything Chin’s next expedition can throw at it.
There is always something coming up next. Viewed from Chin’s lenses, the world shrinks, and the vast remoteness of territories appears in our mailboxes and on our phones. There is an element of wistfulness to this—are there still far-flung lands to be discovered? Is there still time left? The Changpa nomads have been around for a lot longer than National Geographic; British surveyors crisscrossed the Karakoram mountains as early as the 1800s, and Yūichirō Miura became Chin’s predecessor when he skied down Everest himself, in 1970, complete with a parachute and broken limbs. (The ensuing documentary on Miura won an Oscar, something Chin can surely appreciate.)
In Chin’s mind, there are endless places to be explored. He spends part of his time in New York City and in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and despite his youth spent climbing the Rockies in a Subaru, there is still uncharted territory among the Tetons. “You know what, there’s still a lot of this planet that has not been explored,” he said. “There are so many mountains in the Himalayas that have not been explored. There are still tons of potential. You have to get creative. We have so much more tech these days to go further, and so our capacity to be explorers is changing and progressing and allowing us to push further to areas we’ve never been … the oceans, for example. And of course, there’s space!”
Chin in space? The world waits for that documentary with bated breath.