Filmmakers Jimmy Chin, Chai Vasarhelyi examine their mortality in ‘Wild Life’

Written by Anna Buss, produced by Joshua Farnham

“Wild Life,” official trailer. Credit: National Geographic on YouTube

Oscar-winning filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi live their own definition of “work-life balance.” As a married couple parenting two children and constantly traveling for their  various projects and films, it’s very typical for them to “hand off the baton” to one another. So while Vasarhelyi is boarding her next flight, Chin is at home caring for the kids, and vise-versa.

Their latest documentary “Wild Life” similarly captures the story of another couple whose work and relationship were inextricably bound: the conservationist husband and wife duo Kristine and Doug Tompkins. 

“They were incredible adventurers and pioneers in the climbing world, and became pioneers, as entrepreneurs, in the business world,” says Chin. “And then, of course, became pioneers in the conservation world.”

The Tompkins, who devoted their lives to wildlife preservation and protection, were spurred by their entrepreneurial work helming majorly successful outdoor clothing companies: Kristine was the chief executive officer at Patagonia, while Doug was the founder of Esprit and North Face. 

But their true passion lay in the land. In the 1990s, they launched an ambitious conservation mission to preserve millions of acres of land in Patagonia, the region shared between Argentina and Chile, encompassing the vast southernmost tip of South America.

Chin and Vasarhelyi spent eight years documenting the effort for “Wild Life,” which doubles as a story about the filmmakers’ relationship to Kristine’s decades-long crusade to bring her late husband’s vision – of creating a National Park between Chile and Argentina – to life, including her journey to carry through the largest private land donation in history. 

“One of our problems was, there were so many incredible stories,” Chin notes. “But at the end of the day, we thought this kind of love story between Kris and Doug was a great thread that allowed us to kind of explore multiple layers of this group of friends that has had an extraordinary impact on the world.” 

Chin knew of the Tompkins and their group of friends before he even met them. Around 2002 mountaineer and adventurer Rick Ridgeway invited the photographer/filmmaker to his first National Geographic expedition to document the crossing of the Changthang plateau in northwestern Tibet. Ridgeway then introduced Chin to Yvon Chouinard, founder of the outdoor company Patagonia, who then presented him to the Tompkins around 2008. 

“I've been kind of bought into that family a long time ago,” Chin observes. “They've been mentors, and the lives they've led have certainly been an inspiration to me. And then Chai got to know them over the years.”

So for Chin, making “Wild Life” was an easy yes, but not for Vasarhelyi.   

“It was hard to convince me to make this film because I was concerned about this idea of making a film about Jimmy's mentors, who are incredibly private people, who are of a different generation and who are used to being the boss – they founded their own companies, they are used to being in control,” she says. “That's not the type of film to make, so I was really, really hesitant.”

Things changed for her when she saw Kristine “pick herself up after losing the love of her life.” Doug Tompkins died during a kayaking trip in Chile in 2015. After his death, Kristine devoted herself to “trying to realize their vision of the park.” 

“I was incredibly moved by these ideas that you can change your life, you can make these decisions, you can find that courage, and you can do it for the right reasons,” Vasarhelyi says. “I think that's why I ultimately committed to making the film.”

While the film follows Kristine’s conservation journey of that region, it also addresses some difficult issues, including that of two Americans going to South America to buy land for conservation.  

“It was incredibly controversial what the Tompkins were doing,” Vasarhelyi observes. “There was a lot of strife and there was a lot of opposition. It [took] 25 years of community work… that allowed them to finally convince these communities and the government.”

In 2018, the Tompkins Conservation, previously known as Conservacion Patagonica, donated some 2 million acres of privately owned land to the Chilean government. Its then-president Michelle Bachelet and Kristine Tompkins signed a decree creating five parks, including the Patagonia National Park

“Wild Life” is a National Geographic film, streaming on Disney+ on May 26.

“Free Solo” official trailer. Credit: National Geographic on Youtube

For Chin and Vasarhelyi, making “Wild Life” involved, once again, the idea of dealing with mortality and taking risks. They first worked together in 2015, making “Meru,” a documentary about Chin and two other elite climbers who attempted to climb Mount Meru in Africa. 

“When you're climbing, or when you're really going on serious expeditions… you're faced with life and death decisions… you certainly are in high stakes situations quite often,” Chin explains.

Then in 2018, the couple directed the award-winning documentary “Free Solo,” where rock climber Alex Hannold conquered the notorious 3,200 ft El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without a rope.

“[Hannold] has examined [his life] very, very carefully, which is why part of the idea of the film is that even through that sort of examination of your mortality, you in some ways, make much more intentional decisions and how you live,” he says. “I don't think that that's different for Doug [Tompkins]. Time is always the most valuable.”

Chin, with 20 years of professional climbing under his belt, has faced at least two life-threatening avalanches: one in the Everest in 2003, and in 2011, a class-4 avalanche in the Grand Tetons. 

“I think about it all the time, examining your mortality,” Chin says. “I think it’s healthy, and I think it helps point towards how you want to live your life.”

Jimmy Chin: Trapped in an avalanche.
Credit: Nat Geo Live on Youtube

Then, he adds, “I always think of a quote that a good friend/ mentor of mine, John Krakauer, said to me, ‘There are great risks in life, risking too much and risking too little.’ And I think we're generally more inclined towards risking too much, but there is a cost to not not taking risks as well.”

While Vasarhelyi has been a risk-taker herself, the concept of mortality has become complicated, especially after they had children.

“I am quite aware of the life that fulfills Jimmy and the decisions he makes, and I respect them. And of course, it freaks me out, but I respect and love my husband and my filmmaking partner,” she says. “So it's complicated. It's ever evolving. Part of Jimmy and my life together, and our work together, the ideas we explore in our films, it's a lively discussion, and it's very nice to be able to process them in public or on the news. But we try our best.”

When asked if he could climb Meru today, Chin said there are other places in the world he has dreamt of climbing. 

“I probably would choose some of the objectives that have a little less kind of objective hazards, meaning, more of big Alpine rock climbs,” he states. “But it's hard not to be drawn to those experiences that you have in those places because you bring something back to your day to day life from those experiences. I find the best version of myself up there, and it's always a good reminder of who that person is.”

Chin and Vasarhelyi next project is their first feature film about the long-distance swimmer Diana Nayad who tried to swim from Florida to Cuba five times, eventually succeeding at 64. “Nyad” will feature Annette Bening as Nyad and Jodie Foster as Nyad’s best friend. 

“It seemed that this form, and these remarkable actors, was really a way to bring [Nyad] to life, to bring this story to life and open it up to allow people to really have access to it,” says Vasarhelyi. 

She adds, “I think it's kind of fun to switch it up every now and then. It was certainly interesting to grow creatively. It was interesting to grow as a couple and a filmmaking partnership, and that was nice the change, trying a different challenge.”




Joshua Farnham