How to Conquer the Mountains of Your Life

Chris Brinlee Jr
Jan 9, 2017 · 13 min read

It’s that time of the year again, when gym memberships spike, people swear off alcohol for the umpteenth time, and other nagging resolutions are hastily defined. While many are quick to write off “New Year Resolutions” as ineffective, overly optimistic, too specific, or even completely pointless — they can actually be quite effective when approached in the right way.

Don’t half-ass anything. Go all the way, all the time.

For me, instead of committing to half-hearted, arbitrary actions (for instance the classic, “This year I’m going to get into shape” or “I want to like my job more.”) I have found it useful to create specific, achievable goals (counter: “On May 27th, I’m going to finish the local Marathon.” or “I’m going to start a new career.”) While this results-driven approach is both motivating and rewarding — the key to successfully reaching your goals lies not in the action itself, but in committing to the lifestyle changes that will enable those goals to be achieved.

Furthermore, I find it useful to create a theme for each year based on the overarching idea of those specific goals. Think about it like a painting. The specific goals are the subject of the painting: what, specifically, will it look like in the end? What is the result? The lifestyle changes that will enable the goal to be achieved are the brush strokes: each one builds upon the others to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. The theme then, is kind of like the creative brief: what idea will this painting communicate?

A literal lighthouse, in Iceland.

When these themes are applied to each year; and resolutions are approached as specific goals supported by lifestyle changes — which are inspired by defining principles for life — one can begin to create measurable progress throughout their years.

Being able to visualize that progress — then enact it, measure it, and reflect on it — creates a compass, or lighthouse: enabling one to maintain a clear direction for their future, even when down in the trenches of everyday life.

A 360-degree view of Yosemite gave me the perfect opportunity to reflect on years past, and years to come.

NYE 2013 marked the start of something great for me. I had had a life changing experience with my brother Dillan while hiking in Yosemite; upon the return to my cubicle at RPA — the advertising agency in LA where I worked as a junior art director — I knew that it would be my last year in that position.

Earlier that December, I had experienced my first trip abroad, shooting photos and video for Autentico Adventures — a locally owned, family-operated Costa Rican adventure tour company. That trip gave me a taste of the world; and what life would be like as a globe-trotting content creator. I was hooked.

Freedom flows through these watery veins. Freedom was what I felt while shooting a project in Costa Rica.

2014 became my “Year of Drastic Changes.” I realized that I alone was responsible for the direction of my life; I began to really orchestrate each of my conscience thoughts and actions around a singular goal: escape the cubicle life and create a new life as an adventure travel content creator.

I began by adjusting my thinking; my perspective. I wanted to travel more, but my job at the time offered a finite number of days off per year. I wanted to be more creative, but the projects I was assigned mostly limited me to making boring web banners.

I took stock of my desires and my skill sets; and instead of settling for what was comfortable, easy, and already in front of me — I decided to create a new career from scratch. I wanted a lifestyle that would allow for all of the experiences and creative fulfillment that I could imagine.

This, I knew, would take time to plan and I’d need to have money saved to start. Both are very finite resources for a young, urban professional — so I made changes. Each night after work, I began plotting my escape. Each weekend, I forwent brunches and bars — instead opting to spend my nights out under the stars, further developing my adventure photography and writing portfolio. Instead of buying lunch at work everyday, it became a routine of PB&J.

My exit form from RPA. Reason for leaving: Career Change

Ultimately that focus paid off: On August 1st I gave notice at RPA; on August 21st I walked out of the cubicle for the last time; and on September 1st, I took off on a nearly eight month-long content-creating adventure around the world — leaving my adopted home in LA behind. I would become more-or-less nomadic for the next two years. Drastic changes.

2015 became my “Year of Adventure;” as the title suggests, it was defined by adventure travel. I knew that in order to be taken seriously as a content creator in the outdoor industry, I’d have to develop some serious street cred, so I threw myself out there: backpacking, climbing, and traveling as much as possible — while continuing to pump out content along the way.

Ama Dablam towers above the trail in the Khumbu Valley, Nepal.

I spent more time in Nepal on two different trips than I had spent in LA during those 12 months; a trip to Kenya with LifeStraw, photographing their “Follow the Liters” activation — and then some sport climbing and motorcycling in Thailand — rounded out the year.

Things had been going great and I had been on some amazing adventures, but by the end of 2015 I was broke, struggling with a growing debt, and none of the leads for generating income that I had worked so hard to develop had panned out.

Me taking in views of Ama Dablam (center left) and Cholatse (center right) en route to Cho La Pass, the day after summiting Lobuche East (20,089')

While sitting at a teahouse in the Khumbu in Nepal, a few short days after climbing Lobuche East — my second 6,000m peak — I broke out my notebook, started crunching numbers, and faced the conclusion that something would have to give: I either had to sign a serious retainer contract with a brand or editorial outlet — or I had to throw in the towel and go back to work at another advertising agency, effectively turning my back on the tireless work I had done for the past two years of planning and execution.

A few weeks later, I returned to the States to celebrate Christmas with my family. I still didn’t have my financial dilemma figured out, but I had some luck (defined as preparation meeting opportunity): outdoor gear and apparel maker Cotopaxi wanted to sign me on as an exclusive ambassador and content creator. My “Year of Adventure” was paying off.

Cotopaxi and I shared a similar history. As they were planning to launch, I was planning to quit my job. Our development and recognition in the outdoor industry also continued to grow at a similar pace; much of what we did was intertwined. In a sense, we grew up together.

Let there be light. I delivered 12 Goal Zero Torch 250 solar/crank-powered lights/battery packs to refugees in the Langtang Valley.

Cotopaxi is a brand that I believe in, not only because of the excellent gear and apparel that they produce, but because of their commitment to creating a positive impact on the world. For example, their grantee program (which is derived from proceeds tied to consumer purchases) funds health, education, and poverty-alleviation initiatives in developing areas. I too had dedicated time and financial resources to a similar cause during the earthquakes in Nepal.

James Roh & I taught photography & storytelling workshops at a Health & Ed 4Nepal, a school in Kumari that was the recipient of a grant from Cotopaxi in 2015.

Even their manufacturing practices are linked to this effort: They partner with factories in developing nations that provide sustainable wages and safe working environments — while providing workers with creative liberties through the unique Del Dia line (and thus ownership and pride in the products) — more practices that I believed in.

Do Good. Simple, powerful.

Cotopaxi’s iconic T-shirt neatly sums up what they’re all about. It boldly reads: “DO GOOD” — a simple message that I do my best to uphold.

For those reasons and more, I was unequivocally delighted for the opportunity to join their team in an official capacity. Soon thereafter we signed a contract and my dreams of becoming a professional adventure travel content creator came true.

Thus were the circumstances upon which I entered 2016: which I’d come to consider the “Year of the Sponsor.” Over the course of the next 12 months, I would go on to represent two more amazing brands that I believed in through similar ambassadorships: GoPro and LifeStraw.

Rolling with Mike Horn on his Mercedes G-Wagon exploratory tour of Alberta.

In addition to securing the ambassadorships, I had the opportunity to work on several more amazing projects: photographing professional explorer Mike Horn for Travel Alberta; photographing LifeStraw’s first “Follow the Liters” activation in India; shooting Cotopaxi’s catalog in Alaska; producing my first big content campaign based around an adventure in Eastern Greenland; and climbing in the European Alps with Christian Lanley while shooting the promotional video for Cotopaxi’s Libre Sweater Kickstarter campaign (which reached nearly $400,000 funding, becoming Kickstarter’s most-funded sweater, ever.)

I wrapped up the year by joining Mike Horn again, this time aboard his vessel The Pangaea, as we sailed to Antarctica — covering his Pole2Pole expedition for Red Bulletin.

Mike Horn, in Antarctica.
The Pangaea, en route to Antarctica from Cape Town, South Africa.
Backpacking through the Alaskan summer night (this was taken at around 1am) with Greg Balkin, for Cotopaxi.
A herd of reindeer congregates near Nikolski, Aleutian Islands, Alaska.
A shot for Cotopaxi’s Fall/Winter 2016 Catalog, featuring the Kusa Bomber Jacket, in Seward, Alaska.
Andrew Yasso descending a 5,000' peak in Eastern Greenland.
Andrew Yasso paddling his Oru Coast+ Kayak in the Amasiilak Fjord in Eastern Greenland. We climbed a new alpine rock route two days later.
Zermatt, Switzerland is lit up below the Matterhorn. Two days later, Christian Lanley & I summited the world’s most famous peak in winter-like conditions.
Christian on descent from the Eiger, after we climbed its famed Mittellegi Ridge.

The gaps in between those projects were sprinkled with shorter adventures: learning to ski in Salt Lake City; learning to lead trad at Red Rock in Las Vegas; snowmachine touring and backpacking through Alaska; more skiing in British Columbia and Sun Valley; canyoneering in Zion; paddling (almost) to Catalina Island from LA; climbing Rainier (twice) and Shasta (once;) riding singletrack in Jura, France — then climbing in (and getting my first taste of) Chamonix; off-roading and beach camping in Baja; alpine climbing in the Rockies; kayaking Big Bend in southern Texas; climbing more at the Gunks in New York; and finally, riding ATVs and photographing surfing in the Aleutian Islands.

Christian captured me leading pitch three of the classic CCK route in The Gunks,

In the middle of all of that, I also bought an old, 4x4 Nissan Pathfinder — and moved my stuff out of Wes Siler’s (my friend and mentor; the editor responsible for IndefinitelyWild) attic in Hollywood to a room that I began renting from a friend in a town at the foothills of the Rockies, just north of Boulder, Colorado — officially ending my nomad status (though I would continue traveling non-stop for the next six months.)

In short, 2016 was amazing beyond my wildest expectations — but it was equally exhausting! I spent about 44 total weeks traveling; bouncing around like a ping-pong ball between 11 countries on five continents (including two different trips to France) and more than a dozen states (including four different trips to Alaska) — on probably 200 different flights.

Dutch Harbor, coming in hot.

By mid-November; after a series of six flights spanning four days and 11,000 miles from the Aleutian Islands, Alaska to Cape Town, South Africa (the latter of which was where the Pangaea would set sail from for Antarctica) I was exhausted — and way, way behind on work.

Fortunately, I had two months ahead of me, completely unplugged from the Internet; to a great extent — the outside world. This sailing sabbatical would ultimately provide the opportunity for me to slowwwwww dowwwwwwn (though I would still technically be working on assignment, distractions would be minimized — and I would be occupying a singular space for longer than I ever had;) get caught up on backlogged work; and evaluate the question:

What do I want out of 2017?

What I realized that I wanted, in a word, was balance.

Less airports; more time.

While I am incredibly grateful for and humbled by the innumerable adventure and travel opportunities that I have had throughout the past couple of years, they have come at the expense of many ideals that we often take for granted, including consistency (routine,) stability (security,) belonging (family, friendships relationships;) and foundation (a sense of home.)

My current near-total lack of those ideals — which was at first liberating and had acted as a crutch while I was learning to navigate through this exciting new career — had eventually started to hold me back. Lately, my mind has been screaming, “I don’t want to be held back, I want to run! I want to move forward!”

In order to move forward though, we must often first step back. Re-evaluate. Re-focus. [This post originated as my personal re-evaluation.] Now, throughout the next year, I’ll be “tweaking the formula” — refocusing my life in the three core categories that define its existence: creativity, time, and space.

What’s more creative than riding a dirtbike in Antarctica? Not much, IMO.


I am passionate about creating. Though I’m not a maker in the physical sense — creating beautiful, well-crafted, purpose-driven goods — the sentiment is the same. I constantly aim to create content — whether still photography, video, writing, or design — that is beautiful, communicative, and above all, inspiring.

As an individual, I can only do so much. So I’ve stepped back. Re-evaluated. Refocused. And now I’m going to move forward: teaming up with Christian to launch the creative agency that I’ve been dreaming about and working towards for the past several years.

The agency will allow Christian and me to create projects that communicate and celebrate big ideas — ideas that we are passionate about and that we believe in. These projects will ultimately result in more personal creative fulfillment than either of us could achieve on our own — while having the potential to make even greater impacts on our audience.

Christian having dinner the night before we tackled the Mittellegi Ridge.


Whoever said that “time is the most valuable resource” spoke the truest words that have ever been uttered.

As any freelancer or self-employed person can attest, time management is absolutely critical to success. While I have developed a decent practice of the skill, I never seem to have enough of the first ingredient (time.)

How can I get more time? Cutting out several of those 200 flights and their destinations (and resisting their often sporadic nature) will be a good start. This isn’t to say that I am committing to experiencing less — it’s quite the opposite. I’ll reinvest my newfound time in family. In friendships. In myself through athletic training and outdoor education. And in causes that I believe in. In a way, I’ll be committing to experiencing more. Time is only as good as what you do with it, after all.

The Northern Lights dancing above our tent in Eastern Greenland.


Space is simply the place we occupy — whether that’s home, school, work — or the millions of locations that we can point to on a map and commit to exploring.

For the last couple of years, I’ve been in a lot of places — often bouncing between 4–5 consecutive trips over the course of a few weeks or a couple of months. Though I moved to Colorado in July, I barely spent two weeks there in total; rarely for more than a few days at a time.

While each experience has been totally rad and I’m incredibly grateful for them all — packing for up to five (often gear-intensive,) consecutive trips in various climates at once is absolute mayhem; and it can be pretty damn stressful lugging all of that gear around during transitions.

I want more time to explore the Rockies with my brother Dillan, who just moved to Lyons.

So I’ve stepped back. Reevaluated. Re-focused. (Starting to sense a trend here?) This year, in 2017, I’m committing to occupying fewer spaces; traveling to fewer places. This will enable me to become more enriched wherever I am — whether that’s getting to know the mountains near my new home in Colorado, or committing to bigger, longer trips and climbs in places like the Alaska Range or the Himalayas.

Collectively, each of these tweaks will ultimately lead to more balance in my life — which is something that I crave. (Simply physics, right? The universe must have balance.) So I suppose, that 2017 will be my “Year of Achieving Balance.”

Christian strolling through an alpine valley in the Italian Alps, while shooting for Cotopaxi’s LIbre Sweater campaign.

What do you want out of 2017?

I encourage you to consider your desires — your goals. Then identify what hurdles you will have to overcome to achieve those goals, and finally — take whatever steps are necessary to start heading in that direction. At the root of all of that is change.

Change isn’t always easy. We are creatures of habit, after all. However, even the subtlest changes can have an impact on your attitude and well-being — while simultaneously providing the courage required to make the big changes. The ones that are life-defining. The great leaps of faith that lead into the wild unknowns. It is those steps outside of the comfort zone that matter most, because they will ultimately lead us to our goals.

You have the power to orchestrate the symphony of your own life. What song will you play this year?

Chances are that Chris Brinlee, Jr. wrote this from the road (or on a boat, plane, or train) while traveling around the globe. Wanna see what he’s currently up to? Follow his adventures and stories on Instagram.

Chris Brinlee Jr

Written by

Adventurer | Storyteller — I celebrate discomfort.

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