The phrase “traveling for work” takes on a whole new meaning when you’re talking to Chris Brinlee Jr. The Colorado native is a professional adventurer, spending his time trekking beautiful – if often perilous – locations all over the world. He’s mountaineered to the summit of the Eiger in Switzerland and kayaked through glacier-strewn Tasiilaq in Greenland. As a travel storyteller, he chronicles his experiences into photography and content for brands and magazines.
Brinlee Jr. is somewhere different every week, if not every day. But that’s the point: pushing himself to explore and survive new locations outside of his comfort zone. And often, gaining mental clarity in the process. It’s a mission he calls “celebrate discomfort” and one that he encourages fans to partake in, if not necessarily on the mountains. For Brinlee Jr., discomfort is the catalyst for growth.
In between a stay at home and a camping trip in Baja, California, we spoke to Brinlee Jr. about his journey from cubicle-bound ad executive to badass mountaineer, personal discovery in harrowing environments, and dining on freshly-caught whale meat.
Where are you currently located?
Have you ever tried to catch a fly in your hand?
A few days ago I was skiing in the Italian Alps. Yesterday I was home in Colorado’s Front Range. While writing this, I’m on a flight to LA and then will be camping in Baja California over the weekend.
By the time you are reading this, there’s a good chance that I’ll have been to a handful of other places, both domestic and abroad. Catch me if you can!
What is your occupation?
I am an adventure travel storyteller. Essentially, I go on adventures, often of my own design, and then get paid to tell stories about them, through photography, writing, and video–for brands (think, outdoor apparel and gear) and magazines.
What motivated you to leave your office job in August 2014 to pursue adventure in the alpine?
I had never seen mountains up close until a backpacking trip through Yosemite the previous summer. I had never been outside of the US until December of that same year. I was 25.
On New Year’s Eve 2013, I went on an epic hike in Yosemite with my brother, where we stood on a ledge overlooking death–yet I had never felt more alive. That afternoon we drove back to LA and watched The Secret Life of Walter Mitty for the first time in theaters that night.
The next day I went back to work, sat down in my cubicle, and stared up at its white walls and ceiling–the tiny box that dictated so much of my life–and in that moment, I vowed to GTFO.
You met your friend and business partner Christian Lanley on the Alps and once survived a night tied to each other 12,000 feet up on the Eiger. Tell us about that experience.
Christian’s and my unplanned, emergency bivy on the Eiger’s Mittellegi Ridge was cold and miserable–and it happened because we were slow. Granted, the route was totally out of condition (we were there more than a month after it is typically climbed. Though the weather was great, the mostly rock mountaineering route was almost totally covered in snow.) That night was the coldest of my life, but we witnessed the most glorious sunrise. We learned a lesson too: each climber carry his own sleeping bag, or don’t be slow.
Have you always been such a skilled alpinist?
Saying that I am “such a skilled alpinist” is being generous. Jimmy Chin is a skilled alpinist. Cory Richards is a skilled alpinist. Colin Haley is a skilled alpinist. I’m just a guy with enough of a penchant for discomfort to eagerly drag himself up mountains, and the right type of training to (mostly) do it safely.
While the mental and physical stamina required for Alpinism is incredibly demanding, I can’t express the need for proper training enough. I learned the craft through the American Alpine Institute; their courses provided the framework for me to go out and gain experience in the Alpine independently.
You’ve been all over the world. Which locations and/or climbs have stood out to you?
That’s a tough one! Eastern Greenland was incredible. The landscapes were incredibly inspiring: jagged, glaciated peaks jutted straight up from the turquoise sea; we accessed climbing via kayaks. While we were paddling, whales would come nearby to breach. There were floating icebergs all around, and all of that gave a total sense of wilderness.
Eastern Greenland’s culture is incredibly unique too: its indigenous population sustained itself off a meat-only diet until the 1980’s; many of its people still hunt whale as their primary means of sustenance.
While we were there, my partner Andrew Yasso and I had the opportunity to eat whale steaks with the young hunter who harpooned it. The hunter was a well-traveled, tech-savvy millennial, yet he chose to remain in his home village to live a more traditional lifestyle that’s closely aligned with nature. I respect that. (PS, whale was the most delicious meat I have ever eaten.)
You passionately promote stepping out of your comfort zone, and have even created the hashtag #CelebrateDiscomfort for fans to follow along as you do so. What fears have you conquered on your journey? What have you learned about yourself?
Discomfort is the strongest catalyst for personal growth; that growth is one of the most important elements that we can seek in life because it permeates into everyday life: allowing us to live more boldly, communicate more clearly, handle stress more effectively, and better understand our place in the world.
Greater understanding of self leads to greater understanding of others, and that is the social lubricant that so much of the world is missing today. Its absence undoubtedly leads to many of the issues that plague our planet and humanity.
Personally, I have never really been afraid of dying, but as I got older, I became deathly afraid of not living. My journey allows me to constantly conquer that fear; I’ve learned that anything is possible if your will is strong enough.
Who are your mentors in the mountains?
I am fortunate enough to have had many great mentors in the mountains, but two in particular have had the greatest impact on me: My friend Andrew Yasso, a lead instructor and guide for AAI, taught me most of what I know about alpine climbing and risk management in the mountains. Jeff Banks, an American guide based in Chamonix, has really helped me hone in on my skiing.
Who/what influenced you to grow a beard? How long have you had a beard for?
Growing up, my dad almost always had a really fantastic beard, so the influence was definitely there. I started growing facial hair when I was 15 and kept something short until college. My freshman year, I was in Navy ROTC, so I had almost no hair (even on my head) but I let it grow when I got out.
I never had a proper beard though, until going to Costa Rica on my first trip abroad. Upon returning to the cubicle, I hadn’t trimmed it for an entire month and I got a lot of compliments from my coworkers, who suggested that I keep it growing. So I did. And I didn’t trim it for 14 straight months.
The beard is definitely much tamer now, but it will never fully go away.
Do you have any tips for beard growers?
When I first grew out my beard, I didn’t realize the importance of maintenance: conditioning (with beard oil, which keeps the hair follicles moisturized and healthy,) combing (which helps to keep it neat,) and trimming (which reduces split ends, helping to maintain overall beard health–while also keeping it neat.)
What’s next in your adventure?
I am just wrapping up a two and a half month stint around the globe: Kenya, Hawaii, Alberta, the Alps, Baja, and LA. As such, I’m looking forward to being home in Colorado for a bit and climbing lots of alpine rock.
This summer though, I’m going to be attending a survival school in Sweden, getting my skydiving license in Boulder, climbing in Bali, kayaking from Cuba to Key West, and then exploring the Torngat Mountains and fjords in Newfoundland Labrador. Stoked.
Right now, I’m obsessed with:
Lord Huron, PowerBar Simple Fruit, and foldable boats.
The first website I log onto every morning is:
Instagram or Gmail.
My favorite Instagrams to follow are:
I’d love to visit:
Kyrgyzstan. Pakistan. Afghanistan. All of the Stans, really. And Japan.
If I wasn’t doing this job, I would:
Probably become a stunt man. I love anything with wheels and I’m good at falling.