PROFILE: Chris Brinlee Jr., Professional Adventurer
Cole: So you’re a professional adventurer?
Chris: I suppose that’s a fitting title.
Fitting title, indeed!
Mountaineering in North Cascades, trekking to sunset on the edge of Norway, nearly dying on an Icelandic glacier, vomiting on a 20k foot Himalayan peak. I wasn’t two sentences into his blog before I was feeling my own wanderlust sit up and take notice.
We were first introduced to Chris Brinlee Jr. through our engagement with a philanthropic gear supplier called Cotopaxi. They suggested we could do a Q&A with Chris, one of their ambassadors, and share it on our blog. This feature post is a bit different from our usual National Park focus. But even with the crazy range of his exploits, the National Parks here at home play a huge role. Plus, we always love hearing the stories of other adventurers. And I think you will too!
Cole: What was your previous life? How did you start?
Chris: I graduated and moved to LA. I started in a digital ad agency as a creative. I became the interactive art director at my ad agency with clients like Honda and Intuit. It was 9-5, with cool production trips sometimes. Those were such a drastic change from the daily grind of making web banners. I loved it. It was a teaser.
Cole: What led to your career in adventure?
Chris: I grew up in rural Arkansas and spent tons of time outdoors because we didn’t have anything else. My brother and I explored everything. We had dirt bikes, 25-acres of land and a sense of adventure. But after school in a big city and moving to LA, I lost that sense. I was sitting in cubicle planning a trip to Japan to get away (I’d never been abroad), but in the end I couldn’t save enough. Instead I decided to do something local. A little voice said, “Go backpacking in Yosemite.” I’d never done that either. But I planned the trip. Then a week beforehand, my uncle passed away from pancreatic cancer. That hit hard. His family was from central California, and when I visited them I had always seen the Sierras, but never been. Only after my uncle died did I go to experience firsthand.
One night our tent was perched on a bluff at 9,800 feet in the middle of Yosemite National Park. I was looking at snowy Mt. Hoffman and contemplating life and existence. “I want to climb that,” I told my friend who was with me. He said I was crazy. But I said yes. I think that’s when my dormant spirit awoke, and life wouldn’t be the same.
Months later, I went to Mineral King in Sequoia National Park for another backpacking trip to 11,700 feet. I still wanted to be on mountains. I kept seeking these experiences and it became an every-weekend occurrence. I went on a photo shoot to Costa Rica with ziplines, rafting, and even a homestay, It was my first time abroad and it was all paid for. After a couple days back in office it was Christmas. I went winter camping in Yosemite backcountry with my brother the rest of December. I trail ran up to Glacier Point and back; 19 miles in 7 hours. It was an empowering moment. I drove back to LA for NYE 2013 and saw Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Everything changed.
Back in my office cubicle the next week I thought, “What the f#%@ am I doing? I don’t belong here. How can I escape and lead a life of adventure?” Then I got a call from one of my friends who was looking for someone crazy enough to backpack Iceland with him. Yeah, sounds great… but I only have two weeks vacation. I decided I must quit my job.
And in Aug 2014 I did. Since I had learned to climb mountains at the Winter Mountaineering School with American Alpine Institute in March, the first thing I did was to climb Mount Baker in North Cascades National Park in September. I went on to Denmark, backpacking Norway fjords for a few weeks, Iceland for a month, met 19 cool Czech guys. I figured I might as well go halfway around the world to Nepal where I climbed 20,300-foot Island Peak in the Himalayas, drove motorcycles through Vietnam. Finally when I lost my camera, computer and backpack, I booked a flight home.
But I wasn’t making money and didn’t know what to do at home. I kept writing more as I had throughout my traveling. I started getting my adventure stories published online through an outlet, kept networking and picked up clout in the adventure writing community. I thought life would get more stable, but it didn’t. Now writing and photography is my work. I gravitated toward documentary style adventure photography. That evolved into storytelling with photos and photo essays.
Cole: Sounds like you’ve had a few experiences with U.S. National Parks.
Chris: The Sierras [including Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks] hold my heart. I’ve had the opportunity to see amazing mountains there. I’ve also spent time in Joshua Tree when I got the itch to adventure over weekends – shooting time lapses and scrambling. And I went to Petrified Forest along Route 66 for work trip once.
Cole: What’s one message you’d like to give to people?
Chris: If you’re not happy at where you are in life, make a change. It doesn’t matter what that change is. Just make a change and evaluate the results. If that change didn’t work make another and keep doing that until you discover what it is that makes your spirit come alive. Then throw every part of your being into those pursuits. For me, the elation comes from pushing myself to the very edges of my comfort zone, past the point of expansion. Then I step back and see those changes make a difference in my life, whether it’s climbing or experiencing a new culture or growing in my own personal life.
Cole: You’re an ambassador for a company called Cotopaxi?
Chris: Yes! They first reached out to me before they launched single product. I had just started discovering my passion and throwing myself into it. Our relationship got a lot deeper over the next two years. We grew up together from birth in this adventure space. I love that doing good is engrained in the company DNA. We want to have a positive impact on world and there’s not a better possible partnership.
Cole: Where are you now?
Chris: Right now I’m in Long Beach, CA where I stay in between trip. I just got back from a trip to British Columbia of skiing and hiking and photographing trail running. Next I have 3 weeks of 5 consecutive trips.
It’s been over 18 months of full-time adventure and Chris doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon. I mentioned that after our full year of National Parks travel, we’ll be looking forward to settling down in St. Louis. He joked with me, “You say that now…”
Chris is a living testament that the adventure bug is easy to catch, but very hard to give up.
Follow Chris and his adventure on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And definitely scope out his website full of amazing pictures. Check out Cotopaxi.com and browse all their great gear. And make sure you find out what their Questival adventure race is all about. We’re hooked!