On life in the mountains, reaching goals, and exactly what can make anyone happy.
It’s a calm, cool, fall morning in northern California. James Brown is at one of the SWS offices, a 100 year old house at the base of Mount Shasta. Outside the window, trees with autumn leaves in warm shades of red and orange are dusted with a fresh coat of snow, the seasons overlapping as is typical in the Northern Sierra. Inside, JB sorts mountaineering gear in jeans and flip flops while listening to NPR. The walls are covered with coiled rope hanging on pegs, and photos from expeditions on mountains around the world. Tents, harnesses, ice axes, crampons, and hundreds of carabiners fill the cozy space.
“I just got back from the North Cascades, and I have guides leaving for Aconcagua,” JB says while setting aside a winter tent, designed to handle heavy snow loads and high winds. “I was definitely on an expedition on Aconcagua, when the wind speeds were around 120 miles an hour. In conditions like that - you’re just trying to not have your tent blow away, with you in it!”
He chooses avalanche beacons and shovels, placing them beside the tent. “If you don’t have a certain level of fear, you shouldn’t be doing this job. You use the fear as a tool to make decisions.”
What is your job?
I’m one of 3 owners of Sierra Wilderness Seminars. We own SWS Mountain Guides, California Ski Guides, and California Rock Guides, and we’re expanding and buying other guide services as well.
We guide climbing, backcountry skiing, we teach avalanche courses and wilderness first responder courses, we contract with the Department of Defense to train them as well.
Where do you guide?
Joshua Tree, King’s Canyon, Inyo, Mount Shasta, Sequoia, Yosemite, Pinnacles… the entire state of California!
Internationally in Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Nepal, Russia, Morocco, Tanzania. We guide on Kilimanjaro, we work in the Everest region. Even China. And skiing in Japan.
What is a typical day like?
There is no typical day. I manage our guides, as well as guiding myself.
In the summer I guide along the eastern Sierra. The spring and fall is international guiding season, so I’m in Mexico, Nepal, or wherever. Winter is quiet… so I ski every morning and don’t show up until 11 o’clock!
Is there any one place in particular you guide the most frequently?
Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48. I have 117 guided summits. I know the place like the back of my hand.
It’s one of my favorite places to guide.
Not related to guiding, is there anywhere you would like to go personally that you haven’t been?
Northeastern Afghanistan, the Wakhan corridor. There’s a ton of 17 to 20 thousand foot mountains. It’s remote, untouched.
Also a glacier in the Razores, in eastern Africa, in Uganda. It’s at 16 or 17thousand feet.
How did you get into mountain guiding?
I was a paramedic in Texas. I planned to take 6 months off and do something different, and I never went back.
Did you grow up in texas?
We lived in Texas because my mother got sick. She had one of the first liver transplants in the country. The hospital in Houston was one of the only places that would do them.
How old were you when your mom got sick?
I don’t remember a time when my mom wasn’t sick. It was a defining thing.
She had a genetic disorder, primary biliary cirrhosis.
That’s heavy for a kid to deal with.
Kids grow up with lots of different heavy stuff. It’s not all roses and butterflies for everyone.
That’s the cards that you’re given, and you learn to cope. You learn to accept it.
Where did you go when you left Texas?
I went to RMI, a guide service on Mount Ranier. Actually, you did an interview with Janelle Smiley - her husband Mark and I tried out together, he got the job and I didn’t!
The guys at RMI gave me suggestions, that led to a job in California. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.
When I started, I was guiding in the summertime, and teaching skiing at Jackson Hole in the winter.
So California in the summer, Wyoming in the winter.
Yes. I started teaching 3 year olds, and instantly fell in love with the job. I taught skiing for almost a decade.
It sounds like you loved ski instructing. Have you ever had a job you disliked?
Part of my attitude in life is enjoying what I do.
So no, I wouldn’t say I’ve had any jobs that were terrible.
Perhaps the most interesting was washing busses at night in the winter in Jackson!
No one can afford living in Jackson with only one job! I was a ski instructor during the day, and worked at night for START bus, the local transit.
The busses come in covered in dirt and filth and ice from the roads, and you’re in a full rain suit slicker, with a high powered washer, spraying down busses in the middle of the night!
Jackson Hole in January, it’s 20 degrees below zero.
There is no way this is a real thing.
You pull it in to a semi-heated bay, where water and mist hit the ceiling and pour right back down on you, like it’s raining inside.
You go outside to get the next bus, and by the time you walk across the parking lot, your suit has completely frozen and turned to ice hahahaha!
Oh my goodness! But eventually you stopped splitting time seasonally?
I got the opportunity to become a partner at SWS. So now we live in Nevada, at the California border. My wife works in Reno and I work all over California.
What is your wife’s job?
She’s an ER physician, and on the board for the Wilderness Medical Society. They set standards and training for physicians on search and rescue teams, in the Antarctic, on Everest or remote valleys in the Khumbu, things like that. My wife is kind of a badass!
What do you love about your wife, or about being married?
Each relationship you have with each person in your life is different. I try and embrace the things that make each relationship good.
With my wife, I love our partnership. She understands me, she knows what I’m gonna do before I do it.
I’m having an epiphany at the moment.
What’s the epiphany?
Throughout my entire life, the things I’ve been attracted to are things you do, that you’re bonded to another person.
When I’m climbing, you’re literally tied to another human being.
When I worked as a paramedic for 8 years, you’re partnered with another person.
My paramedic partner and I could be working diligently on something really complex, without saying a single word. I’d start an IV to push a medicine, and I didn’t have to ask - it was already handed to me. She would reach for the defibrillator, and I’d already passed her the pads.
I love a good partnership, and no one embodies that more than my wife. Our partnership in everything we do is what I love the most.
You’re in the mountains, in fairly risky areas. Have you had close calls?
I’ve been buried in an avalanche. Not while working, on my own personal time. My partner rescued me.
I’ve had friends die in the mountains. I’ve been involved in pretty bad accidents. Last summer, a mentor of mine fell to his death on the Grand Teton.
That’s terrible, I’m so sorry.
One thing we’re trying to do at SWS, is have an environment where you can talk about problems, and learn from one another. We put a lot of hours and focus in to training, to being as knowledgeable as we can. But it’s not a perfect science. We’ve made mistakes. Everyone has. We want to be open, and learn from our mistakes. Safety and decision making is the most important thing we do.
It must be challenging to always be aware of your clients skills and abilities, plus their energy levels or fear.
Absolutely. You have to tailor your decision making not only to your environment, but the human factors - not only skills, but also mental and emotional capacities, dictate your success.
How do you help people achieve goals they didn’t think they could reach?
By breaking things down into smaller tasks.
A mountain looks huge. Take the Grand Teton, for example. When you drive towards it, the grand looks massive!
But all we need to look at first, is the first half mile of trail. You can hike a half mile of trail. You stay focused on the the 3 feet in front of you, and the 3 feet behind you. You break it down into small increments, and your world becomes manageable. And next thing you know you’re on the summit!
This sounds like something that applies to climbing… and life!
Yes! You chip away at it, and all of a sudden that thing that looked insurmountable, actually wasn’t that hard.
Do you consider yourself successful?
Yes, I consider myself successful. I don’t consider myself satisfied. I don’t know if I will ever be.
It is not about personal success anymore. I’ve lived a dream career. Now, it’s the success my company provides other people. It’s about giving back.
My goal is creating an environment where my guides thrive, and my customers have these amazing experiences.
I’m not satisfied yet. We can always do better.
Are you happy?
I’m really happy.
For me, happiness is a binary scale. You either are, or you aren’t.
What makes you happy?
There’s not a thing in this world that can ‘make’ you happy.
I love my job, I wouldn’t change it, I love my wife, I wouldn’t want anyone else. But the minute you start to say ‘this makes me happy’ or ‘that person makes me happy’, you give people and things power over you.
Happiness is a reflection of your choice to be happy. It’s a choice and an action, and you are an active participant.
You have to choose to be happy with who you are, and find happiness in what you do.
There is not one best outcome for your life. You make the best decisions you can, and whatever life gives you, embrace it and choose to love it.
If I was still a paramedic in Texas, I wouldn’t be any less happy of a person.