“In 2018, I set the goal of being an expedition photographer,” recalls Griffin Mims. “And I was just an expedition photographer for a historical moment in ski mountaineering.”
Griffin, 25, is originally from Kearney, Nebraska. The Cornhusker State has no big – or really any – mountains to boast of, but Griffin didn’t let this stop him from becoming an avid climber, skier, and expedition photographer.
Growing up, Griffin spent a week each year skiing in Colorado while visiting his grandmother. “It wasn’t much, but it was enough to learn,” Griffin explains. “I initially fell in love with skiing with my dad but as I got older I started wanting to go out by myself. I loved spending time in the mountains by myself ripping and listening to music.”
Griffin’s life took a dramatic turn when he left high school. “I started climbing the first week of school my freshman year of college,” he explains, “That first day I climbed in the gym was a huge moment that changed my life and is definitely the reason I am where I am today.”
Climbing was Griffin’s gateway into the outdoor world, and he describes falling “head over heels” into the climbing and outdoor world. At around the same time, Griffin began to shoot photos. “As I got more into the outdoor scene I wanted to participate more,” he recalls. “What put me over the edge was watching ‘Under An Arctic Sky’... the next week I bought a camera, started teaching myself to shoot, bringing it with me everywhere… it flipped the switch in my brain that that was what I wanted to do.”
Though Griffin stayed in Nebraska for college, he began to venture farther afield as he leaned into his newfound love of climbing. This sometimes meant cutting class and driving fourteen hours to get in a long weekend of climbing. Griffin also continued to develop his photography skills.
A pivotal moment for Griffin came at the end of his college career, when he spent a semester in Patagonia.
“I had this idea of being an “adventurer” but I hadn’t really been able to live that yet before going to Patagonia,” he explains. “Being able to spend 80 consecutive days in Patagonia climbing and kayaking and living in the outdoors solidified that this is where I found the most joy in life and what I wanted to do. It turned an idea of something I thought would be cool into an actuality of like ‘okay this is freaking epic, I want to do this all the time.’”
Building on a few serendipitous connections made in Patagonia, following the dream of living life outside, and thanks to some very persuasive friends, Griffin moved to Tahoe – sight unseen – four days after his college graduation. “I moved with no expectations,” Griffin says, laughing, “I just wanted to be in the mountains. Finding a place with epic climbing and epic skiing was so special.”
Griffin spent his first year in Tahoe balancing jobs at local resorts and restaurants and skiing a lot. But when a job working as a front desk assistant for international guide company Alpenglow Expeditions popped onto his radar he decided to apply.
“After a few interviews the Alpenglow team thought I could come on and do more than the front desk position required so they brought me on as a “yes-man” to essentially do whatever was needed,” Griffin explains. He was officially hired in October 2020 and by January 2021 was fully on the international side of the business, coordinating logistics, sales, trip planning, and more for Alpenglow’s international work.
In the early months of 2022, Griffin pitched Alpenglow on the idea of bringing him along on a Himalayan Expedition planned later in the spring. An expedition on which Alpenglow founder and world-renowned alpinist Adrian Ballinger would attempt to make the first ski descent of Makalu, the world’s fifth highest peak.
“I felt like I’d been training for something big all winter, I just didn’t know what it was,” Griffin recalls. Within a few days, he got confirmation that he would be a part of the expedition team leaving for the Himalaya in 45 days. Training began in earnest.
“We pre-acclimatized by sleeping in Hypoxico altitude tents,” Griffin explains. “I started at 7000 feet and sleeping progressively higher, to put my body in a state of hypoxia. By the time I left for Nepal I was sleeping at 18,000 feet. I was also training and skiing 6 days a week and trying to do at least 20,000 feet of elevation gain per week.”
A few weeks out from the trip, Griffin’s ski touring set up was stolen. Griffin reached out to friend and Renoun athlete Thor Retzlaff who helped him get a pair of Renoun skis just in time for the expedition. Armed with a pair of Renoun Endurances, weeks of dedicated training, and a lot of stoke, Griffin was ready for the Himalaya.
Though he felt prepared, Griffin recalls the nerves of going on such a big expedition: “I was climbing way higher than I’d ever been before and you just never know what’s going to happen to your body on big expeditions like this.” The team took time to acclimatize before the actual summit bid to help adjust to the lower air pressure at higher altitudes, but the challenge of high altitude is hard to fully avoid.
“Altitude is brutal,” Griffin says, grinning. “I was tired just putting my pants on in the morning. But it’s a really fun mind game to play.”
Griffin turned 25 during the expedition and describes climbing to 25,000 feet on the day he turned 25. “It was steep mixed rock and ice and the coolest climb I’d done at that point,” Griffin says, a grin spreading over his face. “I was just charging hard to Bon Iver and lowkey house music. It was awesome.”
Griffin’s role on the expedition was to shoot photos of Ballinger’s ski descent, so during the attempt Griffin stayed at Camp 3 (~24,500 feet). Ballinger successfully submitted Makalu on Monday, May 9, 2022 with two members of their sherpa team and then skied down to Camp 3 where he met up with Griffin. From there, Ballinger and Griffin skied the rest of the way back to Makalu Basecamp together, Griffin snapping photos on the way down. Ballinger’s effort marked the first ski descent of Makalu.
“Watching Adrian ski was bonkers,” Griffin recalls with awe, “It was 8000 feet of vertical skiing in no fall zone terrain and some of the craziest turns I’ve ever seen. It was an incredible thing to watch and be a part of.”
Griffin is quick to acknowledge that the climb would not have happened without the support of their sherpa team: “they are the strongest humans I’ve ever encountered and I would love to emphasize how amazing and cool our Sherpa team was and how lucky we are to get to work with people like that.”
Renoun’s skis served Griffin well for the expedition. “The skiing that I was doing in Nepal was really bad glacier skiing. Renoun’s Endurances allowed me to keep my edge and charge, but still have a lot of fun. And I needed my set up to be as light as possible. I was using them as touring skis with super light tech bindings. The skis were really responsive even though I didn’t have a hard, tech binding.”
Excited to have reached his goal of being an expedition photographer, Griffin is also already setting his sights on new objectives. “It wasn’t heartbreaking to not summit Makalu, it wasn’t my job to summit. But I do think I’m capable of reaching the top of an 8000 meter peak and I would really love to do that soon.”
As a photographer and mountain athlete, Griffin is living his dream. But it’s not always easy to do this and is a lifestyle that requires discipline and courage.
“The mountains are a place where you have to be able to perform,” Griffin explains. “Especially for the mountains I’m in now, you don’t really have an option to not be fit, otherwise you just don’t belong there and the mountains will eat you up and spit you out. The severity of the environment I’m in motivates me to get up and train and I want to be respectful of what the mountains demand to be there.”
While Griffin is respectful of the work required to take on big backcountry expeditions, he makes sure to also lean into opportunities for relaxation and play. “I think I’ve read the Hobbit on every expedition I’ve been on,” Griffin laughs. He’s also a strong proponent of Backcountry Pantry Breakfasts for dinner while in the mountains.
Community is also key. Griffin is grateful to the support of both his parents and the like-minded friends he has in Tahoe. “It’s so important to have trust in backcountry relationships,” he advises, “be intentional about community and seek good partners in the outdoors.”
We can all learn from Griffin’s commitment to setting – and achieving – big goals. In Griffin’s own words: “If you have a big goal just f***ing go for it. This applies to skiing big mountains, telling stories, photography, anything.”
Follow Griffin on Instagram @griffin_mims and on his website here.