2021. What a year it has been. Many of the uncertainties, travel restrictions, and overall disruption of “normal” pre-pandemic life that plagued 2020 was still felt.
This year was unique for me on so many levels and looking back, there is quite a lot to reflect on as I prepare to move forward into the New Year.
One of the biggest leaps I took was starting this here travel blog that you are reading now.
What started as an idea with close friends over a bottle of wine in Madeira, Portugal last March has now turned into a reality.
Off The Atlas is still very much in its early stages of development (the blog only launched in September 2021) – but the response to the blog and the satisfaction I have felt since seeing the dream become a reality has been pretty cool to take in.
My Top Lessons and Takeaways from 2021
So much stuff happens in any given year that I find it important to sit down and hash it all out; I need to ask myself “what the hell happened?”
Here are a few lessons and takeaways from 2021…
Be yourself and don’t give energy to worrying about what people think of you
That lesson may sound like a bit of a cliche, but if you stop and think about it – NOT giving energy to what people think of you is hard. That feeling that others are judging you or that you are not working as hard as others – it’s all noise that takes away from focusing on what you need to be doing.
As I have gotten older, the more this lesson rings true – and perhaps no more so than this year – a year when I was really going after it in the realm of adventure photography like never before – leading longer, harder expeditions in the mountains in Pakistan, and struggling to break out of bad business relationships with people only interested in money – not hard work, genuine camaraderie, or real collaboration.
I questioned myself sometimes and put unnecessary pressure on myself by holding the weight of the opinions of others on my shoulders.
The point being my lesson is this – give no fuc*** towards all that noise – or at least try the best you can not to.
Hike your own hike – you do you.
Hard work and more hard work
To succeed at building something new requires a shit ton of work – like a LOT of work. Since I have worked in the “travel blogging industry” for 4 years – I had no illusions about how hard it would be to launch a new brand and blog that could actually be something.
Throw in starting this blog with the total management and planning and leading of tours in Pakistan and elsewhere – and there were times this year when I felt like I was drowning in work and responsibilities – despite having a few good people around to help with big projects and amazing teams in the countries where we run tours.
In the end though – if you are going to get serious about following your passion and turning your dreams into tangible results and a sustainable lifestyle – I found that the only thing that helps me feel less crushed by work, achieving goals, and the pressures of running multiple businesses – is to just put your nose to the grindstone and get after it – day in and day out. Red wine also helps ;).
I started my various projects because I truly believe in the adventure tourism potential in Pakistan, the local mountain communities who live there, and the desire to help other people have incredible unique adventures in a country they might not have otherwise considered.
The value for me in putting in the hard work that goes into developing and advocating for tourism in Pakistan and elsewhere translates into the lifestyle that is one of my major goals in the first place. I constantly remind myself of that and it is an important lesson to carry with me as I move forward.
Take better care of my sleeping bag and equipment when climbing
This lesson is something I find funny now, but when I was climbing Spantik Peak (7,028 M) earlier this year, a momentary mistake nearly cost me the expedition – at least in my own mind.
My dream of climbing Spantik was almost dashed because my warm AF Marmot sleeping bag tumbled off the mountain right in front of my eyes at camp 2. I thought for a moment “How can I keep climbing UP with no sleeping bag?” I was pretty rattled by that.
Turns out I did not really need a sleeping bag – even at 20,000 feet – I was just a bit uncomfortable all night as the snow pounded our tent non-stop – even when my climbing partner generously shared half his sleeping bag with me.
The point is, I vow to never let something like that happen again if I can help it.
Invest in Healthy Relationships
Another important lesson that has taken me years to take seriously.
Being in a multi-nationality couple – as a digital nomad – in a pandemic – when borders are always closing – and one of us is gone on expeditions for months at a time – is hard. It takes a lot of communication, chemistry, honesty, trust, and many other things to make it work.
Like most good things in life – putting in the time, effort, and energy is well worth it.
The same goes for friends, family, or others who bring positivity, creativity, and the like into your life as well. The opposite goes for those who do the opposite for you.
This was the year that I thought more consciously about how my interactions and relationships with people were affecting my time, headspace, and energy. I found the courage to smash out of interactions that were consistently affecting me in unhealthy ways as best as I could while working on letting go of negativity.
In 2022 I will prioritize doing much more of the same.
Embrace Living Simply
A lot of people ask me, “but where do you live?”. My answer usually takes a second to explain. No, I don’t live on the street or in hotels in Lahore, though I do spend around 5 months of my year in Pakistan. Though these last few years, I am averaging 2-3 months per year spent sleeping in a tent – which not many people experience.
There were times this year when I did have a home base in various cities – mostly nice Airbnb apartments – but no, I do not have a fixed home or apartment where I pay rent all the year, and yes I am 33 years old – it is an intentional choice driven by the lifestyle that makes me happy. It is also very practical since I am moving around a lot.
It would make things easier for sure to have a fixed home sometimes – but the pros still are not outweighing the cons – someday I am sure they will.
I found out long ago that I don’t need a lot of “stuff” to make me happy. I live out of three (sometimes four) backpacks and duffle bags.
Sure I have some nice camera gear and a bunch of trekking and climbing gear – but these are just tools of the trade I am in and for me all of my stuff serves a purpose.
If someone wants to buy a house, start a family, and have a well-paying job – that’s awesome; that’s their intentional choice – and it works for many people very well.
For me, for the time being, I am fully embracing my freedom, the unique experiences I can have in any given year, and the unknowns that come with leading a nomadic lifestyle.
Home is where you make it – even if your home changes country borders multiple times a year.
The lesson behind all of this is all simple; embrace the simple if it works for you and don’t feel any pressure from friends or family to live their life when you are not asking them to live yours.
Getting Deeper into Photography
I’ve been doing quite a lot with photography for the last three-four years or so, but 2021 is the year that I really put a lot more time, energy, and work into developing my skills. I also got more into drone photography this year and to be honest – that has been a game-changer in terms of being able to produce the kind of images that interest me.
Photography is like any craft – it is a lifetime pursuit in which skills develop over time – a LONG time.
Some of the images I was able to capture this year have brought me a lot of satisfaction and purpose – so looking forward to getting behind the lens as much as possible next year.
I also felt more than ever this year that if you surround yourself with creative, skilled photographers, your work can exponentially improve by simply observing how others operate in the realm of their craft. Another lesson: be around creative people who are good at what they do and that will translate into gradual improvements within your own skillset.
In an effort to try to earn proper compensation for my work in a world where people don’t want to pay for quality photos too often, towards the end of this year I joined the NFT community and minted a few photos. If you are curious about NFTs or happen to be a collector – you can check out my work here.
Being Genuine Matters
I try to live my life in a way that feels genuine to me. In my view, nobody can really define what that means for you as an individual.
What being “genuine” entails is pretty subjective – but the basic idea I have tried to embrace goes back to my first reflection on this list; living life as you are – not making compromises on ethics, values, dignity, or style simply to please other people, the internet, colleagues, etc – and just doing the best you can with what you have; nothing more, nothing less.
This blog was founded on that principle after many years of engaging with people in the travel industry who do not fit the description of “genuine” no matter how you spin it.
There is clearly a place in the world for the non-genuine side of things too, I have just found that being around that sort of energy just does not do it for me – and it certainly does not help me grow as a person.
Right, so now that I have got those rambles out of the way – a lot of other stuff went down in 2021 too.
Here is what happened…
Life on Madeira Island
I rang in 2021 with my partner Diane and a few friends at our seafront apartment in Madeira Island, Portugal. The fireworks were pretty crazy – any rumors you have heard about the over-the-top intensity of the firework display in Madeira is true!
That apartment turned out to be a great home and became the longest I have inhabited a single space I could call my own in years. All told, we lived there for 4 months (almost 6 months on Madeira in total) – and I still miss waking up before work to watch the sunrise over the Atlantic while slowly smoking a cigarette and sipping on a hot coffee with that crazy view.
After so much movement these last few years – it felt great to get into a solid routine of hiking, working, and social life going; one silver lining of this pandemic.
The end of January brought a new challenge – my friends Joao and Jackson and I hiked the Caminho Real 23 trail around the entirety of Madeira Island in 7 days, clocking 170 kilometers and nearly 8500 meters of elevation gain in the processes. This was my first long-distance hike in a while and it was a truly great experience.
Laughs, struggles, wine, chorizo, big trekking days, humidity, steep hills, more chorizo, wild/illegal camping – that’s the sort of adventure I can get down on. Those dudes are as crazy as I am when it comes to trekking and it was awesome to feel like I had found my tribe.
Here are a few shots from the hike and my time in Madeira:
Packing Up the Madeira Apartment and Moving On
February and March in Madeira were largely consumed by working, hiking, and a random but well-paid video project for a company in Madeira – and a complete re-vamp of the Epic Backpacker Tours website took place which was badly needed.
My buddy Ralph joined us in Madeira for a few weeks and thanks largely to his and Diane’s efforts, we were able to finish the total rebuild of the website in the few weeks he was there.
March was also the month that I quit working for the huge affiliate marketing blog that had employed me steadily for years. It was a scary choice – since at the time it was my only secure income since Covid had put a big question mark on 2021 tour income – again.
That said, I was ready. It was time to move on.
While I am stoked and grateful for the experience, friendships, and lessons I gained from working there – quitting working for that blog was probably the best choice I made all year. I was free. I was also hungry to put my energy into something more rewarding and genuine.
You can’t build your own dream if you are busy constructing someone else’s dream.
We said goodbye to Madeira and the good friends Joao, Joseph, and other folks at the end of March as it was time to move on to new adventures.
Back to Pakistan
Oh yeah – you remember this is a Pakistan travel blog right? You almost forgot.
I traveled back to Pakistan for the first time in seven months or so, more than ready to return to the Karakoram. I was hired by a friend to do some photography for him on his motorcycle journey around Northern Pakistan.
This was the first time I got to check out Shimshal and Charpursan Valley – both of which impressed me very much. Some good times and images came out of those 2 1/2 weeks in the North, but all and all traveling with my friend was pretty stressful and an indicator of what was to come later in the year.
After that gig, Diane joined me in Islamabad and we set off on another adventure. We rented a car and I drove us to Kalam and Swat Valley (the former Taliban stronghold up until 2009) – both new places for me. It was during Ramadan too so everything was super chilled out and quiet during the day. We even made it to an epic alpine ice lake, despite locals telling us it was impossible to access due to snow.
Leading My First Tour Since the Start of Covid
This was a powerful moment for me personally as it could only mean one thing: I could finally run a tour again in Pakistan after we saw Covid 19 take that away from us for all of 2020. This was my first time with a group again since 2019.
My 2 am cup of coffee had not tasted this good in years as I prepared to pick up clients from the airport in Islamabad.
Much to my headache, Covid restrictions were introduced 2 days before the start of the tour – and a few clients were unable to fly in due to flight cancellations. It was pretty rough.
The icing on the cake came when the Government of Gilgit Baltistan gave us special permission to carry on with our itinerary, given the fact that 90% of our activities were trekking in remote places and everyone in our group had been vaccinated. We were in the mountains and for the first time since I began working in Pakistan – we would have almost every interesting point in the North to ourselves. We were psyched.
Planning and running a trip during the Covid pandemic taught me a few things: 1. this trip required the most logistics planning power I have ever put into a trip 2. All the hard work paid off (as hard work usually does) + the satisfaction and pleasure of seeing this trip succeed felt more rewarding than any other trip I had run up until that point.
Read more about the trip here.
A Month in a Random Greek City
My tour ended and it was time to move after being in Pakistan for two months.
I had never heard of Thessaloniki before going there – but when looking over options of where my partner and I could meet (due to Covid complications and the EU being mostly closed to Americans), we settled on the Northern Corner of Greece and it was one of the best choices of the year.
Our time in Greece can be summed up like this, we worked our asses off, ate great dinners out almost every night for CHEAP, had some glasses of red wine in the evening, went on weekend road trips and hiking missions all around the area, and… this was the month the framework, branding, and website for Off The Atlas was built.
My buddy Ralph again flew over from Italy and helped Diane and I smash out all of the developer work and site build. The site was ready for launch by the end of June except for the fact that I had no content ready for it yet. Then the clock ran out and it was time to depart for Pakistan once more to lead my favorite trip of the year – the K2 Base Camp trek.
We went hard exploring Northern Greece as well when we were not working. Play hard, work harder; possibly the most important concept successful digital nomads embrace.
Here are a few of my favorite frames from our month in Greece:
Back to Pakistan for the K2 Base Camp Trek
From Greece, I flew directly back to Pakistan (well it took 4 flights and 26 hours) to lead a group of 12 people (along with my Pakistani colleagues) on a 21-day expedition to K2 Base Camp and back.
Covid travel restrictions and visa delays made the weeks leading up to this trip really stressful for me – BUT – the trip ran with only one member out of 13 not being able to make it due to flight cancellations. I’ll take it.
There is so much to say about this journey, so I’ll just keep it simple:
- We had a truly special group of clients on the trip + I had three friends join it too, which made the time that much more rad.
- One of those friends, Andrea from Verona – filmed the whole expedition in colloboration with Grayl (they make water purifer bottles). You can check out the video teaser below.
- This trip was a big challenge and test for me as a guide – but I gained a ton of experience and knowledge – more so than I had gleaned in years of leading other trips.
- We had some perfect weather at Conordia and briefly at K2 Base Camp – the views were amazing.
- I grew closer with my team and feel even more confident about our working relationship going forwards.
I’ll drop a few of my favorite photo frames below, but for all the best shots, check out this K2 BC trek gallery.
Climbing Spantik Peak
For several years, climbing my first 7000-meter peak in Pakistan has been a dream of mine. In 2020 it did not work out as there were no expeditions I could join going that year because of Covid.
In 2021, it finally happened. My friend Jackson and I sumitted Spantik along with two badass high altitude porters – Kalby and Ibrahim – on August 19th, 2021.
The journey was quite difficult – mostly because we had a short weather window and very deep snow standing in the way of the summit. Plus, our two very strong high-altitude porters were not speaking any English so communication between us was strained at the best of times. In the end, we sent it though and it was yet again another huge learning experience for me.
Check out my full photo gallery from the Spantik Expedition here.
In a crazy plan to get myself finally vaccinated, after the expedition, I flew from Pakistan to Portugal to New York for 3 days to stay with some friends – got my jab – and flew back to Istanbul where I was to spend the next month working my ass off online.
Photos by myself and Jackson Groves.
Istanbul for a Month
Istanbul was a whole hell of a lot of fun – for the simple fact that it is such an interesting city. It was also one of the busiest working months of the year. Diane and I were both averaging 12 hour days / 7 days a week. I was grinding hard publishing new content on the staging website for Off The Atlas – so I did not have an empty website at launch time. When the time came to finally put the website live, I had close to 15 articles in the bank.
Our apartment was in the very “locals only” Kadikoy neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul – which was a great experience to immerse in for a month. When we were not working, we spent our time in the neighborhood and eating delicious food every day, taking the time to explore the many quirky corners of Istanbul.
Towards the end of September, Off The Atlas finally went live (!) and it was game on.
Before heading back to Pakistan, we had a 5 day stop in Formentera Island in Spain (near Ibiza) for a friend’s birthday. I partied a little too hard haha but it was also a great time in a beautiful setting I never thought I’d be. I spoke a whole lot of French that week as I was the only native English speaker in the group
I actually barely touched my camera during the time I was in Istanbul – so here is one single shot from arguably the best breakfast of the year: a Turkish Breakfast…
Pakistan Again in October
I wrapped up another tour in Pakistan towards the end of October – again with such a badass group of clients. They were super positive, funny, and loved to give me a hard time in jest.
Some of them are actually going to be joining Epic Backpacker Tours in Iran next year – so the persistent ball-breaking of Chris shall continue on the next tour.
After my tour ended, I did not stay long in Pakistan this time. I met Diane in Paris and enjoyed being back in that city without all the Covid restrictions we experienced back in 2020. Taking coffee at some nice cafes, eating tasty ramen, visiting some epic parks and going on long walks, working out of a friend’s apartment – that sums up our time in Paris.
A few shots from the October Pakistan tour…
The Europe Debacle
Because the USA’s travel ban regarding EU citizens remained in place through November – the November 3rd plane tickets we had from Paris to the USA would not work; Diane would not be able to enter the USA as they moved back the date when the restrictions would be lifted until November 8th.
We tried our best to subvert the system by flying to the non-EU country Croatia and attempting to fly from there. Long story short it did not work and while transiting on a connecting flight we ended up getting “stuck” in Vienna for a week and had to buy new flights.
It was in Vienna that I rang in my 33rd birthday. Vienna was a cool city and if we had to get stranded somewhere – Vienna was not a bad place to land.
The one-shot I took in Vienna, on my 33rd birthday.
Back in the USA
We finally landed in JFK airport in the middle of November. We flew to Portland, Oregon and had a few weeks catching up with friends and family there – which was awesome.
This was the first time I had been back to the USA for more than 3 days in nearly 2 years.
The time spent in the USA thus far has been a mix of lots of work, family time, recovery from a long year of traveling, eating heaps, and also taking the time to explore the wonderful Utah desert with Diane.
Plans are in the works to head back abroad to mountains in distant lands soon – though my original plan of heading to Nepal for a climbing course fell through due to the friend who was organizing it breaking his ankle recently. Such is life. Nepal is not going anywhere.
In the meantime – holidays, writing, snow shoveling, and plenty of work are what are occupying the days.
Here are some scenes from my time in the Utah desert last week:
Becoming the Sole Owner of Epic Backpacker Tours
Another monumental moment of the year happened in December: I am now the sole owner and director of Epic Backpacker Tours after a four-year partnership with my former business partner ended.
For all intents and purposes, I had been completely managing almost every aspect of the company for years before this formal split happened (with the part-time help of a few awesome colleagues) – so nothing is really changing with how the company is managed or my workload, etc.
As much as this was needed for a variety of reasons – it also came as a big surprise – mostly because of the speed and terms in which this went down.
Sometimes business complicates friendships when there is crossover and can even ruin them – which is an unfortunate reality of adult life; a shame really. But life is like that sometimes.
That said, this event really taught me a bunch of important lessons about dealing with people, business, etc, and I can now move on to the next phase of the business.
The team at Epic is stoked for 2022 and ready to crush it next season in the mountains to the best of our abilities.
Wrapping Up 2021
2021 has been one of the best, busiest and craziest years of my life on many levels. There were many highs and many lows – many breakthroughs, a few setbacks, a few hard lessons, many beautiful moments, many strengthened relationships, some broken ones, and a little bit of everything else mixed in. Frankly, it was an awesome year – despite many challenges.
If I think back to this time last year, my life and path have changed dramatically in many ways. Change is good – especially when things are trending exceptionally upwards.
I am now officially running two businesses online – this blog and the tour company – and I have a busy season of tours rapidly approaching. While my summer calendar is already looking quite full – there are still many unknowns waiting in 2022 – which I am supremely stoked on.
Cheers for taking the time to read my 2021 reflection post and thanks again for supporting this fledgling adventure travel blog.
Hope many rad adventures like in wait for you in 2022 as well.
Feel free to drop a personal goal or 2022 adventure plan you are thinking about in the comments below!