In The Moment How Chelsea Yamase Sees the World in the Best Light

by Roger Kamholz | July 19, 2018

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Yamase

For someone who’s made a career of ascending mountains, diving the depths of emerald seas and sharing her colorful life on a daily basis with the thousands who follow her @chelseakauai, Chelsea Yamase is eminently grounded.

Life and Money by Citi recently reached Yamase to talk about some of her most challenging and rewarding adventures, including a high-wire walk over a Utah canyon.

Where are you right now?

Chelsea: Right now I’m in the West Cape, in South Africa, and I’m down here for about two weeks. Sadly, I leave in a few days.

What brought you there?

Chelsea: I was just here about a month ago for another project, and my manager and I just fell in love with South Africa. And we really wanted to come back here to do more hiking and get out in the mountains again. We did a really cool five day trip of hiking, backpacking and helicoptering in the Drakensburg mountains. That was a ton of logistical coordination but a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Describe the coolest thing you did this year so far.

Chelsea: This helicopter trip was really special, but I’d say the coolest thing I did so far this year was when I went highlining for the first time over a 450-foot canyon in Moab, Utah. Do you know what slacklining is? Highlining is essentially that, but you’re walking on a line that is one inch in diameter — something that’s a little bit wider than your thumb — over a canyon drop-off that’s usually a few hundred feet high. You’re tethered in, you have a safety rope and a harness, but it’s a very mentally challenging sport. So essentially you voluntarily walk off a cliff! That’s something I’ve been working toward for a really long time. It was a very exciting accomplishment, and a really cool experience. A very meaningful, very emotional one.

How do you physically and emotionally prepare for that?

Chelsea: There’s so much training you can do. And I kept putting it off, saying, like, “No, no, I’m going to wait until I feel ready. I’m going to wait until I’ve, you know, walked a slackline a certain length.” But the reality of it is, you aren’t ever ready—you just make the decision to do it. I just decided to throw myself into it. It was a very profound experience. I only walked a few steps, which might seem like nothing, but it was. The first day on the line, I cried. Like, I actually sat there for like 25 minutes and I cried. Because it was just so… It was just so scary and such a mental battle with yourself. Telling yourself, “I just want to stand up.” You know? That’s all.

It’s a small thing—I stand up every day. But stand up on something that’s one inch when your body and everything in you is saying, “Don’t do it. This is a terrible idea.” To fight through that in your own head and your own emotions and trust yourself enough. And trust your gear enough. To just force myself to take that first step was, was so profound for me. If I had any takeaway from that experience, it’s that for some things in life you’re just never going to be ready. You just have to show up. And you just have to try your best and be willing to sometimes fail. And a lot of times failing is just part of learning.

woman and man checking phones before boarding a helicopter

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Yamase

What is a piece of wisdom picked up on the road that has stuck with you over time?

Chelsea: Something very simple and very pragmatic: the spot check. Always do a spot check for all your belongings before you leave any place. I learned this while I was doing a road trip across the western U.S. two years ago. It’s a habit that has proven so invaluable in travel and hiking and just in life in general. On the road I tend to lose things. And I tend to visit places that are very difficult to get back to.

What are the most beautiful natural environments you’ve visited?

Chelsea: Southern Utah has some of the most beautiful deserts I’ve probably ever experienced. French Polynesia is a heavy favorite of mine. The water color there is unlike anything you can even replicate or imagine. It’s unbelievable.

Then I’d have to say South Africa — specifically this place called the Drakensberg, which means “the dragon mountains.” To me it rivals some of the most beautiful mountainscapes I’ve ever seen. You’re up there with no other people around, which is always a really special experience. It rivals the Dolomites [in Italy] and the mountains of British Columbia. It’s like Iceland meets the Hawaiian Islands. It’s absolutely stunning. And enormous.

For some things in life you’re just never going to be ready. You just have to show up.
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What inspires you and your photography? Where do you find your creative energy?

Chelsea: I find creative inspiration in the way I feel, the way a space makes me feel. I try to capture or convey that emotion. And usually for me, that means being out in nature because that’s like my bliss and my joy. And seeing places that I’ve never seen or experiencing new things gives me that itch or that urge to create.

One of my first loves was architecture; that’s what I went to school for initially. So inspiration could even come from things that are man-made or things that are nature-made. I just love that spaces can make you feel a certain way.

They affect you with this visceral experience. People can do that, too.  You meet them and they really just really evoke a certain emotion in you. I think maybe that’s why everyone loves photographing children. They pull something out of you, you know? For me photography always comes back to a feeling. Which is strange since it’s a visual medium.

Are there any specific emotions that you’re trying to evoke in your own work?

Chesea: It vacillates between joy and determination and gratitude. Those are the three things I’m always looking for. I’m looking for joy.

In one of your first interviews, you said that if you were a millionaire, you wouldn’t change the way you live “at all.” That’s striking. Can you talk about how you view success today?

Chelsea: Oh, that’s so funny! So much has changed since then. But I still very much feel that way. I think the cool thing about success is that we’re the ones that create our own metric for success, we get to define our own standards and what creates meaning for us individually.

I’m definitely still defining success. I ask myself things like, How much does the work, or the clients that I have coming in, and the work I’m putting out into the world, align like, with my values? Are the things I’m spending time on bringing me closer to being my best self, my most joyful self?

For me success is not a specific achievement, it’s just been this process of recognizing and refining what lights me up and what I think my gift to the world is. And for me, I like the duality of seeking joy and challenge, and, in this weird, wondrous process, I’ve gotten lucky enough to be able to do that as a job. I have a job where somehow I’m inspiring people to do the same and to live their best lives. That has been really meaningful for me.

woman with arms outstretched

Photo courtesy of Chelsea Yamase

You’ve launched this career that’s far from the traditional nine-to-five. What has that meant for your personal finance strategy?

Chelsea: Being kind of tossed into this career, it’s meant a lot of learning on-the-go and asking a ton of questions to people that know more than I do. I’m super lucky my dad is also an entrepreneur and self-employed, so I grew up with him as an example. Plus, my mom is like, the most organized person I know when it comes to business. They taught me the importance of keeping track of expenses and encouraged me to get a financial advisor quite a few years ago. I think I was the youngest client my financial advisor had ever taken on at the time! And it’s been a huge blessing to have someone like that in my corner to advise and answer questions.

Overall I just think financial literacy is so important and something that isn’t taught nearly enough at an early age. I personally wish I had known so much more, but it’s been a learn on-the-go process.

I think anyone in the creative or entrepreneurial industry will say it’s feast or famine, and sometimes you have to really believe in the work that you’re doing to not freak out on a daily basis. But, I’ve always been into saving money. It’s a weird thing — I really don’t go on shopping sprees, I don’t have a very extravagant lifestyle, which sounds weird considering I travel all the time.

Financial literacy is so important and something that isn’t taught nearly enough at an early age.
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How have you learned to strike a balance between the need to be connected and the need to unplug?

Chelsea: I think we’re all trying to find balance in one way or another, whether it’s work and family, work and school, or social life and family time. I have this immense pleasure and sometimes immense challenge of living a life where my fun and my work and personal life and social life all intersect into this one very messy, very awesome life I get to live.

So for me, I try to remain conscious and mindful of that desire to have balance because it’s easy to get caught up — your email is blinking all the time, people are texting all time. Everything has this immediacy to it that is very emotionally draining, for me at least.

I choose to set aside time and have made it habit to slow down, which might mean taking five or 10 minutes to just sit looking at a view. We actually have a rule for ourselves called “10 seconds of silence.” Anytime we’re on a hike, we have to observe at least 10 seconds of silence. It sounds like the smallest thing. But it’s powerful.

Roger Kamholz

creates content for Citi’s Global Consumer Bank and is far too clumsy to attempt highlining. He has written about dining and travel for more than 10 years.