Semi-Rad: The Best Climber in the World

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Brendan Leonard
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A friend of mine told me last summer as we were climbing up the North Arête (5.4) of the First Flatiron in Boulder in the dark: This is fun. My last climbing trip wasn’t that fun. “Not fun?” I asked. What a terrible thing to say.

Semi-Rad-No-Bad-Climbing-Days

In the movie Manhattan, Woody Allen is talking with a group at a cocktail party, and a friend says, “I finally had an orgasm, and my doctor told me it was the wrong kind.” Woody Allen says, “Really? I’ve never had the wrong kind, ever. My worst one was right on the money.”

That’s the way I’d like to describe all my climbing days. No, not orgasmic, but “my worst one was right on the money.” Even the you-don’t-have-to-be-having-fun-to-be-having-fun days, in the rain, getting blown off climbs by high winds, losing gear, getting scared, tired, pumped, bruised, worked, blistered— served by nature in one or more ways. “It lets you know you’re alive,” as my friend Aaron likes to say. I think what he means is that people are designed for more than commuting and scrolling through smartphone screens. And this is something that climbers celebrate.

If you are climbing rocks, or scrambling up mountains for entertainment, you generally have little to complain about, compared to most of the world’s population. You don’t have to walk three miles to get clean water for your family. You are probably not oppressed. You are probably fairly healthy. You are a climber, someone who has found a lifestyle in which you and your friends can be 13 again, standing at the bottom of something and asking each other, “Think we can get up there?”

No matter what happens on your Bad Day of Climbing, you still spent your day doing something rad. Remember that the next time you’re in a bookstore and you see this magazine on a rack. Look around you, point at the cover, which probably shows someone pulling down on something hard, and say to yourself, as you point at your chest:

See this shit?! I do that, too. I’m a climber. But refrain from saying it outloud; someone might notice you’ve been nursing a chai, snaking wi-fi for hours.

I grew up in the flat farmlands of our country, in a state that has about 100 sport and trad climbing routes in 56,000 square miles. My town didn’t have a public climbing gym until 2008. I remind myself all the time that I could very easily not be a climber, had I made one or two decisions differently. I especially like to remind myself of that on belay ledges 300 or so feet off the ground, because I’ve never been on one with a bad view. I turn away from the rock, check out the view of the mountains behind me, and think, Hell, this ain’t bad for a kid from Iowa. I mean, this is America. You can write your own story. You can grow up in Boulder, climbing before you can walk, or you can grow up in the middle of the plains—no matter what, when you top out, the smile on your face is the same as anyone else’s.

There are a handful of fairly famous videos of a climber throwing tantrums when he falls off a cutting-edge route, screaming in anger and making sounds like someone is horsewhipping him. What do you think when you see those videos? I usually think that I would rather climb with those Belgian dudes from Free South Africa and Vertical Sailing Greenland who take a mandolin and tin whistle on all their big wall climbs and goof off all the time... while crushing.

Next time a route gets you down, imagine you have to explain to your grandmother, or some other non-climber, why you’re so pissed that you didn’t send your project. “Well, Grandma, someone put a pair of chains 75 feet up this steep rock wall, and I wanted really badly to put on tight, painful shoes, tie a rope to my waist, and climb up the wall and clip my rope to those chains. But I only got 63 feet up, and I fell.”

Know what your grandma would say? “Oh, that’s too bad. I’m sure you’ll get up there and clip that rope to those chains someday, sweetie. When are you getting married?”

You ever let out a “woo hoo!” when you get to the top of a route? You should let one out in the middle of your climb, too. Because you’re climbing, which is fun— and not just the getting-to-the-top part. Hell, you should let out a “woo hoo” when you get out of the car at the trailhead. As Alex Lowe famously said, “The best climber in the world is the one having the most fun.” It’s cliche, but it’s true. Hard work and passion are important. But don’t let them be exclusive of fun. Your grandmother may not understand the endless pursuit of 5.12d, but she’ll get it if you never stop smiling.

Brendan Leonard is a contributing editor for Climbing. He lives in his van, sleeps on friends’ couches, and writes at semi-rad.com.