Semi-Rad: How to Win Friends and Influence Climbers

The Van Diagram

The Van Diagram

We introduced ourselves to Chris and Austin as they tied in at the base of Leopard Skin (5.7), a four-pitch mostly sport climb, which starts about 200 feet up a scree field in the Sand Dunes area of Snow Canyon State Park, Utah. Austin led the second pitch—his first-ever that didn’t start on the ground: a traverse on good patina and chickenheads, and then straight up, a little heady and runout, to a hanging belay.

As Chris started to follow the pitch, my partner Hilary and I got situated at the first belay, trading gear and flaking out the rope. I heard Chris say, “I’m going in-direct here for a second, Austin.” I looked up, and he had his digital camera out, taking photos of us at the belay; he must have looked back at the great view behind us and thought it would make an excellent photo—not for his archives, but ours.

We climbed the pitch, and I peeked up from the hanging belay later to see Chris snapping photos of us again. He and I chatted within earshot about how great the position was, the rock—patina on red sandstone, reminiscent of Red Rock near Vegas—and the mellow but exposed climbing. I watched Hilary follow all the pitches, encouraged by Chris from above. I clipped into the final bolt anchor at the top of the fourth pitch and yelled, “I’m off!” to Hilary and heard a “Woo-hoo! Nice job, Brendan!” from somewhere out of sight, down the rappel gully. I started laughing.

I try to be nice all the time, especially when I’m out climbing—I say hi to everyone, crack jokes, share food, and am generally stoked about the weather, the climbing, and being alive. But these two guys, Chris and Austin? They were The Nicest People I’ve Ever Met Climbing. Astronomically nice, as if half the reason they went climbing that day was to spread joy.

If you look at magazine covers as an indicator of our society’s values, you notice we celebrate lots of things—good looks, fitness, fashion sense, shiny objects, financial and sporting accomplishments—but we don’t celebrate the simple act of being nice that often. Cosmo tells you how to look pretty and be better in bed; men's magazines tell you how to attract more women and acquire new, must-have grooming and fitness products. But nobody ever runs a headline like, “Make more people happy!” or “Be so awesome that people can’t help but smile when talking to you.”

When we meet famous climbers, we’re always pleasantly surprised when they’re not arrogant. We say, “He/she is so down to earth!” as if we got some sort of bonus experience. We say it in the same voice as we’d say, “It turns out the brewery was giving away free beer!” Should we be surprised? I mean, are climbers generally nicer people? Given the correlations between fitness, exercise, being outdoors, and happiness, we probably should be.

Climbing gives annual Golden Piton Awards for hard trad, alpine, bouldering, sport climbing, and a bunch of other categories. Should it give one for being awesome, regardless of climbing achievement? My friend BJ (from once described a climber as The Most Stoked Guy in Rifle last summer. Wouldn’t it be great to see his photo in the pages of Climbing, right next to Alex Honnold and Daniel Woods? I’m sure we could come up with an Enthusiasm Grading Scale (EGS) that’s at least as confusing as the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS). Zero complaining, cracking jokes at every belay, posing for funny summit photos, bringing two beers in a bullet pack, high-fiving strangers, being friendly to all dogs at the crag—all of these would separate the 5.14 EGS climber from the 5.8 EGS climber. Locals would push the grades, out-nicing each other and setting new area EGS standards.

Imagine that world in which we value a thing like friendliness as much as climbing hard. One where we get in the car after a good day at the crag and say to our partner, “How about those guys over on the 900-foot Hand Crack of Doom? Holy shit, they were nice.” Or, “Those guys were stoked! But were they Most-Stoked-Guy-in-Rifle stoked?” I mean, really, how could a competition for the Golden Piton for Being Awesome go badly? “Oh no, not those guys. They made me laugh too much. And they gave me too many of their cookies.” The late Craig Luebben had the idea of friendliness nailed, I think. In Luebben’s 2009 obituary in Climbing, author and climber Cameron Cross wrote that he often reflected on Luebben’s advice to his daughter, who was 6 years old at the time of his death: “Be kind, be strong, be happy, and try hard.”

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