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Semi-Rad: Good Days on Bad Routes

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This story originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of our print edition.

In the depths of winter, when the sun sets at 4:15, you get some time to reflect. A few months ago, as we sought to eke out one more day climbing rock in the alpine before the inevitable snow, Hilary and I left our Denver apartment at 4 a.m. We walked through the dark alley behind our residence, light rack in my pack and rope in Hilary’s, balancing our coffee on the way to the car that was parked on a side street off Colfax. Neither of us talked as we stepped past the back of the building where six to 10 homeless folks slept every night—it was very early in the morning, the middle of the precious few hours when the streets are somewhat quiet, after the partiers have gone home but before the city has woken up to go to work.

They’d been living behind the building since we moved in two months prior, drinking until they fell asleep every night, heading out to find money or work during the day, pulling the occasional mattress out of a dumpster and stashing it behind the building.

Nothing makes you feel fortunate like walking to your car for a day in the mountains and being within a couple feet of people who may never have been “camping,” but sleep outside due to necessity, maybe because things just don’t come together for them like they do for us or maybe because of mental illness, addiction, or something else.

Hilary and I had a great day in the Indian Peaks, climbing the North Ridge (5.6 R) of Mt. Toll. She had her first-ever alpine lead, and with a little cleaning, I tacked on an extra pitch to the summit with a 5.7ish hand crack. The dark clouds rolling in from the west parted around the summit to the north and south, and we saw a handful of marmots on the descent. The route, which had been my first-ever alpine climb seven years ago, was a bit chossier than I remembered, and really, kind of a long walk in for three pitches. But the fun last pitch and Hilary taking the rack for her first route-finding experience in the mountains made it worth it.

hilary semi-rad
Hilary Oliver squeezes four stars of fun out of a two-and-a-half star route. Photo: Brendan Leonard

I recently heard a couple people mention that they had a “shitty climbing year” last year, and the first time I heard it, it didn’t register. But the second time, I thought, “Whoa, is this a thing?” And I thought about my past year. I didn’t climb as hard or as often as I could have—which is the case every year—and I felt a little guilty for that. I didn’t get several climbs checked off my tick list for various reasons. But I didn’t think of it as a bad year. But maybe I’m still too new, still too stoked to climb whatever I can, if I can.

A couple times I climbed The Ridge on the Piz Badile near Nederland, Colorado, a five-pitch 5.8 that’s mostly a 5.5 ridge scramble, choosing to include it in a guidebook of easy trad climbs I was coauthoring. A friend climbed the route and reported back that it wasn’t all that exciting. I second-guessed its inclusion in the guidebook (as well as my taste in climbing routes), then tried to sell it to my friend: “As a climb, maybe it’s two stars, but as a mountaineering adventure with a 10-minute approach, it’s four stars. Right? I mean, it’s 700 feet of alpine climbing right next to the highway.”

If you read enough route descriptions on Mountain Project, you’re bound to find some pithy comments about a particular climb being so-so except for that one good pitch or “It’s not all that classic,” or “It’s overrated.” This is how people guide others to better-quality climbs—the three- and four-star routes—instead of wasting time on routes that get only one star, or even worse, the ominous “bomb” designation. This is fair. Mountain Project is an online guidebook, as well as something of a Yelp for climbers. But I remember the epiphany I had after my first four or so years as a climber: I could potentially have an absolute blast on a route that a bunch of people thought sucked. And I have, several times.

Everyone’s entitled to his or her opinion of a route, and sometimes routes are objectively shitty. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a four-star day on a climb that only merits one or two stars, or an absolutely wonderful year of climbing non-classics. Hell, the “No-Star Tuesday” group in Salt Lake City has probably never had a bad after-work outing, and their entire purpose is to climb the worst routes in the Wasatch.

Maybe it’s overly optimistic to say that there’s no such thing as a shitty climbing year, that if you get out at all, if you’re climbing rocks for fun, you’ve got a pretty good life. I’m sure some of the people sleeping on cardboard boxes behind my apartment building can’t even imagine a life like that.

Brendan Leonard lives in relentless pursuit of and writes at His new book, Sixty Meters to Anywhere, is available now at, Barnes & Noble, other bookstores, and at Watch the trailer: