Written by Bryce Kirby
“Every day on that trip I had to throw out the pee bucket. It was awful. I had my buddy snap this picture.”
Brendan Leonard stands in front of a small crowd at Mountain Chalet on a quiet Wednesday evening. He moves to the next slide, and everyone laughs. Leonard, a tough mountain-man sort who I would assume does not pose mid-throw with pee buckets, is posed mid-throw with a pee bucket while a truly phenomenal amount of urine arcs from the end.
Leonard laughs with the crowd. He’s a goofy guy, one of those people with true charisma and yet unassuming humility. His talk is peppered with light-hearted and often hilarious moments like this one. But beneath his disarming personality is an at times dark, at other times inspiring, story. Leonard came to Mountain Chalet to speak of his struggle with alcoholism, and how writing and mountain climbing helped him reach places he’d never imagined for himself.
“I think my story applies to a lot of people,” Leonard said. “That’s why I keep telling it.” So he started at the beginning. Leonard grew up in middle-class Iowa in what he described as the classic all-American childhood. In middle school and high school he played football and drank with friends. By college, Leonard’s behavior had worsened. He got into fights, vandalized cars and school property, and was arrested repeatedly. He began to realize that he had a serious problem with alcohol. Arrested yet again, it all clicked for Leonard. “I was tired of disappointing people,” he said. “I was tired of disappointing myself.”
Leonard enrolled himself in an alcohol rehabilitation program. He began to look at the pieces of his life and where it was headed. He realized that he wanted to head out West. As a child, Leonard had glimpsed the adventurous spirit of the west in family road trips. Later, he would credit these road trips as the catalyst for something greater: the idea that his very identity was out there, in the mountains. “For me, the west was a place of reinvention,” Leonard said. “It was somewhere you could go to start over.”
Thus, he left for the University of Montana, determined to do just that. He studied journalism and began to backpack on the weekends, despite having no idea what he was doing. “I was hiking with my school backpack, wearing all cotton in the mountains,” he recalled, laughing. Eventually, he began to rockclimb after his brother gave him a rope as a birthday present. Slowly but surely, the outdoors began to become something real for Leonard. The more time he spent in the wild, the more he felt challenged and alive—someone who could be the person he wanted to be.
Over the course of the next decade, Leonard kept pushing his limits. He worked for IBM while living out of his van and traveling America. He learned to climb big walls and began soliciting magazines for articles. The confused boy from Iowa had found his drive on the rock.
Now, Leonard is an adventurer and a writer. His blog “Semi-Rad” is a widely popular adventure and humor publication. He has written for Backpacker, Outside, and National Geographic Magazine. Most notably, he recently published a memoir titled “Sixty Meters to Anywhere,” which describes his story in detail. Amidst all this success, Leonard continues to live by a philosophy he learned through failure and found on unforgiving mountains.
“To do is to be,” he told his audience at Mountain Chalet, suddenly serious. “The story you tell yourself becomes your reality.” He urged everyone to stop making excuses about finding their personal stories. “We make up excuses to talk ourselves out of happiness. But these excuses are fear disguised as practicality. It’s fear of change. You have to know when you’re bullshitting yourself.” In addition to developing our own “bullshit-o-meters,” Leonard encouraged individuals to ask themselves: “Why am I really not doing this?”
Leonard knows the importance of recognizing apathy as fear. He has lived it. This self-professed unathletic, middle-class Midwestern boy is now living the life he wants to live. Leaving Mountain Chalet, I couldn’t help seeing all the excuses I’ve made to myself. All the times I had turned something down because I had a paper that I could make time for anyway but hadn’t, all the times I had justified Netflix over adventure. But there was something missing in that.
“We’re in charge of our own stories,” Leonard declared. “More than we think.” We would all do well to live with a similar mindset.