By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
The mountains of Spain are a mecca for rock climbers. The island of Majorca, in particular, offers opportunities for every level of climber, from slabby walls to steep overhangs, roofs and cracks.
As a boy growing up in tiny Story, Wyoming, Brad Burns used to dream of a time when he’d climb the crags and cliffs of Spain.
“Spain is like the Holy Grail of sport climbing,” Burns told Cowboy State Daily. “If you are a hard rock climber, you go to Spain at some time in your life and you get challenged by the climbs there.”
The skiing and climbing instructor in Sun Valley, Idaho, also guides rock climbers in the Big Horn mountains near Sheridan every summer.
Now the 23-year-old doesn’t have to dream of climbing in Spain – he’s done it. And in a very public and spectacular fashion.
Burns is one of 10 amateur climbers featured on the HBO Max series “The Climb,” a competition pitting some of the world’s best amateur climbers against each other – and the elements – to win a climbing sponsorship and $100,000 cash.
The show, which debuted on January 12, 2023, is presented by legendary rock climber Chris Sharma and world-famous actor Jason Momoa.
“The Climb” is billed as a “visually-arresting and life-changing adventure that represents the foundations of rock climbing and exploration of the human spirit.”
Out of the Blue
Burns began climbing in the Big Horn Mountains when he was a high school student in nearby Buffalo. After high school, he attended Montana State University, studying cell biology and neuroscience.
But he never stopped climbing.
“During the summer between my junior and senior years of undergrad (in 2021), I got this random email in my inbox one day from these folks at HBO,” said Burns. “They said, ‘Hey, we saw your social media, we saw your YouTube and we’ve heard about your climbing, so we think you should apply for this, we think you’d be great.’”
“This” was an opportunity to be a contestant on a climbing reality show, which would be titled “The Climb.”
“So I just applied and thought nothing of it,” said Burns. “And then ended up having a series of interviews from August to October and finally got chosen – and ended up going to Spain in late October of 2021.”
The show is comprised of eight episodes, and at the end of each episode someone goes home.
“It’s the last man or woman standing,” said Burns.
He said that each episode covers one main climb, and all the contestants get one chance at climbing the route. Whoever falls at the lowest point of the climb is eliminated.
“It ends up being this dramatic experience,” Burns said.
The climbing itself was a unique adventure, Burns said. Unlike a normal climb, which is a relatively solitary experience for climbing partners, the contestants had to contend with camera crews literally hanging all around.
“The first episode in Majorca, we’re climbing above the water with no ropes – and so if you fall, you fall into the water, and the water is what’s saving you from getting hurt,” said Burns. “But what you can’t see, is in the bay behind us, there’s probably like 15 to 20 boats out there.
“There’s a yacht that the producers are on, there’s drones flying around, there’s probably 15 cameramen hanging off the cliffs at different angles.”
He said that the producers took no chances with the safety of the contestants.
“As you’re dropping the water, there’s two divers underneath the water,” said Burns. “So if you fall in and you get hurt, there’s immediately emergency services on you.”
He said all the extra people around made for a distracted climbing experience.
“It’s like, ‘How am I supposed to focus on climbing when there’s 150 people watching me climb right now, all doing their jobs?’” Burns said.
Meeting his rock climbing idol, though, was particularly exciting for Burns.
Chris Sharma was considered the best of the best by rock climbers in the 1990s and 2000s, he said.
“I remember when I started climbing, I used to watch all of Chris Sharma’s videos,” said Burns. “He’s like a legend – kind of like the Kobe Bryant of rock climbing, if that makes sense.”
Burns said meeting Sharma was like a dream come true.
“But I didn’t really care too much about meeting Jason Momoa,” he added.
In the show, Momoa (who has been friends with Sharma for decades) only appears at the beginning of each episode. But his star power and love for climbing lends itself to the appeal of the show.
Also contributing is that the contestants weren’t told what to say, Burns explained.
“They never told us to say anything specific, nothing was scripted,” he said. “And so that felt really good. What I told myself was, I just get to be myself and whatever shows up on camera, hopefully, it’ll be an accurate representation of who I am.”
The 10 contestants ranged in age from 21 (Burns) up to 53. Burns said most were in their late 20s and early 30s, and most have been climbing for years.
“A lot of them were sponsored athletes and had been climbing for a really long time,” he said. “So, I was the youngest and I had the least amount of experience, and that was quite interesting.”
Unlike other reality shows in which contestants are pitted against each other, Burns said this group supported each other.
“There isn’t this cutthroat attitude,” he said. “As you’re watching, you’ll definitely realize that everyone’s cheering everyone on – we’re all great friends, we’re all supporting each other. Nobody wants anyone else to fail, we want everybody to succeed.
“And I think that’s kind of what makes the show so special.”
Because rock climbing at its essence is about personal accomplishment rather than competing against other people, Burns was afraid that participating in a competition television show would require him to “switch his brain.”
“It’s kind of this weird feeling of like, ‘Oh, now I have to switch my brain to compete against other people,’” he said. “And it never really felt that way. It was more so that I’m trying not to lose. Switching my mindset of competing against the rock versus trying not to lose against other people was definitely a little bit of a switch.”
Although for contractual reasons Burns was unable to confirm where all of the show was filmed, he did say that most was filmed in Spain, and a portion was filmed in the country of Jordan.
The filming schedule ran from October 2021 through March 2022, Burns said, and seeing the final product on television was a bit surreal.
“If you think about each episode being like 30-40 minutes, each episode was actually weeks of our lives,” he said. “And so it’s really interesting for me to watch it now and see how much was cut out and how much experience that we had that isn’t actually reflected in the show.”
Burns said he was proud to represent his home state to an audience as diverse “The Climb’s.”
“Coming from Wyoming, the least populated state in the United States, it’s kind of a wild feeling for sure,” he said.”There’s not a whole lot of people in Wyoming in general, and definitely not a lot of climbers, so it was really cool to go there and be kind of like ‘the Wyoming guy.’”
His small town background was particularly of interest to people who may have heard of Wyoming, but not of his home town of Story.
“Like, Wyoming is already a tiny, tiny state, but then Story, population 820?” Burns said. “People are like, ‘Where do you find that on a map?’”
His Wyoming family is proud of Burns’ representing the state to such a large audience.
His mother, Danielle, said she’s received many messages praising her son for his appearance on “The Climb.”
“I keep getting emails and texts from all my friends and from people in Story,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “I think they’re really proud just because Story is so small, yet it’s a great place. I think everybody’s rooting for Brad.”
Nine New Best Friends
Thanks to this experience, Burns said he’s found nine new “best friends.”
“The other nine climbers, we stay in contact,” he said. “We talk, like, every week. I basically made nine new best friends from the experience – and meeting Chris Sharma, like I said, was pretty life-changing for me.”
Burns said he feels lucky – and humbled – to have been a part of “The Climb.”
“I don’t know how they found a random guy in Wyoming who got to be a part of it, but I feel incredibly lucky,” said Burns.