Johnson County climber featured in HBO show

Alex Hargrave with the Buffalo Bulletin, via the Wyoming News Exchange

Brad Burns, left, sits his weight back in the harness to keep the rope tight while guest climber Arvil Nagpal begins his ascent up the rock face. Burns is a local climber and climbing guide who was invited to participate in an HBO program that pitted some of the world’s top climbers against each other. Buffalo Bulletin file photo.

BUFFALO —Scaling the rock above the Mediterranean Sea in Mallorca, Brad Burns moved like a seasoned professional. Ropeless, with only the water below to cushion a nearly 50-foot drop, Burns accidentally veered from the designated route, but he used his strength to hoist himself to the top, fists in the air, before taking a celebratory jump.


Burns, a 2018 Buffalo High School graduate and Story resident, is a competitor on HBO Max’s new show "The Climb," which features 10 amateur climbers going head to head for $100,000 and a sponsorship with the lifestyle brand prAna.  


As of press time, the network released six episodes, and Burns was eliminated in episode four.


Just 21 years old when the competition started in October 2021, Burns was by far the youngest competitor and the competitor with the least experience, with just five years under his belt.


“At first, it was super nerve-wracking,” he said. "I think it's really easy to have impostor syndrome. I remember getting there the first week and talking to everybody and listening to all the things that they had accomplished in their climbing and all the things they had accomplished in their life, and I was, like, 'Man, do I really deserve to be here?'" Still, Burns has made a name for himself among the local climbing community. He is a climbing guide with Bighorn Mountain Guides and president of the Bighorn Climbers Coalition. Producers for the show discovered him through his Youtube and social media channels and emailed him, encouraging him to apply.


After several interviews about his life and his climbing experience and various safety tests, Burns embarked on a trip to Spain for the competition's first few climbs.


“I just love climbing so much,” he said. "It's my biggest passion in life, so any opportunity that I have to go and climb in a new place is definitely something I'll take." Spain is a known haven for climbers looking to challenge themselves, Burns said. He proved himself early as one of only two climbers to top the rock during a deep-water free solo climb in Mallorca. There and in Catalonia, the second climbing location featured on the show, competitors had to scale limestone, which Burns was used to as a climber in the Bighorns. “In terms of the hold type and style of rock, it's very similar," he said. "It's not very overhanging; a lot of times it's just overhanging enough or vertical  it's what we call technical climbing. The only thing that was really different is that in Mallorca, there were no ropes, no harnesses, and we're above the Mediterranean." The show's other nine climbers have taught him a lot, Burns said. It's also hosted by Jason Momoa and Chris Sharma, one of his climbing idols.


"The Climb" differs from most other competition shows on television. The athletes are supportive of one another, cheering each other on even when someone else's success might mean another person gets sent home.


“Everybody wanted everyone to succeed, and that was a really good experience," Burns said. "I really wasn't that stressed because I felt like everyone was there to support me.”


In Catalonia, Burns and the other eight remaining climbers took on sport climbing, common to the local climbing mecca of Tensleep Canyon. Of the remaining nine athletes, he was the only one to top the challenging course.


Fellow competitors called him “boy wonder" and "Wyoming's best." Bouldering, his weakest climbing discipline, resulted in a top too.


Burns was knocked out of the competition in episode four during a climb of a cave wall in Spain. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in cell biology and neuroscience from Montana State University last May, and he'll apply to medical school this year. He's currently in Sun Valley, Idaho, completing an internship, during which he teaches adaptive skiing to individuals with cognitive and physical disabilities.


Of course, he's climbing when weather allows. And he has a lot of gratitude for his hometown.


“I started climbing in Johnson County and Sheridan County,” Burns said. “I have a lot of mentors out there and a lot of people that supported me through my education and in climbing, and I'm really appreciative of that.”


This story was published on Jan. 26, 2022.


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