Brendan Leonard received a serious wake-up call after doing some serious damage to himself and those he cared about most. He started drinking alcohol in abundance whenever he could at a young age, and when he stopped, there was a hole, a bad one, to fill. Climbing, at first low tech, then increasingly demanding, became the thing that kept him sober.
As you chronicle in Sixty Meters to Anywhere, the jump from functioning alcoholic to non-drinker was immediate, and seemed almost easy, despite the fact that you were a bartender at the time. What was the number one thing that kept you from relapsing during those first few months?
That’s sort of what the book is all about—that it was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, and maybe still is. There were a couple of things that kept me from relapsing, the first of which was jail, which was almost a sure thing if I messed up one more time. The second was that I was sick of disappointing everyone around me all the time, including myself, and all the bad things I’d done or had happened to me all had one thing in common—alcohol. So I toughed it out for those first months.
You had a serious relationship with cigarettes. Didn’t this fly in direct opposition of your athletic pursuits?
At the time I started smoking, I wasn’t much of an athlete—you could probably say that barstools were the only things I was climbing then. I started hiking in Montana when I was 23, and that was definitely in opposition to smoking. But I wasn’t able to quit until I talked myself into training for a marathon in 2006, the year I started climbing. I had tried lots of different strategies, but the one that worked was cold turkey—or just toughing it out and realizing I was going to be miserable for a couple months.
I found it interesting that your girlfriend, then wife, went into social work. Was she already headed there, or was this at least partially influenced by her close relationship with a person with an addiction?
Boy, that would be a better question for her for sure. I think she was always a very caring, nurturing person, and social work probably seemed like the most direct way for her to help the world at that point.
Choosing climbing, taking greater and greater risks each time, broke your relationship with your partner, but somehow strengthened ties with your Iowa family, even resulting in your mother taking up the sport in a climbing gym.
I think climbing was, at the time, representative of what I wanted to do with my life—adventure, travel, be in the mountains. But my partner at the time had a different vision for life, at the very least being home more, with a family. Unfortunately, we were both figuring out who we wanted to be and got married before we realized we wanted different things. My mom, on the other hand, is pretty nuts about exercising, and the climbing gym was something she could add into her bicycling/yoga/walking routine. She’s had a lot of fun with it, and I still love going to the gym with her to climb.
Your new book, The Art of Getting Lost, hopes to inspire armchair travelers to get up and get out. And you've been doing a lot of video production, along with keeping up with your Semi-Rad blog. Any other new projects in the pipeline?
I actually have a couple book projects coming out in 2019, including a book of the best posts from my Semi-Rad blog from 2011 through 2018—Mountaineers Books will publish that in fall 2019. And I’ll be self-publishing a couple books on my own next year, one of which will be a collection of 100 of my Instagram illustrations. And I’ll be doing several speaking events.
Come hear Brendan in person on Saturday, January 12, 2019, 2-3:30 p.m. at Improper City in the RiNo Arts District. While you’re there, sign up for a library card and Denver Public Library’s Winter of Reading program!