Editor’s Note: This story contains mild spoilers for Season 1 of HBO’s “The Climb.”
BOZEMAN – Brad Burns assumed the email that showed up in his inbox from television service HBO in August 2021 was spam, but it wasn’t.
Representatives at HBO had seen videos of Burns rock climbing on his social media channels and thought he might be a good fit for a new reality competition show hosted by champion rock climber Chris Sharma and actor Jason Momoa. Burns, who was a senior in the Montana State University Department of Microbiology and Cell Biology and the MSU Honors College at the time, figured nothing would come of it when he submitted his application for the program, called “The Climb.”
“I thought nothing of it, thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to get this,’” Burns recalled. “And the very next day I had a two-hour interview with them, which became weekly interviews until we started filming.”
Burns is originally from Story, Wyoming, which is where he first discovered rock climbing at age 17. Like many students, he was drawn to Bozeman by its combination of natural beauty, opportunities for outdoor recreation and the chance to pursue a degree that would help him toward his goal of attending medical school.
In October 2021, Burns traveled to Mallorca, Spain, to begin filming alongside nine other competitors. In each of the show’s eight episodes, climbers face a unique challenge. The two who perform at the bottom of the group then compete head-to-head in an elimination challenge to determine which climbers advance to the next episode. Burns, who was the youngest competitor at 21 years old, successfully navigated through three episodes before being eliminated in the fourth.
Burns said he was struck in the moments before his first climb in Mallorca by the enormity of the endeavor.
“The first time I really understood what was happening was when we were climbing the first route,” he said. “I’m standing on the rock, and I turn around to see like 15 boats in the harbor. There are divers, there’s a safety team and the producers on boats, there’s drones and cameramen on ropes. And you think, ‘Man, I’m supposed to climb this route right now with like 200 people watching me?’”
In addition to the new challenges posed by hours of daily filming and the nerves that came with the competition, Burns was also set apart from his fellow climbers by the fact that he continued with his studies full time while abroad. He finished the fall 2021 semester in Europe, wrapping up filming each day in the late evening before studying, usually into the early morning. While it added another layer of challenge, he said he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“Everyone at MSU was so amazing. It was awesome,” he said. “From day one of that semester, I let all my professors know that this might happen. I got really lucky. My professors were so accommodating, and I’m so grateful for that.”
His academic pursuits didn’t end at simply completing his classes while abroad; he continued an independent undergraduate research project as well that combined his medical aspirations with his love for climbing. After connecting with Bernadette McCrory, an assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering, through the Honors College, Burns initiated a project that used biomechanics to examine injury risk in rock climbers.
“Brad was highly motivated,” said McCrory, who is also a faculty member of MSU’s Biomedical Engineering Program. “He crafted his project, he wrote the proposal and got funded. He did everything.”
Burns’ project, funded by MSU’s Undergraduate Scholars Program, used advanced biometric technology to measure data from both beginner and advanced rock climbers such as range of motion, limb movement, heart rate and stress during climbs. While filming with HBO, Burns was also dedicating time to data analysis to continue the project and work on the final manuscript he would submit for publication in academic journals.
“Brad had to learn elements of the data acquisition and data analysis process. It was a lot to do as an undergrad, and it was a completely independent project,” said McCrory. “He really hustled to finish data collection before he left, then took it with him. He’s highly driven. The sky is the limit for him.”
In addition to the support he received from faculty, advisers and fellow students, Burns said the community he joined while filming “The Climb” was just as valuable, keeping him encouraged through the more than two months he was away from home.
“It’s easy to have impostor syndrome when you’re on something like that. I was the youngest person on the show and had the least amount of climbing experience, and I was also going to school at the same time,” said Burns. “But everyone was so great. We were all so supportive of each other, which I think really sets this show apart. I went there and left with nine best friends.”
Burns returned home in December 2021, and “The Climb” premiered on streaming platform HBO Max on Jan. 13 of this year. In the interim, a lot has changed for Burns: He graduated with a degree in cell biology and neuroscience in May 2022 and is currently finishing an internship in Sun Valley, Idaho, with a nonprofit called Higher Ground. The organization provides outdoor experiences such as skiing and snowboarding to veterans and adaptive athletes, and Burns serves as a ski instructor, working primarily with individuals with cognitive and learning disabilities.
Once his internship wraps up, he will travel to Alaska to climb Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America at 20,310 feet. Then he will pursue one of the dreams that brought him to Montana State in the first place: medical school. In July, he will enter the Wyoming branch of the WWAMI program, a medical school cooperative between universities in Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho that also includes MSU.
While filming “The Climb” was a spectacular experience, Burns said the element he values most is the chance to build relationships with other climbers on the show. He also noted that the experience reinforced the importance of outdoor adventures to his greater well-being, including his mental health and the motivation to continue his advanced studies.
“There’s so much truth behind how we connect with the outdoors and how it affects us,” he said. “I think that’s one of the reasons I went to MSU. Mountains and minds: there’s something to be said for that. To be able to pursue a high-level education while also being able to explore a beautiful place, that will enable you to enjoy your education more. It’s something I’ll keep trying to balance for the rest of my life, and I think everybody should try and find that.”
All episodes of “The Climb” are available to stream on HBO Max with a subscription.