Chris van Leuven: my other “brother”

A photo Chris van Leuven gave me once upon a time

Chris van Leuven spent quite a bit of time at our house in high school, so much so that I often thought of him as the third sibling in the family. Things at his house weren’t going that well, we gathered, but neither my brother nor I asked many questions. Instead, we would bring him home after our afternoon sessions at the local boulders or climbing gym. We’d let his endless stream of words, spoken in such animated, rapid succession that anyone else would have struggled to comprehend, melt into our own stories from the day. Often, all three of us would be speaking at the same time, but that didn’t hinder our understanding.

In the Spring of 1996, I was just finishing my first year of college in Montreal while Chris was actually living our high school dream of dirtbagging in Yosemite Valley. Nicknamed Maverick, of course he did it with unconventional flair: in a company tuxedo, serving as host in the Ahwahnee dining room, often running down off a climb to pull the disgustingly-grimy-on-the-inside “white” tuxedo shirt over his still-sweaty torso.

My college friend Eric and I started off a summer-long road trip with a visit to Chris’s company lodging in Boystown, a shanty of tent cabins on the edge of the tourist-inhabited Curry Village. We spent five days there, climbing by day, listening to stories told by the more seasoned climbers in the evening, and reading Downward Bound late into the night. Eventually, we would fall asleep in our sleeping bags, spread out on what little floor space was actually available between Chris’s cot and Zack’s, the other patient occupant of that tiny tent cabin.

On the day Eric and I left to drive to City of Rocks in Idaho, Eric and I walked Chris and Zack to the base of El Capitan before dawn. They left the ground to ascend the big wall laughing, balsa-wood plane kits tucked into their helmets.


Chris spent a few years back East with his dad, working at Campmor; I would phone the toll-free customer service number at the agreed-upon time, and we’d tell each other stories. One Fall, we met in the Gunks, where he and a friend talked me into joining them on a night-time ascent of Ventre de Boeuf (rough translation: Cow Guts), in the pouring rain. On the approach, his friend kept repeating the route’s redeeming factors, despite it being listed in the guidebook as a good one to try “after you’ve tried every other route [in the area].”

“It’s an overhanging, outward flaring, offwidth,” he began, at which point my misgivings all but eclipsed the rest of the sentence. It was also, as we discovered as we shone our headlamps up into its dark abyss, dripping wet. A ridiculously uncomfortable climb, I felt so alive following my friend Chris up that route, including several minutes during which my head was stuck facing the wrong direction. My headlamp, uselessly illuminating the wrong side of the crack, prevented me from correcting the mistake until things widened out again.

On the way back to our tents, we talked about the possibility of meeting up in the Gunks again for an all-nude ascent of Shockley’s Ceiling, in true Vulgarian style. Or maybe I should do the first all-female nude ascent with another friend of his? Neither ever happened.


I came back to the Valley after graduating from McGill in 1999, with a Quebecois boyfriend in tow. This time I got my own job with the company, and miraculously got a Boystown tent cabin to myself. After only a couple months the boyfriend returned, alone, to Montreal and I stayed, quitting my job when I figured out a way to stay in Yosemite without having to work. Chris and I weren’t as close then but we ran in similar circles, catching up regularly in El Cap Meadow or Camp 4.

Chris stayed in and around the Valley through 2005, three years after I finally burned out on the scene and the migratory pattern I followed, driving in endless triangles between Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and my parents’ house in Marin.

Several of our friends from those days we spent, together and separately, in the Valley have fallen. Other than a brief period in 2013 when I thought I was going to be living near him in Colorado, we haven’t been in touch much. Somehow I missed an article he must have posted to Facebook when it was first published in Alpinist: Going Home, a beautiful tribute to our late friends Dean and Stanley (whom I’ve written about before), and Graham, who died at the same time as Dean. Chris’s words feel so satisfying compared to my own feeble attempts to articulate how these deaths continue to affect me.

Dean Potter by Dean Fidelman

Chris’s Going Home is featured in the new book, Best American Sports Writing 2016. I’m so proud of him, but more so, I’m moved by his words. So much so that I’m finally putting these words, which I’ve mulled over in my head so many times, out into the world.

Thank you, Chris, for so much. For this piece; for your storytelling; for your passion; for never ceasing your quest for balance; for offering me up your own “bodywidth cabin floor” in Boystown in those early years. You have always been an inspiration and I don’t believe I’ve told you that anywhere near often enough.

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