Dirtbag Dreams: Fantasy vs Reality
(Cover Image: Fred Beckey)
Virtually anyone who climbs, has ever picked up a climbing magazine, seen Reel Rock, or any YouTube video on climbing, knows the term “dirtbag”. The general public uses this term as one of derision to describe someone who might otherwise be a lowlife, good-for-nothing bum; but in the climbing community one aspires to it. What is a dirtbag? In a sentence, “A person who is committed to a given (usually extreme) lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other societal norms in order to pursue said lifestyle.” Recently, however, the term has become loaded and controversial. Or maybe it’s always been.
To reach the level where one climber acknowledges another as a dirtbag is often a badge of honor. At this point, a climber has become so dedicated to the sport that others in the community recognize and applaud their goal of working as little as possible in order that they may climb. Often, this requires going to extremes; squatting illegally; begging for food or eating unfinished food off tables in restaurants; living or sleeping in a car, SUV, tent; finding ingenious ways to fulfill caloric needs; showering? Optional. All praiseworthy actions. Climbing first; everything else second. On the whole, ‘dirtbagism’ is generally viewed in a positive light.
No one knows where the term came from, but rumor has it that Yvon Chouinard started using it back in the fifties to describe “dirtbag climbers”. At this time, the late 1940s and the early 1950s, the major climbs considered classic today in Yosemite had yet to be completed: The Dawn Wall, The Salathe Wall, The Nose, the north face of Half Dome, etc. All climbs that would require multiple days without coming down to complete. Also climbs the strategy of which would help determine what it meant to be a dirtbag: multi-day assaults: self-contained attempts (carrying all the food and gear needed to succeed): not retreating: doing it in a single push. Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Chuck Pratt, Tom Frost, Steve Roper, this is the generation that would really cement what it meant to be a dirtbag. And while the term is bandied about willy-nilly in the climbing community today in essays, short films and community forums, in reality, very few climbers in history have really lived up to that tag for more than a few short years; perhaps with the exception of Fred Beckey. Eventually, they move on, obtain sponsors, or find some other means of income or work to live on.
Before this essay really gets into the meat of the argument I want to make very clear to my audience and the climbing community what I am not saying. I’m not arguing that there is anything wrong with being a dirtbag or choosing to live the dirtbag lifestyle; nor am I trying to call anyone out or call foul because they have a certain position on this issue. Dirtbags take the Thoreauvian creed of “Simplify, simplify” to new heights, and I find that awe-inspiring. The argument that follows aims to change the conversation by suggesting that when we engage in discussions regarding this topic, we ought to write, speak, and think with greater clarity and awareness about what “dirtbagism” is and what dirtbagism is not. It is a lifestyle choice that often involves a great deal of privilege. It is not a choice that makes one a better climber.
Everyone seems to be asking the question, “Where have all the dirtbags gone?” Let’s take a moment to review the conversation as it stands today. Recently, on his blog, Andrew Bisharat asked the question of whether dirtbagism (my term, not his) and genuine ground-breaking climbing was taking a back seat to a more visible, social media based, “look-what-I’m-doing-right-now” sort of approach. The short answer is yes. Climbing and climbers have become very visible and the field is crowded. Additionally, Cedar Wright, one of the most prolific and respected voices in the community, has written several articles on the death of dirtbagism as well as produced two short films on two amazing dirtbags: Brad Gobright and James Lucas. In his short film on Gobright, Safety Third, Wright profiles Gobright in a not-so-surreptitous attempt to gain him some much-deserved notoriety and sponsorships. In his five-minute film on James Lucas titled, “James Lucas is the Last Dirtbag”, Wright and Lucas lament this dying breed of climber. Other articles abound: in 2007 Climbing Magazine published “The Death of Dirtbagging”: In 2014 Wright published an article in Climbing pronouncing the death of the dirtbag, to which Mojagear published a response: In 2015 the podcast “The Dirtbag Diaries” asked the question, “Is dirtbagging dead or alive?”: That same year Luke Mehall published an article on his site “The Climbing Zine”: Earlier this year on Mountain Project a forum popped up asking whether anyone has ever seen a real dirtbag. Clearly, the climbing community is obsessed with this question.
Fear not. Dirtbags are alive and well. There are at least two reasons the community perceives them as a dying breed. First, national parks such as Yosemite have imposed limits on the duration of a visit to two weeks due to the millions of people that visit each year. Where it was once possible to stay indefinitely, living in Camp 4 or cleaning out the underside of a boulder, campers now have a time limit and not everyone breaks that rule. So, in some ways, climbers are simply nostalgic for the way things were. Second, dirtbags have always been an extreme minority, and those that are conspicuous have more than likely had time on their side to solidify their legacy; also, in a tech-filled world obsessed with social media and visibility, they are voices crying in the wilderness. This is exactly Bisharat’s complaint.
But they are out there. You’ve probably never heard of the late Chad Kellogg (unless you religiously follow the Outside Podcast or were immersed in the Seattle climbing community in the late 90s or 2000s: pictured left) or Andrew Soares (unless you live and hike in New England: pictured right). Kellogg died in a climbing accident in 2014; Soares is alive and well, living in New England and pretty much spends every free moment he has hiking: he’s thru-hiked The Pacific Crest Trail, The Long Trail, The Appalachian Trail and completed The White Mountain Direttissima: a near 250 mile thru-hike of every four-thousander in New Hampshire, including 100,000 feet of elevation gain in just over nine days. You can check out his Instagram account here. For the most part, dirtbags quietly go about their business and don’t give a shit what society thinks.
Looking at the history of dirtbagging and climbing, both in Yosemite and beyond, almost no one remains a dirtbag for long. Has the climbing community forgotten, or have they ignored, the fact that the net worth of Yvon Chouinard, the guy who supposedly coined the term/phrase “dirtbag climbers”, hovers somewhere around a billion dollars? Patagonia and Black Diamond are two of the most recognizable names in the industry and have made him a fortune. Royal Robbins went on to found a very successful clothing company with his wife; he also edited Summit Magazine from 1964 to 1974. The following generation of climber dirtbags, the Stone Masters, pioneered a new method of climbing—free-soloing—as well as monetized the profession. Bachar went on to represent a major consumer brand (Gillette), as did Ron Kauk (Ford). John Long went on to write the screenplay for Cliffhanger. Lynn Hill helped bring sport-climbing to an entire generation of climbers, and thereby redefined the sport. Dirtbags are, and at least since the 1970s have been, tied to main stream culture; and the idea that they climb and do nothing but climb perpetuates a fantasy, noble though it may be, not a reality.
As part of that fantasy many sentimentalize the lifestyle and, whether consciously or not, imply that being a dirtbag somehow makes you a better climber. But let’s be clear, choosing to live the dirtbag lifestyle has absolutely no connection with how well one climbs. Can you really make the argument that not showering, living on cat food or eating 2,000 calories worth of bread, ketchup, butter and sugar packets a day—because you have no money and take what’s free in cafeterias and food halls—is going to make you a better climber? You know what makes the best climber? Training; diet; rest; and tech. There is also the view that somehow rock gyms produce inferior athletes/climbers. Yet, the best climbers put hours and hours into training in gyms. And let’s not forget that’s where Alex Honnold got his start. When Adam Ondra had problems solving Silence, he built an artificial route in a barn. And if you think Ondra got a wingspan like this eating cat food… Here’s what Sasha Digiulian said in an interview with Shape: “I like to paint my nails pink, I love high heels, dressing up, and sleeping in luxury. I also love sleeping 1,500 feet up on a little ledge in the middle of Madagascar, waking up, and climbing. The dirtbag lifestyle—that is not me. I am comfortable with who I am and what I am passionate about; this doesn’t mean I’m any less of a climber than the guy who lives in a van.” In other words, there is a fallacy in connecting living frugally and climbing strictly in the outdoors with being a great climber. It’s just not true.
And can we just be honest about privilege for a moment? The very fact that there are those who have the ability to choose to live like this says a lot about the culture. Another reason more climbers don’t live like this is because lots of people struggle just to survive. Dirtbags are dreamers, but when someone is struggling to survive they can’t dream; because they’re worried about where their next meal is going to come from, or whether it’s more important to purchase home heating fuel to stay warm or buy groceries to fill their bellies. If you decide to drop out, it’s probably because you have the means to do so or come from a background that allows it. Boulder and Seattle are two prolific outdoors communities: The Rockies and The Pacific Northwest. Gah! Rent in Boulder, CO? $1,850 on average. How about Seattle? Over $2,000. And sure, it’s possible to shack up with four or five other people to pad the cost of living in those places, but then there’s the cost of gear necessary for adventure sports. According to Outside Online, the outdoors industry is worth approximately 373 billion dollars. Have you priced a decent stand-up paddle board? How about a tandem kayak? A decent pair of climbing shoes, harness and rope? Forget it. I mean, let’s just be honest, there are very, very few people willing to go to such lengths to climb or pursue a dream. If someone has all the gear they need for camping, climbing, hiking, mountain biking and traveling, you bet your ass they’ve worked hard to get to a point where they can drop out; either that or it’s all been handed to them by friends or family: in a word, privilege. If this sounds angry or sour, I assure you it’s not. There is nothing wrong with privilege in and of itself. The problem arises only when we neglect to acknowledge it. This is just one of those unsavory items that needs to become part of the conversation.
So the next time you hear the term dirtbag, or someone call themselves hiker-trash, applaud their efforts, encourage and respect them for their to choice to live simply and humbly; also, be mindful of the fact that there is much more to the lifestyle than harboring the desire to climb in lieu of working.
What do you think? Where do you stand on this issue? Let me know in the comments.
- John Salathe and Yvon Chouinard by Tom Frost (1964).
- Chad Kellogg and Andrew Soares
- Still shot from the short film Silence, featuring Adam Ondra
For a sense of this conversation and how we got here, check out the articles I’ve hyperlinked in the essay.