Base Camp Blog

The Wright Stuff: Dirtbagging Is Dead

Leo Houlding on Heart Ledges with Tom Morrow.

Sound the alarm! We are on the brink of a great tragedy. Climbing has a dying breed in its ranks, a breed upon which the very foundation of our sport was built: the dirtbag. The golden age of climbing is replete with these anti-heroes: Pratt, Chouinard, and Beckey are our dirtier, more destitute Magic, Bird, and Jordan. But now it would seem dirtbag culture is on the brink of extinction; perhaps destined to go the way of the swami belt or the figure eight belay device.

Many climbers may not even know what a “dirtbag” is, let alone a swami belt, and this is part of the problem. There are some strong, psyched, and promising young climbers who learned or are learning to climb in one of the 889 gyms in America, who might check Webster’s for the word dirtbag and find this: “A dirty, unkempt, or contemptible person.” Arguably, aspects of this short explanation might be true, but here’s a better and more accurate take from Urban Dictionary: “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. Dirtbags can be distinguished from ‘hippies’ by the fact that dirtbags have a specific reason for living communally and generally non-hygienically; dirtbags seek to spend all of their moments climbing.”

When I started climbing at 21, my mentor Sean “Stanley” Leary, who was already an accomplished climber and dirtbag, told me outlandish stories of Yosemite Valley, a mecca not just for climbing, but for dirtbagging, a place where the best climbers lived in their cars (or in caves!), survived on next to nothing, and climbed full-time. Full-time! A seed was planted.

Rest day in El Cap Meadow.

When I arrived in Yosemite, I was warmly welcomed into a close-knit counter-culture with its own values, slang, and lifestyle. There was “The Center of the Universe,” a glorious asphalt slab where the rangers, or “tool” as we called them, looked the other way and allowed climbers to camp in their cars (today it’s a tourist bus lot). If you needed a partner or were feeling social, there would always be a colorful mix of characters in “The Center.” Over time, we began to refer to ourselves as “The Rock Monkeys,” and in retrospect, we were a true force in the history of Yosemite climbing.

First ascents were made, speed records were broken, and climbing gods were born and lived in that dirtbag bastion! I don’t think many of those epic feats would have been possible without the unlimited climbing our alternative lifestyle provided.

And then, as the 2000s rolled in, things started to change in small, but measurable, increments. Rangers began harassing car campers in The Center. Dirtbags were getting busted and ticketed in their secret caves, so they scurried to every corner of the Valley. We would still meet at the Yosemite Lodge Cafeteria for coffee or in El Cap Meadow to smoke weed, but without The Center, our sense of community was increasingly splintered. Even Camp 4 was a no-go with its more and more strictly enforced two-week camping limit. As years went by, and in spite of increasing ranger-induced challenges, I continued to spend most of the year lurking in Yosemite. There was the occasional new dirtbag on the scene, but it was clear that the party was losing steam.

It’s sad; I learned so much as a dirtbag. Toiling on epic in-a-day ascents of El Cap gave me a tremendous work ethic. Living a simple life in the dirt in such a beautiful place inspired a deep love and respect for the natural world. With little money ever to my name, I learned the value of thrift and conservation. While now, I do have more than a thousand dollars in my bank account and an actual roof over my head, I still live life by the dirtbag ethos that collecting experiences is more important than amassing wealth and material objects. I hope Yosemite’s waning dirtbag population isn’t the canary in the coal mine.

Mikey Schaefer on the road in Kentucky in fellow pro climber Matt Segal’s van.

I believe the dirtbag’s long goodbye has a variety of causes. Gas, food, and camping are more expensive every year. Authorities continue to crack down on climbers seeking to live and camp for free. For example, the dirtbag scene in Joshua Tree took a big hit when camping fees and stay limits were introduced at Hidden Valley Campground, where Stonemaster legends like Lynn Hill, John Bachar, and John Long honed their craft in years past.

And then there’s the change in venue of where most modern climbers pick up the sport. The majority of climbers now learn in gyms, disconnected from climbing history. To be clear, I’m not bagging on gyms. Heck, I’ve never been stronger than I am now, living in Boulder and climbing in one regularly, but I do hope that we can connect the gym culture to the deeper thread of climbing history. It’s easy to have respect for your forefathers when you literally walk in their footsteps. In Yosemite, giants like Chuck Pratt, Warren Harding, and Royal Robbins spent chunks of their lives sleeping in the dirt and putting up iconic first ascents on El Cap and Half Dome.

Now you can climb 5.13 without ever going outside. You don’t necessarily need to dedicate your entire life to climbing to get really strong, especially as the majority of climbers turn to bouldering and sport climbing. You don’t learn dirtbag culture in the climbing gym, and it seems that some of the environmental ethics and etiquette that are part and parcel of dirtbagging are getting lost as well.

The Internet has changed the way people climb, too. “You don’t have to hang out in Camp 4 to find partners any more,” my friend and dirtbag stalwart James Lucas half-jokes, “You can go on Mountain Project and find beta and a partner for any climb you want to do!” In an era where many people’s social lives and community exist wholly in the virtual world, climbing is suffering from the same over-arching problem.

Ivo Ninov by El Cap Bridge cleaning cams before setting the speed record on Native Son (5.9 A4) on El Cap, with Ammon McNeely.

Modern culture as a whole is also becoming increasingly materialistic, and being broke and living in your car is just becoming less cool, even for climbers. It’s harder than ever to drop out of the rat race.

End rant. I’ll stop whining and outline something to feel optimistic about. Social norms have a way of ebbing and flowing. Dirtbagging hasn’t flatlined just yet, and the beauty and passion that so many of us find in climbing may be enough to draw in the next generation. That’s where I hope to make a difference. I’m not here to say that every climber should quit their job and move to Yosemite, or start sleeping in their Saturn wagon, but I am here to say that it can change your life.

Consider Alex Honnold. He learned to climb in a gym in Sacramento, and somehow found his way to Yosemite where he dirtbagged in proud style. Slowly but surely, he became one of the greatest climbers the world has ever seen; his simple, meager existence allowed him the time to perfect his big wall skills. The Nose speed record and Half Dome free-solo are only a couple on his endless tick list of notable achievements. I can say confidently that Alex’s life would look a lot different if he hadn’t dropped out of college and made that leap of faith to live in his van and follow his dreams.

Do you have a deferred climbing dream? Do you have a crappy job that makes you miserable? Do you have fantasies of climbing rock every day? Is the only time you find joy and passion in your life when the weekend rolls around and you get to hit the rock? Then you might have what it takes to keep the dirtbag dream alive. Maybe this beautiful, unruly thing has some life in it yet. //

Video: Watch Cedar Wright's short documentary The Last Dirtbag

Cedar Wright is a professional climber and contributing editor for Climbing. He still only showers about once a week or so.

 

Comments

Im a new gym climber, but i study and read a lot. This article and especially the comments say a few things to me: 1- the climbing community continues to be the most opinionated community I have ever encountered. Hardly anyone agrees with anyone yet everyone is authoritative. 2- the climbing community is fascinating, old yet new, and always changing. As a new climber, I love the celebrity climbers that havd allowed their lives to be accessible so I can see beautiful climbs through amazing photos and videos and I'm more than happy they are sponsored so they can do so. I also appreciate the history and roots of where the sport as we know it came from. Lifestyle or hobby. Big wall or gym. Paid or broke. (And everything inbetween) I wish the community would just have mutual respect and focus on the things that matter like environmental stewardship, safety, access, etc.

Chris - 10/28/2014 3:03:43

I feel like climbing brainwashed me and I finally woke up a couple years ago. So many "living the life!" type of climbers are trust fund kids who don't have to worry about waking up at 40 with a broken body and no savings. I learned a lot from dirtbags but the most important lesson was to not become a lifer.

Dudette - 08/17/2014 10:02:27

A video from Cedar's website. The first 15 seconds tells all you need to know about Cedar "The dirtbag" https://vimeo.com/59553851

cmoney - 08/12/2014 1:51:19

I'm a gym rat got into climbing from the riverside climbing scene. Kids like me aka gym rats (half hearted, pussies lol) are the problem and the answer isn't simple. But cedar wright or whoever prides themselves as being apart of the pioneer scene respectably beat their bodies discovering how to make climbing lighter, faster, and SAFER. Where is the balance between the private satisfaction of sitting on top of a weird rock and supporting a naturally progressive sport that only lazy people could deny?! That is an individual decision that is no ones right to trash. I love my setters because they all are not necessarily strong as they could be because life happens, but the hipster workers who use climbing as a last ditch hobby before they grow up are personally just chatty douchebags. As you can tell I climb cause I'm young and camping and learning about life through the outdoors is stress relieving. If your interested in this article being provacotive then maybe we should purposely limit the number of climbers. How? By shutting up and climbing hard, firing the people who involve themselves in climbing for Money lol. Support dirtbags legacy by being a climber who consciously climbs out of a healthy passion! All this rant came from a single faggot ass worker who gives me a hard time in the gym regarding my attitude, who cares about ppl like that, I bought my way into climbing because respectably I admit I am no way like a dirtbagger and don't want to be like one because that time has passed. (Trashing the crag is a different issue) you can tell in time who is committed by there style, the competive part of the brain that secretly keeps track of the ever so subjective grades in the back of your head. Girl or guy we all are competitive in life so let's just think, twelve year olds who aren't educated but bank off of their dedication to climb to get through life and bad climbing employees are a good start to keeping the sweat that our 5.4 fathers lol a part of climbing. Still, I've only climbed in a couple states but am still adding routes and boulders to my belt. As I vent about that stupid ass worker who won't get fired over this comment I realize just wrong all of this could be, but in the end I hope it gets someone amped to hang and pull off some holds, that's what this site is for anyways right? Thanks for reading haha just shows my temper and what a single experience at a gym can do if it's ruined by haters. Define hater on your own it's very slang k bye I need to sleep.

Trevor James Wilkins - 08/12/2014 5:56:59

I think its funny Cedar Wright wrote this...

ma - 08/09/2014 9:00:11

There are dirt-bag climbers aplenty these days I'm sure, but they're probably too busy climbing/scraping together enough money to keep climbing to be bothered with the whole business of self-promotion and need for recognition that fuels articles like these. It comes off as pretentious and not altogether true.

complainer - 08/08/2014 7:03:56

you sound whiny! and It aint the least surprising. According to surveys, most people state they have higher morals than everybody else. Whatever the hell that means. Similarly, everybody believes they got more passion. Every generation believes they were the greatest- that would be the standard psychological ebb and flow of things. But occasionally, you get someone who sees the big picture, who looks at the progression of history. But if you really do believe that this culture has gone to shit (indeed, sometimes they degenerate in certain ways) it would only be you, the previous generation, who we would logically hold responsible. After all, each successive generation is built on the ones who preceded it. As for your generation, you probably conveniently forgot the origins of climbing- which lie in mountaineering. Oh no, there was no dirtbaggery involved! In fact, it was a sport of noblemen, people with lots of money...who were also passionate. It doesn't seem likely that people would risk their lives voluntarily without a great deal of passion. But anyway, that's really not my main point. What I see is a thread and all it has yielded. So step back, cedar, look at the painting from a few paces. Or not...there's something charming about a grumpy old bastard ;)

w - 08/07/2014 2:42:06

I don't think we have anything to worry about when it comes to the dirt bag scene. This is an opinion. And while there are certain people giving dirtbags a hard time due to their lifestyle..well if there's a will, there's a wag. As long as there is climbing, so will there be dirtbagging. But that too, is just an opinion.

Jo - 08/07/2014 11:03:10

Cedar Wright and the some of the other "dirtbags" that hung out in Yosemite seem to be a few of the culprits directly responsible for killing the entire dirtbag culture. Running around the globe with their photographer/videographer and posse in tow. Posing for photos on routes, getting their faces in the next Patagonia catalog, over-networking to publish the same couple stories and photos about friends and Yosemite time and time again. Now you get some press for writing the obituary of something you helped to kill. Funny!

Andrew W. - 08/06/2014 2:40:28

Nice, and true Cedar. I happened to notice all of the current climbing 'heroes' have Adidas sponsorships (Similar to people like David Beckham or ugh, Ronaldo), facebook fanpages, and coifed hair. My ideal climbing hero doesn't have internet access most of the time, cares about that shit, and just wants to climb. I don't care who that is.

Lenore - 08/06/2014 2:01:21

This is a nicely written article with good sentiment, but I think it's valid to note that the modern yuppie gym climber and teenager who has never, and may never, touch any hold that wasn't manufactured, are what have allowed climbers like Cedar to continue in such a wonderful climbing-centric lifestyle. I mean, on my most recent trip to Boulder, I don't remember seeing a lot of people living off the land (maybe the homeless hippies selling weed in front of the Pearl St government buildings). Yes, climbing is becoming more and more mainstream - it's bad for crowds on the Valley trade routes, but it's good that there's a growing economy that may make it possible to climb professionally for a growing number of people. Also, most tweens these days can't seem to do anything without an iPhone and 24 h access to Facebook or Google. So I feel like there is little hope that the true dirtbag lifestyle will witness a resurgence.

Al - 08/04/2014 5:39:02

I applaud Cedar for broaching this topic. I find a lot of climbers, both new-to-the-scene and seasoned, to be far-stepping around the dirtbagging ways that out pioneers left for us to emulate. And, I get it. As some on this comment thread have said, it's not "cool" to dirtbag anymore. What they have missed in the "been there, done that" mentality is what dirtbagging teaches us. I found dirtbagging not through climbing directly, but through long-distance hiking. That lifestyle mixed with climber dirtbag friends and climbing partners set a fire in me; one that continues to rage bright now. I hear of their adventures, the trips they've taken, the dumpsters they dove and jobs they dived and I'm enthralled with the unknown of the day to day, and the bliss of the moment lived out second-by-second. I'm now onto my second van and I am content in saying that this van is not all tricked out with the latest and best that supposed "dirtbags" can buy, but rather the essentials that I purchased at Lowe's for less than 200 dollars. Now, I'm not taking a crap on those vans - you know the ones at the crag parking lots - and instead I'm trying to re-highlight something that James "Peach" Lucas talks about in his piece, "The Modern Dirtbag" in Vol. 6 of The Climbing Zine: you cannot call yourself a dirtbag if you are rolling around in a van that costs 40k or more, or if you have a job that pays well. In that case, you are a well-endowed and blessed person who has more money than the average bear. Good for you; you've made it work. Bottom line to my comment, purists in the art of dirtbagging indeed are a dying breed. I am glad to still call my van my home, the river my bath and shower, the public toilets my bathroom, and to use this computer at the public library; to not own a "smart" phone because I feel dumb with one, and to own nice climbing gear that was paid for with money from busting my ass in the busy tourist seasons in Colorado. If you haven't yet experienced the thrill of living on the edge, give it a try. Get outside, indeed as Cedar writes: " the dirtbag ethos that collecting experiences is more important than amassing wealth and material objects..." still holds a hell of a lot more truth than anything I've found in this world gone sideways. Dirtbagging to me celebrates the lifestyle that has given and continues to give so much. -Al Smith III climbingzine.com

Al Smith III - 08/04/2014 3:45:12

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