Peaches Preaches: The Dirtbag Conundrum

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“You walk without a sense of purpose,” a Berkeley bar manager once told James “Peaches” Lucas before firing him. A dedicated climber who spent 15 years living out of caves, tents, and then a Saturn station wagon to pursue the sport, Lucas stumbles through life but marches to the boulders, crags, and walls. Peaches Preaches is his monthly column.

Peaches Preaches James Lucas Rock Climbing Dirtbag
Photos from the author’s dirtbag days, circa 2004. 

“You ain’t no dirtbag, home boi,” a Seattle climber wrote me in a direct message on Instagram. “You talk as though you are because you have been doing it since 2001. You are not a dirtbag; you have Instagram, for crying out loud!” The unsolicited slander caused me to reflect on the dirtbag experience and my role in promoting it. In the past decade, the climbing community has grasped onto the idea that being a dirtbag—that being deliberately impoverished in order to scrap and save every last penny to go climbing—is “cool.” The Seattle climber had, however, homed in on an uncomfortable truth: That posing as someone who’s struggling financially when you aren’t—or have some sort of emergency fallback, like a middle-class or well-off family—is offensive to those who truly are poor, often through no fault of their own or because of structural oppression.

Three years ago, Cedar Wright produced The Last Dirtbag, a short film about me in which he documented my life on the road, living in my Saturn station wagon, and my obsession with climbing. My dive into dirtbagging had begun back in 2001, when I moved to Yosemite and worked as an employee for the concessionaire. Over the next three years, I worked on and off (mostly off), slept in the boulders behind Camp 4, once lived off 150 eggs that my friends and I found behind a Moab grocery store, and bivied in a cave for three months below the Chief in Squamish. When I split my face open riding a bike, a Squamish boulderer stitched my cheek together in his RV. In 2004, I attended school at the University of Santa Cruz, living in a tent in the woods on campus so I could funnel my student-loan money into climbing trips and then into the Saturn ($2,000), which served as my home base for five years. When I graduated, I worked sporadically and climbed constantly. I didn’t know if I was a “dirtbag” nor did I care. I knew that if I wanted to climb all the time, I would have to pilfer food, scam medical care, run up student-loan bills, and hope that there wouldn’t eventually come due some bill I’d be unable to pay financially, karmically, or both.

Today, many climbers believe the romanticized notion that climbing is somehow more legitimate if it’s done by a dirtbag. They believe climbers should copy Kafka’s Hunger Artist, starving themselves not just for the sake of art but because starving is an art. Professional climber Sasha DiGiulian alluded to the climbing community’s class issue in Shape magazine. DiGiulian wrote, “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.”

Since the release of Cedar’s film, I’ve received dozens of emails, messages, and questions about how someone can “become” a dirtbag. I always pause before responding, wondering if I should perm my hair, die it pink, cut it into a Mohawk, and quote the fashion designer Mugatu from Zoolander, as he introduces his new line of haute couture: “Let me show you Derelicte. It is a fashion, a way of life inspired by the very homeless, the vagrants, the crack whores that make this wonderful city so unique.”

The costs of climbing, certainly of excelling at the sport, are staggering. A one-year gym membership, shoes, and chalk will cost over a thousand dollars. Add a couple coaching lessons, a crashpad, rope, quickdraws, a trad rack, a few weekend trips with gas, some more shoes, camping gear, and you’re heading towards thousands of dollars. Climbing hard and progressing also require a lot of time. Traveling, hiking around the crags or boulders, even hopping to new gyms to enhance your plastic skills require hours, days, or weeks of time. “At either end of the social spectrum there lies a leisure class,” climber Eric Beck once famously said. To be able to devote time to climbing, you need to be either really rich or very poor. The working middle class spends too much time working. And last time I checked, it was a lot easier to lose money than to gain it.

But dirtbagging, giving up on everything to pursue climbing, comes at a cost. “Go to the dentist,” Sean “Stanley” Leary told me while we sport climbed at Sonora’s Gold Wall in 2007. Sean had just returned from climbing in Brazil, where he’d had a few fillings, a few root canals, and other dental work done on the cheap. Like many climbers, Stanley skipped regular dentist visits to climb and save money. But a diet of cheap, sugar-filled food added up to poor dental health. I’d done the same, resulting in a last-minute root canal during a summer in Tuolumne, capped with a temporary crown that I couldn’t afford to fix because I climbed instead of worked. The upshot was that I eventually lost a tooth. Further, avoiding work for extended periods of time translates into opportunity costs. Building a résumé of offwidths means you’re neglecting to build a job résumé. When you eventually return to work, you’ll find most employers care little about your ability to heel-toe cam above a number six Camalot. As former Tuolumne janitor and El Cap free climber Jake Whittaker says, “It’s hard to get a job when you ditch the car, the phone, the computer, and the nice set of clothes.” Further, after long bouts of low or non-employment, most people reentering the work force tend to accept lower-paying jobs because that’s what they’re able to get

So, what can you do to climb hard if you’re not into the whole “poverty thing”? Well, one of the biggest genetic advantages, more than a plus-6-inch ape index, is to be born rich. Pay for four years of college, aka an extended climbing trip, have your parents buy you a Sprinter van, hire a climbing coach, get a few gym memberships, travel around the world sport climbing and bouldering everywhere, and you’re halfway to being a pro climber. Sadly, most of us aren’t born rich, and we’re all on a sliding scale of income. Despite my many dirtbagging antics, I’m certainly more privileged than a lot of climbers. I received a good education and was born into a first-world country. I could, like the Seattle climber, take pride in my socio-economic status and fault others. I could sit around calling out the fake dirtbags and the nouveau rich. However, slandering others, as satisfying as it feels in the moment, does little to change your own position. Making fun of pro climbers for their luxuries or the poor for their poverty does nothing for me but make me look like a jerk.

Perhaps the only way to really get ahead in climbing is to balance a job, a climbing obsession, and a bit of a dirtbag lifestyle—to take a long-term approach to the sport. Having a little more financial support now will help your climbing more later. When I started working at Climbing Magazine, I lived in my car in the parking lot. I came to the slow realization that having an apartment, which cost more money and meant less time at the crag, helped my overall health and well being. I could shower regularly, eat better food, and be better rested—and therefore climb better—when I did go climbing. Old habits die hard and I still have some dirtbag tendencies. I pilfer food from the office kitchen whenever I can and push the vending machine to get free popcorn. I skip dentist and medical visits, even though I have insurance. And I try to sneak past the front desk people at the Boulder climbing gyms whenever possible. These habits may help me get ahead, but they might get me fired, or worse—kicked out of the gym. That’s the catch-22 of being a dirtbag. You get ahead, but only for a moment. So the next time Mugatu says, “As a caterpillar becomes a butterfly, so must you become Derelicte!” just shake your head and walk away.

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