A shirtless climber sorts gear prior to a climb of El Capitan
You can still find climbing dirtbags at the crag. (Photo: Cavan Images)

Long Live the Dirtbag Rock Climber

One editor defends those individuals who sleep in vehicles and dive into the occasional dumpster while pursuing their passion for the crag

A shirtless climber sorts gear prior to a climb of El Capitan
Delaney Miller

from Climbing

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dirt·​bag | \ ˈdərt-ˌbag Slang: a dirty, unkempt, or contemptible person, via Merriam Webster

The origins of the word dirtbag are obvious. Literally, it comes from a 19th-century reference to bags of dirt. Modern connotations may evoke a range of emotions, from the pride of the all-in mega outdoorsmen, to disdain for the Sprinter van-owning hoards taking up multiple parking spots, to even shame, felt by those who embody the more traditional definition. Under these myriad interpretations, the term “dirtbag” bridges social and class gaps, from rich to poor, authentic to fake. 

In the climbing world, of course, dirtbag is a lighthearted term referring to those who care so much about climbing that they sleep in their vehicles and do gross or uncouth things in the name of pursuing their passion. It is a choice of rock over city, sleeping bags over sheets, old cat food over $30 vegan burritos. Of wildlife over the anesthetized.

Climbing’s longtime dirtbags tend to resent those who indulge in expensive outdoor luxuries, like expensive vehicles. In an essay discussing modern dirtbags, pro climber Cedar Wright called them “soft” and, in another essay, in a recent issue of Climbing magazine, went so far as to say that true dirtbagging is dead. I acknowledge that one must sacrifice something for the sake of the rock in order to qualify as a dirtbag, and that it’s sometimes unclear what exactly was laid upon the altar when you’ve got vanlifers baking banana bread and showering just 50 feet from the crag. 

But dirtbagging is not dead. The world has drastically changed over the last 50 years. We may be looking at dirtbags through a new lens, but I don’t think you can say that one person’s devotion to the rock and the unwashed lifestyle is unworthy simply by comparing his or her hardships to the struggles of those who came before. The details of dirtbagging have changed, yes, but importantly the spirit remains.

I have a friend (make that several friends and two coworkers, actually) who accidentally drank pee because he grabbed the wrong bottle while driving home from the crag. If you keep a separate bottle for urine, you are, in my opinion, a dirtbag.

I have another friend who ate a pancake out of a trash can at the famed Miguel’s Pizza in Kentucky. To be clear, she could afford to buy one. She wanted that trash pancake. She is a dirtbag.

I wanted to write about the fun connotations, but dirtbaggery is so much more than that; there’s a darker side to it. Much like climbing, dirtbagging is a way of life. Again, using my definition, it is about putting being outdoors and living simply over normal societal aspirations. It is the pursuit of adventure over predictability, self-empowerment over the kind of empowerment your boss might give you with a raise. It’s a journey for lost souls to find the self. And in this world, where barriers exist at every corner, where raises are given for appeasement rather than empowerment, where animal husbandry exists for comfort rather than safety, where vaccines and medical care promise health and yet there is sickness, aren’t we all lost? Especially since the brick house and the green lawn and the family dog is not as fulfilling, when realized, as it was made out to be. 

Remember as a kid how fearless you were? You ran around with bare feet. You didn’t worry about stubbing your toes. You’d forget a jacket, you weren’t worried about being cold. Now, as an adult, you worry about everything. Getting out is a luxury, a chance to not worry. 

And getting out is a limited chance because you must re-emerge into society. How else will you pay off those student loans? Plus, you can’t even get a damn camping spot at the local crag anymore. Those spots are full because everyone is seeking the same reprieve. Modern dirtbaggery protests our barriers and yet is itself curbed by the things we cannot break out of.

Dirtbaggery is not dead, though the American dream might be. How is it that great grandpa could feed a family of seven with a steel mill worker’s salary? How is it that a minimum-wage job these days isn’t enough for one person to pay rent? Did you know the Department of Housing and Urban Development said it would cost a mere $20 billion to end homelessness in the United States? Americans spend more than $35 billion on gym memberships each year. We sense the senselessness of it all, and yet individually there is little we can do about these structural injustices. So we turn to the self. We learn to put our own oxygen masks on in hopes of then putting the mask on others.

At its essence, dirtbagging is about finding something deeper. It is a modern replication of primal migratory patterns, of looking for resources and the building blocks essential to life. It is not about food and water and shelter but self actualization.

You are a dirtbag if you know to venture to the back of the Walmart store to find the good bathroom, or if you wait until you get home to turn your phone back on to delay the onslaught of notifications. If you’ve lived off of the Clif Bar diet and foregone showers. If the sound of a Slack message stresses you out. If you’ve waited at Dominos until 10 P.M. to gather the day’s thrown-out pizza. If you know everyone at the crag. If your clothes smell like a campfire. If you have ambitions in your career and your personal life, and yet nothing gives you peace like fresh air and chalk and limestone. 

At its essence, modern dirtbaggery is not about class or suffering or being a real climber but about reclaiming what was lost and promised to humanity—i.e. fulfillment if only you do X, Y, and Z. Perhaps I’m getting too romantic here. Being a dirtbag is about fun, yes, but more than that it’s a choice to break out, even if just in small daily acts, in order to see the broader meaning. In this way, “dirtbag” retains its iconoclastic roots. Eat the pancake out of the trash can. Take off your shoes. Listen to nature’s animate silence.

Lead Photo: Cavan Images