Too Clean to Be a Dirtbag
They live in the back of their car, eat noodles, forget to shower, and climb every day. Welcome to "Dirtbagging".
Depending on how much sympathy you have for taxis in a digitally-disrupted world, you may or may not feel that much sympathy for a dying breed of rock climbers. But what’s the connection? Only the introduction of a new way of doing things, and the faint cry of a select few who lament change.
Chris Sharma is 37, married to Jimena Alarcón (a Venezuelan model, Instagram celebrity and TV personality), has a young daughter named Alana, synchronises his Instagram posts with his wife (they have 444k followers between them), and owns climbing gyms in both Barcelona and Orange County. Oh, and he is a rock climber. To clarify, he is considered one of the best rock climbers in the world. He’s ripped, intelligent, relatively rich and can climb some of the hardest routes in the world.
At 32, Alex Honnold likes to climb high, hard and without a rope. Scientists have done studies on his brain to see whether it is actually different to the rest of humanity’s. It is.
Honnold drives around in a van so that he can climb year-round.
“You mean, like a dirtbag?”
No. Honnold has developed his own mini economy around him, predominantly from sponsorships, and is one of the most famous climbers alive today. While he’ll still kip on someone's couch, drinks unrefrigerated milk in his van, and puts a large percentage of his earnings back into charity work, Alex Honnold is too clean to be a dirtbag.
“Dirtbagging” is a lifestyle where every cent of a climber’s income goes towards climbing. They live in the back of their car, eat noodles, forget to shower, and climb every day. They are a community, and apparently they are dead.
Not officially dead, just non existent ‘no more. But in reality, they’re all grown up.
The lifestyle of the long-gone dirtbag is a romanticised one. Everything came second to climbing: comfort, food, security, income, friends, family. There was a route to be sent and plenty of like-minded kids on deck ready to discuss and belay. This has apparently disappeared on many outdoor routes.
Professional climber, filmmaker and lapsed dirtbagger Cedar Wright wrote a couple years back:
“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.”
Wright and his fellow dirtbag climbers used to spend as much of their time as they could in Yosemite, congregating each day to discuss various routes before sending them. He says that increased restrictions on camping, greater pressure from rangers, and a culture-shift have made this lifestyle all but non-existent.
But Wright and other ex-diehards greatly underestimate new generations.
Gen Y and Millennials understand and live by the philosophy of ‘living life rather than buying it’ more than any previous generation. They also happen to be better at it than every other generation.
A three-time finalist in the IFSC World Cup, 21-year old Sean Bailey is at the climbing gym five to six days a week for hours at a time, training hard to prove himself as an athlete. He just came away with gold at the 2018 Sport and Speed Open National Championships in Reno, Nevada. There is money to be made in this game, albeit not much, and those with the dedication and smarts to market themselves are carving out lives as effectively as rain and wind do on rock.
Climbing is not what it was fifteen or even ten years ago, and is set to be included in the 2020 Olympics, while the IFSC (International Federation of Sport Climbing) includes 87 member federations that span five continents. According to the IFSC there are 25 million people worldwide taking part in the sport. That’s a community.
Brothers of Climbing are a Brooklyn-based community of climbers with the sole intention of promoting not only climbing, but outdoor sports to minorities. Their interest, skills and goals in climbing eclipse any complaint that “climbing just ain’t what it used to be”, from a bunch of white dudes who spent their twenties in a van in Yosemite, before growing up and starting up their own production companies in San Fran.
Thanks to the rapid growth of indoor climbing gyms and bouldering gyms, the rise of climbing’s popularity is an unstoppable force. In 2016 alone there were 27 new climbing gyms opened in the US, with 15 of these opened by first-time operators.
On Australia’s east coast, the industry is still comparatively tiny, but it is growing. Northside Boulders owns three gyms in Abbotsford, Brunswick and Northcote, being the default bouldering big fish in a small pond, with Urban Climb in Collingwood set to open soon. Hardrock runs rope climbing facilities in the city and in Nunawading, and Northwalls provides the only rope climbing in the northern suburbs.
It’s easy to get swept up in the allure of a bunch of memories and make videos like the below one, touting the end of an era.
But what do all these dirtbaggers and ex-dirtbaggers have in common? Their age. They were in their twenties, they felt invincible, and their parents most likely had their backs. So they lived the dirtbag lifestyle. Does everyone honestly believe that there isn’t some kid out there now who is climbing every day, eating noodles, and sleeping in the back of his car?
As long as there are young people, there are dirtbags. They just have the support of 25 million other climbers behind them now, and instead of being considered homeless, they can market the hell out of themselves.
Keep reading. Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope.
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