The Dirtbraggers: A Response to Something or Other

This is a poorly planned, ill-conceived, nearly unreadable response. To this. Read that first.

This is a picture of classic dirtbaggers. They lived in Yosemite dirt. There are also dirtbaggers elsewhere. They live in the dirt, too.

This is a picture of classic dirtbaggers. They lived in Yosemite dirt. There are also dirtbaggers elsewhere. They live in the dirt, too.

Shut off the alarm! We are on the brink of nothing tragic! It would seem to some that “dirtbag culture” is on the edge of extinction. Except, like, breathe and stuff. It’s all going to be alright. The dirtbag is alive and well and smelling it up at a crag near you!

I like Cedar Wright a lot. I like his writing and films and his (generally goofy) demeanor. I respect and admire his climbing skills. I’m not too sure about a recent piece he wrote for Climbing magazine, however. It was called “Dirtbagging is Dead.” That is a very tempestuous title, you must admit. It surely generated many clicks. Here is my click.

To posit that climbing’s “dirtbag culture” is “on the brink of extinction” or that “many climbers may not even know what a ‘dirtbag’ is” is roundly preposterous. It’s like bemoaning the fact that no one is acting like Clark Gable anymore and by the way color is ruining the old timey feel of cinema! It’s like saying the banishment of the “flying wedge” made football players a bunch of ninnies! It’s like saying that because some climbing areas are introducing stricter camping guidelines fewer people are dirtbagging it elsewhere! Pssht. Fewer in the Valley, unquestionably. Fewer in J-Tree, sure. Fewer people quitting jobs or choosing to work piecemeal to support the climbing life and living out of their rigs across the nation? Not from what I’ve seen. Hashtag vanlife.

I’ve been a dirtbag off and on since 2005, when I quit my job to move overseas and live like a slovenly mess, hunting out FAs in the boulder fields of South Korea. I was called “dirty” because I was dirty. I was a dirtbag. After that I split time between an apartment in Denver and a Frankenstein’ed Ford Focus hatchback, dirtbagging around the West. I’ve been on the road full-time since May, completely – but not altogether purposely – dirtbagging my way through a meager climbing and writing existence. From what I’ve seen, dirtbagging seems just fine. I know gas is more expensive. I’m aware of the camping regulations. Yes, good food is pricey and that’s why I eat like a…oh, wait. I eat like a dirtbag. Evidently, this is all quite possible. Ergo, dirtbagging alive.

For example, I’m wrapping up two months in Joe’s Valley, the freezing temps spitting out the dirtbaggers for warmer locales. I’ve met a score of people heading to Red Rocks, Hueco or Chattanooga. Dirtbaggers all. Indeed, I’ll see so many of them again in Bishop that I feel I’m becoming party to some sort of traveling circus.

Cedar says, “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.” I have three sizable problems with this statement. First of all, young punks have always owned the dirt. I am the oldest dirtbag I’ve seen on the road, by a long shot (I’m 40…Jesus, I said it…). The majority of dirtbaggers we’ve crossed paths with come from the gym generation, young and motivated and looking entirely homeless and haggard. And “dirtbag culture”? What does that even mean? Does that mean that dirtbaggers have some secret handshake with which to identify one another? Does that mean someone driving a new Subaru Crosstrek is not a dirtbagger, while someone exploding the atmosphere with their rusted-out Econoline diesel rig is? Is “dirtbag culture” something that codifies us in a certain tribe or mind-frame, when most dirtbaggers I meet are running away from labels and trying to find an independence from society and dependence on self? My sense of “dirtbag culture” is not your sense of “dirtbag culture” and that’s exactly how it should be.

My second problem is that you don’t learn “dirtbag culture” from cragging at Eldo on the weekends or clipping draws at Rifle, either. Sure, the gym teaches you shit-all about environmental ethics and climbing etiquette and that is a significant problem. You can only earn your stripes outside. That’s a hugely important issue in the climbing world, but it has nothing to do with dirtbagging. The only way one learns “dirtbag culture” is taking old Kierkegaard’s leap of faith. Save the money, quit or rejigger the job, hit the road. That’s how you learn “dirtbag culture.” You’re not going to find it in a plastic warehouse or on a month trip to Yosemite, that’s for sure. You gotta head into the deep end of the pool to become a dirtbag.

Third and finally, give the kids a sec to get out of the gym! Cedar writes that you can’t learn anything dirtbaggy in a gym and then he cites gym climber Alex Honnold cruising into the Valley. Before he was Alex Honnold, of course. We all have to start somewhere and, for better or worse, that’s mostly the gym in today’s climbing=cool society. This is the fulcrum of our brave new world. Accept it or become a grumpy old turd. If you’ve seen the film “Valley Uprising” you know the guff that Alex got when he arrived in the Valley, mostly from the old guard and former dirtbaggers. But he made it there. He saved the money, quit or rejiggered the job (quit college) and hit the road. That’s the only way anyone can learn “dirtbag culture.”

Listen, I know dirtbagging is taking a hit. Stricter camping regulations, increased BLM planning, and a host of other restrictions are tearing across North America. Hueco, Yosemite, Squamish, J-Tree. But this is the new reality. Because some of the most popular climbing destinations on earth are becoming more difficult to dirtbag in does not lead to a conclusion that there aren’t a hundred other areas where dirtbagging is alive and well. Right now, just down the road from me, gaggles of beanie wearing bouldering thugs are boiling Top Ramen in the dirt. I’m about to head to Bishop, where you can survive on a few dollars a day (especially if you’re allergic to alcohol). Indian Creek, though probably on the brink, still stands as a dirtbagger’s paradise. The list goes on and on.

I guess, when it’s all said and done, I’m just sick of the phrase “dirtbag culture,” which is probably why I stubbornly refuse to drop the quotations. When people chatter on and on about the romance of the dirtbag life, they aren’t dirtbaggers anymore. They are dirtbraggers. It’s not all romance. It’s fucking hard. I barely make enough money scribbling words for mags and websites. Filling the gas tank is the great boogeyman. A fresh coffee that someone else made for me? Sweet luxury… I could lie and say that dirtbagging is for everyone and that you’re missing out on the “culture” or that you’ll never know what it is to be a true climber until you spend time as a money-pinched, vaguely stressed, ill-fed chalk monster. But then I wouldn’t be a dirtbagger anymore. I’d be a dirtbragger. And, to tell you the truth, there’s not all that much to brag about. It’s just living in the dirt and climbing a lot. I love it, but, truthfully, big fucking deal.


Chris Kalman has some nice thoughts on the subject here.


Cedar Wright

Hey Dave!

Love your response, and your writing.

I think you have some valid arguments, and I agree with most of what you are saying and can recognize some of my own contradicting assertions. I have to admit that my column was a bit subversive in that I wanted to get a dialogue going and bring some dirtbags like yourself out of the wood work, and I’ve found that being a bit provocative is an effective method.

As you say above, Dirtbagging is taking a hit, and that is sad for me to see. Some of my favorite climbing areas in California like Yosemite and Joshua Tree are becoming increasingly regulated and less dirtbag friendly, but I’m hopeful that the pendulum can swing.

Another intention I had with my column was to glorify the “dirtbag culture” a little bit and perhaps inspire some folks to take the leap, and follow there love for climbing; to get out and get after it. At the end of the day there is no absolute definition of what a dirtbag is or isn’t, but I think that one commonality would be that they put a true love for climbing above the modern trappings of a conventional life, which I think is a great way to live. But, beyond what a dirtbag is or isn’t, is the greater climbing community which is a wonderfully supportive and inspiring army of like minded people, that I hold quite dear.

Anyways, I appreciate your passion and thought provoking piece of prose.

People like you confirm what I already knew…. That Dirt-bagging is not Dead.

All the Best

Cedar Wright

Dave McAllister

Thanks, Cedar. I kinda figured you were looking for a provocative way to slam the door open on the discussion. Achieved! I wish we could all, as a community, rejoinder in these rad dialogues more often, in a meaningful, non-vitriolic and fun way. I think we also achieved this. Keep up the inspiring work!


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