TNB: American Dirtbag

Where are all the dirtbags? I'm not talking about these imposter dirtbags, the new-age lurkers taking up all the parking spots at Camp 4, Indian Creek and Miguel's Pizza with their pimped-out, Direct TV-receiving Sprinter vans that look like college dorm rooms on 26s.

By Rock and Ice | February 25th, 2011

Where are all the dirtbags? I’m not talking about these imposter dirtbags, the new-age lurkers taking up all the parking spots at Camp 4, Indian Creek and Miguel’s Pizza with their pimped-out, Direct TV-receiving Sprinter vans that look like college dorm rooms on 26s.

You’ve seen these scenesters and know their dirtbag look. The token matted hair from always wearing inappropriately warm beanies (but no shirt). The Ricky Martin face stubble carefully trimmed to suggest airs of indifference to personal hygiene. Last season’s plaid shirts and gusseted jeans that everyone swears they got on pro deal (everyone’s so pro). Eating directly out of tuna cans. Frumpy down coats with duct-tape patches. Ubiquitous headlamps worn 24/7. The unwitting satire of scarfing food in the Yosemite Lodge or dumpster diving. Talking to/about Chongo. Making tape gloves, then going slacklining. The cheapest, most terrible-tasting beer. Playing guitar. Playing mandolin. Playing flute. Disgusting bare feet all up on your shit. Organic buckwheat pancakes. Tongue-washing dishes. Did I already mention beards?

  It’s a compelling image until, hey, wait a second! Dirtbags aren’t supposed to have enough money for food, let alone new MacBooks, video cameras, Euro vans with pop tops and endless road trips!

How do these people make it work? I just want to hold them upside-down by their ankles and shake and beat them like a rug with a tennis racket because I know their pockets are flooded with their parents’ paper (patri-money). Gimme some of that! (C’mon, I just want $100.)

Today’s dirtbags are essentially the hipsters of the climbing world, reveling in their ironic frugality and making climbing a vapid, image-obsessed culture devoid of meaning. The only greater fashion paradox out there is cowboy couture. Camp 4, the birthplace of the dirtbag, should have quotation marks around it. Even just camping there is now a complete cliche. What started out as counterculture is now fully mainstream.

Do I even need to say it? Climbing has lost its soul AGAIN! It first happened when people started buying carabiners and pitons instead of melting down Chevy bumpers in their home-garage foundries to make their own gear. Of course, that was during a time when the leader mustn’t fall mantra was still strong like the American economy. But not falling meant climbing was not hard, which also meant it was not fun. When people started making and selling gear onto which you could take massive whippers, climbing instantly became more enjoyable. We want our routes like we want our male porn stars: bigger, longer and harder, baby!

Last time climbing lost its soul was when the French showed us that, le duh!, bolts can be installed just as easily on rappel, idiots! Why are you wasting your time placing bolts on lead? Americans are so stupid! (We might say intrepid or spirited.) Because rap bolting led to harder routes, this led to more fun, which led to more people partaking in the fun. And just like that (you guessed it), more soul lost.

Screw this. I’m not even going to go into all the times climbing lost its soul because I don’t feel like reviewing every single occasion in its history that something changed (usually for the better) and some bitchy old guy happened to be there to wax nostalgic and fart.

But first, I want to wax nostalgic about the original climbing dirtbags, the O.C.D.’s, the ones who were so tight-fisted (probably from climbing tight fist cracks) that they couldn’t even pinch a penny, mostly because pinching pennies is impossible with just a fist. They didn’t climb for cameras nor did they own things, and not just because no one had invented Photoshop and Wal-Mart yet. They possessed the iron will to climb as much and work as little as possible, and did whatever it took to live out their non-materialistic, unglamorous dreams without any safety net. In other words, they did the exact opposite of your mundane existence at Hewlett-Packard or whatever perfunctory job you do that any Chinese seventh grader could perform twice as well for a third of the cost.

Take the Stonemasters. Those guys were a freewheeling, soul-having bunch. Plus, they could climb circles around everyone (except the French). They also pretty much popularized American climbing ethics (a fancy word for rules®what’s fair and what isn’t fair; it’s not like you go to hell or something for having bad climbing ethics, at least no more than you’d go to hell for sneaking extra Monopoly cash when you’re the banker, or fly fishing with grenades). Before that, climbing was a lot like playground freeze tag, where all the kids just ran around arguing and making up the rules as they went along.

The Stonemasters would never sell out, not even for hey, wait a second! What’s this ad in Rock and Ice? There’s a black and white Bullwinkle shot of Dirtbag Aaron sitting on a bear bin. He’s in white pants and looks like a 1990s Calvin Klein fragrance model. The Stonemasters’ website is listed in the ad. They have a website now?! WTF? Are there any real dirtbags left?

The answer is NO! Or YES! There never was such a thing as true dirtbags, or rather, there always will be true dirtbags as long as there are people who spend more time climbing than doing anything else. For example, I’m a dirtbag because I prefer climbing to work; yet, since I work more than I climb, I’m a sell-out. Ipso facto, I can’t win!

There’s no doubt that our romantic notions of what it means to be a true dirtbag inevitably outshine the rather boring reality that people with rich daddies usually get to climb more than the rest of us.

But true dirtbags are the ones who have no safety net and abide by the mantra that they will do whatever it takes to climb more, even sell out.

Being a dirtbag means placing dollars over values, says James Lucas, who dances for dollars and free desserts in Curry Village. If they choose otherwise, they’re fucking Buddhists with a higher level of enlightenment than the rest of us. Kudos to them!

The term dirtbag is kind of funny (I said kind of). Skiers get to be ski bums, which somehow sounds much more refined and sophisticated than dirtbag. Hey, who’s that hot chocolate-sipping Bohemian luminary over there? Oh, him? He’s an Aspen ski bum, probably just got in a few runs before tending to the stables at Kevin Costner’s mansion. OK, but who’s that dirty piece of shit elbows deep in the Whole Foods salad bar? That’s a dirtbag.

Even surfers don’t have their own grimy epithet. Probably because it’s widely known that surfers don’t have to work (because they’re from California, where no one works and everyone has trust funds). Plus, they’re always swimming in water, so they look much cleaner.

One question is why, given that our country’s unemployment for 16- to 24-year-olds is at an all-time high of 18 percent, there aren’t more dirtbags out there?

In fact, there’s no better time to be a dirtbag than right now. While the rest of the country sulks over these economic doldrums (they’re sad because they’d rather be sodomized eight times a day by an evil gang of Wall Street bullies than have anything that even smells like socialism working for them), climbers should be rejoicing about this work vacuum.

Look at Spain. They have the best climbers in the world. Do you really think it’s a coincidence that Spain’s unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds is at a whopping 39 percent, more than twice ours? I’ve been to Spain, and even old bald men who look like they’re 12 months pregnant climb 5.13b there. That’s not an exaggeration. What’s your excuse? Made a kid? Big deal! You want sympathy for bringing another mindless consumer into this world? Just admit that you don’t actually want to try that hard and you never did and you never will and be happy with your choice of giving up.

On the other hand, being a parent is about the most important, selfless thing you can ever do. Respect. Being self-absorbed, selfish and self-obsessed (this is a spectrum) are, unfortunately, the steps required in becoming a full-fledged climbing dirtbag. Actually, let me rephrase that. Being a good parent is the most important, selfless thing you can do. There are plenty of dirtbag parents out there, and I don’t mean climbers who are parents. I mean the cut-off-jeans-wearing, incest-loving rednecks that beat their kids. I hate them, and I really mean that, as opposed to when I say I hate the annoying, perky girl in the Progressive insurance commercials. I also hate it in this usage, I mean strongly disapprove when dirtbags drag their newborn infants to crags and park these helpless babies under frighteningly chossy cliffs just to prove to themselves and everyone around them that having a kid doesn’t mean that their selfish lives as climbers need to change in any way and that they can still climb just as hard and as often as before.

It’s actually quite hard to be a dirtbag these days, and not just because everyone is having babies. You can only stay in Camp 4 for seven days! That’s not even long enough to get truly dirty (or figure out the beta for Generator Crack). Sure, you can camp at Indian Creek forever, but after roughly the fourth pitch of monotonous jamming you risk dying of boredom. In the last 40 years since dirtbagging was invented, we’ve only seen the growth of more rules and stricter penalties. And everything is a hundred times more expensive. This place sucks!

I’d love to see the Park Service provide reparations to us dirtbags, or anyone who has ever spent any significant amount of time in Camp 4. Give us each about a hundred thousand dollars for all the grief and discrimination we’ve collectively endured. You Tased Ammon McNeely in the neck, for Christ’s sake! Just because he allegedly B.A.S.E. jumped! Plus, I know you haven’t forgotten that time you confiscated all my stuff while I was saving the world up on El Cap! I rolled wearily into Camp 4 at 9 p.m., and walked over to where I had set up my tent (a children’s model from Wal-Mart that came in a box picturing a 7-year-old blonde girl playing with a purple dinosaur). Only instead of my tent, I found a rock sitting on top of a citation, which detailed everything you had taken from me, sleeping pad, sleeping bag, sleeping pills, vibrating massager never mind! You owe me!

If a dirtbag had a hundred thousand dollars, what would he or she do? This is an interesting paradox to think about, but given my intimate knowledge of our species, I believe that a hundred grand would change nothing. A rich dirtbag is still a dirtbag. What’s a dirtbag’s favorite brand of beer? Yours.

I suppose there’s nothing wrong with acting the part. Every day, we commit many worse moral transgressions than playing dirtbag like wiping boogers under the passenger’s seat of a friend’s car, or taking a shower just because we’re bored/cold. We could all heed Kurt Vonnegut’s advice, You are what you pretend to be. So be careful of what you pretend.

I wonder if there’s some ancient Eastern wisdom I can turn to that will neatly wrap up this column and make it seem meaningful? Where’s my copy of the Lao-tse’s Tao-te Ching? Oh, good, here it is, under my stack of Cat Fancy magazines. Lao-tse says that adults are constantly losing sight of who they are by nature, always striving to be someone or something they are not, and as a result this brings harm into their lives. One way to avoid this is to return to a simpler way of life, one with fewer possessions. In other words, Lao-tse would urge all of us to be better dirtbags. Being a dirtbag isn’t about money, image or fashion, despite disturbing trends that suggest otherwise. Dirtbagging is a way of life, about finding the means to climb as much and work as little as possible. For us climbers, I’d say that that is The Way, our virtue, and in that sense we could all do much worse than becoming a bunch of dirtbags.


Andrew Bisharat works hard and plays dirty.

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