The Dirtbag Life: A Cautionary Tale

December 06, 2012  •  Leave a Comment

"There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more"

- Lord George Gordon Byron, 1813

Emily Tonish & Patrick Betts on the summit of the Out of TownerDSC_0042


Thanksgiving 2011

We had it planned out: Cochise Stronghold for a few days then Mt. Lemmon for the rest of our Thanksgiving Break. We slept in a light-hating, dark purple tent; ate bacon fat fried bagels; and drank lots of beer - oh yeah, and we climbed our faces off. This was my first real taste of dirt bagging: the art of living for an extended period of time with little to even less food, water and first world comforts - all in the hopes to climb, ski, bike, hike or live as much as humanly possible. I fell in love.

Emily Tonish on the first pitch of El Cautivo, East Stronghold, Cochise StrongholdDSC_0023

Multipitch routes by day, beer by night - we would get up, go climb, and then go to bed. Rinse and repeat. This life was simple and straight forward. It did not matter how hard we climbed because we were doing it every day, all day and successfully. We started to find it hard to go back to college, to class, to homework, to work. To us, we were living at the purest level and everything else was unnecessary excess. Why go back? Why go to a life that added to the stress and took away from available climbing time. I began to ponder this question. “Why struggle?”

My climbing partner was my best friend and my best friend was my girlfriend and my girlfriend was my dirtbag partner. What more could I ask for? We continued to plan our college breaks around extended climbing trips. Cochise Stronghold, Mt. Lemmon, Spearfish Canyon, New Mexico and any other climbing locations we could get to quickly and that promised days of climbing and nights of sitting by a fire, drinking beer and sleeping in a tent. I was tired of this being my vacations; I wanted this to be my life.


Graduation 2012


It was finally over. I was graduating from college after 5 years, a transfer and a major degree change. I could not be any more ecstatic. I had a job, too; before I had even graduated I was hired to be a climbing guide in Colorado Springs - exactly what I wanted. I felt lucky. Not many of my fellow graduates had a job already, especially in their field and one they actually wanted.

My girlfriend/climbing partner/best friend was off to Saskatchewan, Canada for her internship which meant upwards of 12 months apart. We tentatively planned climbing adventures for the end of the summer. Infinite Bliss (IV, 5.10c) in Washington, Cascade alpine rock and Canadian long routes were our hopes and climbing was our dream.

Life was great and we had a plan of working, living and then simply sending. We did not want to live to work; we wanted to live to climb.

Mollie Bailey


Work settled in for both of us – she could not find rocks to save her life in Regina, SK and I was too tired to climb after guiding all day. We settled into a routine of emailing climbing photos back and forth of potential climbs for us to do later that fall. Our new lives were making it difficult to climb, to stay stoked. Then it all changed...that crucial, critical and heart wrenching moment in every relationship: the break up. The time apart had created clarity for her to realize the relationship was non-existent and that moving on was the best thing. I was left alone, and more importantly, without a climbing partner. No more hopes of Infinite Bliss, Cascade alpine rock or Canadian long routes and the dreams of climbing were nearly shattered.


As cliché as it may sound, I was lost without her. I felt lonely, hopeless and despair had set in. I thought I would never climb again. No climbing partner, no climbing - simple as that. Despite all of these downward spiraling thoughts I realized an important and life-altering fact: I was acting juvenile and emotional. I was thinking short term; not long term. I was now unattached, un-weighted and free to move, travel and go anywhere and this was my plan. After the guiding season was over I was selling my things, giving away the rest and moving into my car. I wanted to climb. My breakup had left a hole in my heart and I wanted to fill it with climbing, adventure and life. So I set out to accomplish that. I built a loft; sold things; gave things away; purged. I now lived out of the back of my 2006 Honda Element with my dog and began chasing The Dirtbag Life.


Chasing The Dirtbag Life 


IIMG-20120911-00164 have been homeless, jobless and strictly climbing for over 3 months now. Sometimes, I do not know how I have made it this far. I look back onto my first dirtbag experience in the West Stronghold of Cochise Stronghold more than a year ago and that life then is completely different than my life now. I had a romanticized vision of a dirtbag life. I had visions of endless climbing, excellent weather and a consistent, competent and beautiful climbing partner. That was the dirtbag life to me. Every time I went on an extended climbing trip I would sit by the fire, drink a beer, and think to myself, "Yup, I could do this for a living..." I wanted that idea of a dirtbag life so bad that  I gave up everything else and chased it and I have neither stopped chasing nor have I caught it.

I have dreams of endless climbing days; trips that do not end; "Do you want to climb this route or that route today? I do not care; I will just climb the other route tomorrow."; trips that take me to The Valley, The Creek, The Red, The New, The Gunks, The 'Daks and every other climbing location that starts with "The", and even those that do not. I want to climb 4+ days a week and be thankful for days where I am not climbing.

I had watched climbing videos of “professional dirtbags” and thought that was the life of a dirtbagger. All I had to do was quit my job and that would be my life. That is not the case, though. Those people have responsibilities and obligations and in return someone pays them or gives them gear – they have jobs; jobs pretending to be dirtbaggers; jobs pushing the idea that you are not a fulfilled climber until you buy a 15-passenger van, live in it, quit showering and send nothing easier than 5.12+. I had been duped by the climbing media into thinking that a dirtbag life was one easily obtainable.


Sometimes, this romanticized dirtbag life feels more like a Shakespearean sonnet of unrequited love. No matter how hard I work at achieving a life of dirtbag nirvana I am quickly and violently pulled back into the throws of Life. I seem to spend as many days, if not more, worrying about money as I do spend climbing. It is a constant struggle. Life is not hard to sustain - a lesson you quickly learn. You are able to do much with little and you are much less dependent on the crutches of modern day living then people make it seem. But even as a dirtbag there are basic necessities that cannot be ignored and money really does rule them.

The Bare Necessities of the Dirtbag Life


Food, water and fuel: the 3 basic necessities for a dirtbag life. Lose even one of them and you cannot climb. You become resourceful, penny pinching and frugal. You search for free food opportunities, buy-one-get-one’s and leftovers. You lose all hope of variety and you settle. You may not be eating a well-balanced diet but you certainly are eating. You no longer care about what is Organic, Local, Fair Trade or even healthy. Food is food and calories are calories. 3 square meals? Try just being able to eat.

The long standing tradition of drinking a beer around a campfire after a day of climbing quickly becomes drinking water, or if you are lucky, Canadian Mist. You start drinking strictly water. No juice, beer, liquor or “unnecessary liquids” – all in the hopes to save money to get you to next climbing destination.

DSC_0009 The biggest necessity of them all: fuel. You cannot climb if you cannot get there. You do what you can. You have other people drive, you carpool, and you start taking only "necessary" climbing trips. Necessary climbing trips? A concept I hope you never have to face. You begin climbing less than before. You start doing the math. Should I go on more local climbing trips or less frequent but longer lasting destination trips? Should I just stay at one of major climbing pilgrimage locations? How can I get there? How can I get back?

You could always just live at a crag. This option saves you a ton in fuel costs but might leave you burnt out on the area, paying for camping or, God forbid, partner-less. DSC_0095


The Cautionary Tale


It begins to get difficult and challenging. Relationships are strained and so is your gear. If you are one of the lucky few who have family, friends, a girlfriend, or a boyfriend that understand and are helpful, you start finding yourself leaning quite heavily on them - favors that, quite honestly, cannot be repaid dollar for dollar. You make deals, barter and trade. Chores for food, work for cash, help move for beer. You begin climbing on old ropes, worn carabiners and blown out shoes. Not because you want to but a resole means one less fill up at the gas station or 2 weeks with less food. How often do you use your big toe anyway, right?DSC_0067

I have climbed in Washington, Idaho, South Dakota, and Utah and all over Colorado. Lots of climbing has been happening, that is for sure, but a dirtbag life? That is still to be seen. I am working much harder than I feel I should. I am not living at a crag; I am not sitting by a fire every night; I am certainly not sending every day.

Is the Dirtbag Life even real? It seems to be fleeting, an enigma, a shape shifter. Is a dirtbagger ever happy? Is there even such a thing as dirtbag nirvana? I do not know the answers to these questions and I do not think anyone does. I just will let it take me where it does and whatever comes my way I know it is the way of the dirtbagger.

The vision of a dirtbag life may seem distant and unattainable. The task of remaining stoked seems impossible. The mind will begin to focus on mainstream life and questions of conformity. Despite these seemly disastrous pitfalls, the beauty of a dirtbag life is that when you are actually right on the tail of achieving your goal, all other distractions, road blocks and hurdles cease to exist. You feel as if you are doing it right; you are on the right track; you are winning at the game of dirtbag-life. Your mind, soul and heart feel rejuvenated and everything up to that point in time and everything in the near future seems well worth it and conquerable. Your stoke is revitalized and you take on your quest with a new fervor.



As I write this, I am spending my  104th day as a dirtbag, sitting in a Whole Foods in Capitol Hill, Denver using their internet. I do not know when I am going to go climbing next. The weather looks crappy over the next few days but hopefully, by the middle of next week I will have the opportunity. I still have that romanticized vision of a dirtbag life: one of endless climbing days, endless climbing weather and a beautiful climbing partner. I have not given up that search; I have not given up on that vision – I never will.

 What is the dirtbag life really about? It is not about having all these things and being able to do them at will - it is about having the balls to go and chase your vision; that vision to keep you motivated to work hard at not working, to live on nothing and climb everything.







I am still on the quest for The Dirtbag Life. Last I heard it was perched on top of some cliff, just waiting for me to join it.


“The sea is dangerous and its storms terrible, but these obstacles have never been sufficient reason to remain ashore…unlike the mediocre, intrepid spirits seek victory over those things that seem impossible…it is with an iron will that they embark on the most daring of all endeavors…to meet the shadowy future without fear and conquer the unknown.” 

                        - Ferdinand Magellan



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a: an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks
b: the encountering of risks
2: an exciting or remarkable experience
3: an enterprise involving financial risk


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