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The Future Is… The Extinction of the Dirtbag Climber

What does the future of climbing look like? As climbing grows in popularity, we must examine how we can bring the spirit of the sport to make it more accessible to all and integrate it into mainstream society for our betterment. The dirtbag climber must die.


Or at least, dirtbag climbers should fade out into extinction as the popularity of climbing grows. Dirtbag climbers have already been proclaimed dead by professional climber and filmmaker Cedar Wright. He quotes this definition of the dirtbag climber from as the most accurate:

A person who is committed to a given (usually extreme) lifestyle to the point of abandoning employment and other societal norms in order to pursue said lifestyle. Dirtbags can be distinguished from ‘hippies’ by the fact that dirtbags have a specific reason for living communally and generally non-hygienically; dirtbags seek to spend all of their moments climbing,”

What often goes unstated is that dirtbag climbing is actually a quite privileged fringe existence. The sport of climbing, like most other things, was pioneered and dominated by white males who had the most freedom to pursue their passions.  Alpinism and mountaineering was essentially a predecessor ‘race to the moon’, a government-funded wild hunt for national glory.

Of course, a new breed of dirtbag climbers emerged, climbing solo. A select few have made it to the top – literally and metaphorically in terms of conventional success terms (see: Alex Honnold, Kevin Jorgeson) with sponsors and followers by the tens of thousands.

Some may flinch at the word privilege – “but dirtbag climbers live in tents! and vans! and without much money!”. Never mind that some people already involuntarily live in cars and tent. The ability to up and leave your job, your family, your responsibilities to pursue a life of climbing is not easy, nor is it available to everyone.  This isn’t to say that one shouldn’t do that if it’s their passion – it’s to say that it would be impossible for everyone to do so.

For a modern dirtbag climber like Kathy Karlo, who packed up her life in Brooklyn last December to pursue her passion for climbing, she’s finding that the dirtbag life isn’t so baggage free as it seems:

“Today’s modern climber is faced with different challenges, which creates a group of individuals who are cutting through the red tape to discover creative, new ways to put food in their stomachs and gas in their tank to fuel their adventures – but the essence of the dirtbag remains the same.

The “dirtbag” dream is about exploring the essence of freedom, and riding that wave means learning about how the world works and how you jive with it, as well. Sometimes, we have to change with it.

And truth be told, all things in nature need to evolve in order to survive and let climbing not be an exception.”

Kathy Karlo
Kathy Karlo

If evolution means giving rise to diversity, then climbing is evolving at an exponential rate. With the surgence in popularity of climbing and explosion of indoor climbing gyms, the dirtbag climbing lifestyle becomes unsustainable – there simply isn’t enough room in Yosemite for the millions of climbers in North America. Yosemite would crumble, the Access Fund would be overworked, and the peaceful nature of climbing outdoors may be lost to the crowds.

Traditional climbers tend to dismiss modern society in favor of their singular passion: climbing.

Modern culture as a whole is also becoming increasingly materialistic, and being broke and living in your car is just becoming less cool, even for climbers. It’s harder than ever to drop out of the rat race.” -Cedar Wright

Yes, modern culture is materialistic – but that doesn’t mean that all the world is a rat race. Hardcore climbers tend to have blinders on: they love climbing but in blind pursuit of it, it’s possible to neglect other aspects of society. The world is rapidly changing, and the world of climbing must evolve along with it.

What climbing should keep is it’s inherent spirit: that passion to pursue something you love, the zen focus provided from forcing you to be in the moment, and the camaraderie it provides from the surrounding spirit. Let us abandon the abandoning nature of the dirtbag climber as we invent the modern climber as one who can integrate these positives back into modern society.

Climbing as a metaphor is especially meaningful when we apply the qualities of patience and perseverance to how we live the rest of our lives and pursue our dreams – and to encourage others to do the same. It can be difficult to reach success, but there are many ways to go about it (usually unique to the person) and by being relentless, one eventually will find a path and be rewarded.

Indoor climbing in the 21st century will likely be more and more considered the norm, and that’s okay. Because when you create an accessible space for people to climb, to interact, to challenge themselves physically, to help out their surrounding community – positive change has a ripple effect outwards.

Climber have the power and potential to align their passions and goals for personal development with a community . They can do much more than to leave their place in society to climb, but to pursue whatever passion they have for the betterment of themselves, and for society as a whole.

Brooklyn Boulders is proud to have a built communities of creatives, entrepreneurs and passionate people who push themselves and others on a daily basis. We aren’t afraid to say that we aren’t a traditional climbing gym – we’re a community of diverse people from varied backgrounds with a range of interests and pursuits. We’re proud to say that we’ve changed lives and inspired people as much as we have been inspired by the communities that have formed.

As we prep to open our fourth community in Long Island City, Brooklyn Boulders Queensbridge, we invite people to come visit our new space and to imagine the possibilities of our space.

Brooklyn Boulders’ mission is to design inspiring spaces that enable physical and creative experiences, and to cultivate community and to effect positive change in metropolitan cities.

Click here for more information on our charity, Brooklyn Boulders Foundation, that strives to make climbing accessible to inner-city youth and people with physical disabilities, and our partnership with Access Fund.