Defining the 'Dirtbag': The Origins of Climbing Culture"


I have two missions in life: to get people to properly pronounce Mexican food items (I work in a Mexican joint in southwest Colorado) and for people to understand the word dirtbag.
Both of these life goals come down to understanding. With the Mexican food thing, I just want people to not sound like idiots when they ask for “pico de gallo” or “tomatillo”, and with the dirtbag thing I just want people to know where climbing culture came from.
There have been major gains in the last year, well, at least with the word dirtbag (tomatillo is still butchered on the daily). I’ve noticed the word correctly used in the New York Times at least twice this year in climbing related articles, a step in the right direction for the mainstream media that often struggles with covering our beloved sport.
The reason I feel so strongly about the dirtbag lifestyle, is because the culture of climbing saved my life. Not just climbing, but that immersion in nature and living close to the land. I was a troubled teenager, very depressed and on a lot of substances, when I found climbing.
When I started my life as a dirtbag, living in a tent at a local climbing area in Gunnison, Colorado, I didn’t even know that was a word, at least not when referring to a climber. Then out of nowhere it was commonplace. Soon, with the invention of smart phones, Mountain Project, and Sprinter vans people were quickly declaring, “the dirtbag is dead”. To me, it seemed like the dirtbag was evolving, technology was simply just making it easier to live on the road, and out of your vehicle.
This summer I published a piece in The Climbing Zine, a publication I started about five years ago, with the underlying theme of “representing the essence of climbing”. The piece was a reply to Cedar Wright’s excellent piece in Climbing magazine called “Is Dirtbagging Dead?” Here’s an excerpt from my story:
For us, our role in this dirtbag movement is doing our part to show that the dirtbag lifestyle is still possible, and, not only that, it’s still alive and thriving. Wright’s title “Is Dirtbagging Dead?” was very clever, because it was engaging. He has his “rant” on the death of dirtbagging, but then offers up a challenge to the next generation: to continue the dirtbag lifestyle as the generations before us did. I don’t want to challenge anything Mr. Wright wrote about, because he was right on: climbing is growing and changing, and many young climbers don’t know a thing about dirtbagging. I did want to follow up with some thoughts of my own though.
Climbing is more than climbing; it has been and always will be. When you truly fall in love with climbing, it’s impossible to sustain the love without a community. And, to dirtbag, to live simply, out of a bag, in the dirt, your existence has to be sustained with a community.
Yes, it has gotten more and more difficult to “dirtbag it” in certain places, particularly Yosemite and Joshua Tree, but it is simply false that “dirtbagging is dead”. Quite the opposite, the dirtbag is alive, and it is more important than ever that climbers live as dirtbags.
Yet as I write that, it seems so silly to compose those words, like I’m an old man talking about my glory days and how the kids should live now. People are going to figure it out on their own, the importance of living a simple life, and the rewards of such an existence. Everything comes back around, and the dirtbag existence happens naturally to people. If The Climbing Zine ever becomes an eulogy to the glory days, burn it to start your campfire. In climbing, the golden age is always at hand if you know where to look.

That said, there are legitimate reasons for defense of the ongoing existence of the dirtbag. Living like a dirtbag is the centerpiece for the American climbing culture. Originally, the inspiration came from the Beatniks, their prose, written in the fifties and early sixties fueled the Yosemite climbing revolution, which still inspires us as a culture. Their rambling, free spirited way of living also inspired the Original Dirtbags.
I think as climbers we admire Yvon Chouinard for his first ascents on El Capitan, famously fueled by meager rations for days, more than the fact that he founded two wildly successful companies. That says a lot about our culture, and what success means to us. The climbing generation that I am a part of is the same era that Mr. Wright is a part of. We started in the 1990s, and have been witness to an exponential growth in the sport. Tighter camping restrictions have been implemented in many areas, and technology has taken away some of the romance of dirtbagging.
Climbing gyms have created a culture of their own as well. I personally started climbing in a gym in the Midwest. Luckily, shortly thereafter I moved to Gunnison, Colorado, and met a bunch of dirtbag climbers, forever changing the course of my life. It is our view at The Climbing Zine that this generation has to pass the torch to the next generation. As I approach my late thirties I know my hardcore dirtbag days are done. The climbers from my generation are getting married, and having kids. So, it is the younger generation, bound to be stronger and more impressive than us, who are coming up in the game.
And I have complete faith that this generation will continue to dirtbag, and find the magic that this lifestyle provides. You will seek out the places to climb where there is no cell phone signal, and you can camp for free for weeks on end. You will climb new routes where our generation did not think to look. You will see the open road as the Beatniks did, a blank canvas leading you to the mountains of your dreams where you’ll experience more fear, inspiration, and beauty than you’ll know what to do with. You will come back and inspire us with the stories you’ll tell.
The dream is still possible, and it is up to the younger generation to sustain the culture.
The dirtbag is dead? Hell no. The dirtbag is alive! Long live the dirtbag!

Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine and author of The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed.
He will be presenting at Brooklyn Boulders on Tuesday, October 20th– buy a ticket today. You can read more of his writing, including the new column “Modern Dirtbags” at