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Dirtbag: Climbers and the Climbing Life

To most people, being called a dirtbag is an insult. To climbers, it’s not only something they do, it’s a point of pride.

Dirtbagging is actually the fine art of throwing one’s sleeping bag in the dirt without worrying about the all the niceities of civilization and/or camping. I can’t count the number of times I’ve happily tossed my sleeping bag on the gravel of the desert or the dirt of the mountains. It’s home to me.

Climbers are an inventive lot. They’re used to making do with very little in order to live most of their lives in the places where the rocks are plentiful and the climbing good. Miles, the climber below, has rigged his VW Bug so that he and his girlfriend can slip in through the back window and sleep in a custom made bed.

I used to live for climbing. I actually got my start in photography in shooting rock climbers climbing impossible routes. These days, I’m lucky to climb once a year. I’ve come to realize that, as much as still enjoy climbing, I appreciate the people and camaraderie even more. My mission is to document the people; I think they’ve all got great stories to tell.

At some point, I’d like to collect these images into a book. My working title for it is “Dirtbag.”

A climbers version of American Gothic.

Then there’s the climbing. Steep rock and splitting cracks are the stuff of climbers’ dreams.

All images were shot in a RAW format and imported into Lightroom. The black and white images were converted using the Toolkit Preset Kit Bitchen B&W conversion. The Warm Tone preset was added along with the Heavy Vignette. Three clicks and done!

The VW van, the consummate climber’s vehicle.

When I used to climb, climbers lugged their gear in legitimate backpacks. Now, folding pads are the rage. The idea is that when you’re climbing small boulders, they give you something to cushion your fall. They makes people look a walking domino though.

There’s a popular climb in Joshua Tree called Right Ski Track. It’s right in the center of the campground and in front of the parking lot. The climb is not easy though. Whenever I see someone starting on it, I always like to head over because I know there’s some exciting sports action coming up. Here’s Mike from North Carolina logging some flight time on it.

The agony of defeat.

Next door to Right Ski Track is… Left Ski Track. Here’s a climber contemplating the steep route.

Dick Cilley, yes that’s his real name, use to sell gear around Joshua Tree 30 years ago when I first started climbing. I hadn’t seen him for 20 years. Then I ran into him hitch-hiking up the road into the park. The day was cold and raining, but that wasn’t stopping him.

And Tucker Tech, another ubiquitous character in the climbing world. Though he’s done more than his share of dirtbagging, he’s now graduated to caretaking a 100 plus acre ranch inside the park. An unlikely exit strategy, but an effective one nonetheless.


5 Responses to “Dirtbag: Climbers and the Climbing Life”

  1. Shannon Gillespie Says:

    I love these - such raw, strong images that certainly show the ruggedness of the climbing lifestyle.

    And of course, there is a combi - what’s not to love.

  2. Dick Cilley Says:

    Like the photo. But I’m not a dirtbag.

  3. John Says:

    Dick: Duly noted! By the way, thanks for posing for my camera. Seeing and photographing you and Tucker made my trip.


  4. Tamara Young Says:

    Great insight and awesome photos!

  5. Patricia Knight Says:

    I love all of these images. Especially since JTNP is my backyard playground. “dirtbag” looks like it will be an interesting book.

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