Dirtbags and rockwalls

A look into the niche, diverse rock-climbing community

By Caitlin Kindig, News Editor

“On belay?”

“Belay on.”


“Climb on.”

I learned this informal, yet necessary, exchange early on in life. When my dad brought me to the gym with him as a child, I could either sit on the couches outside of the courts waiting for his match to be over or try my hand at climbing the gym’s seven-story climbing wall. The transition from the squash area to the climbing area was always a remarkable one. At the squash courts, I was rarely allowed to enter, much less play. The climbing wall, on the other hand, was the special area of the gym for the people with tattoos, piercings, and dyed hair who taught me how to set up a harness and climb; they were people who believed in the physical capabilities of a seven-year-old. I was immediately romanced. I would scurry over to the wall, excited about choosing which colour chalk bag I would clip onto my harness. I would repeat the mandatory phrases, coat chalk over my calloused little hands, and begin my ascent. After making it as far up as I could, I always looked down at the tiny people below me and thought that I could have done it without the rope. But, as always, I’d let go of the wall, allowing the belayer to gradually lower me back down to the ground.

Once a niche sport, the popularity of climbing has grown exponentially in the last few years. According to the Climbing Business Journal, there are currently 745 climbing gyms in North America, up from 495 in 2014. Most mid-to-large sized cities have at least one indoor climbing facility, and climbing will be an official discipline at the Summer Olympics for the first time in Tokyo in 2020. This boom in interest and facilities is largely a result of the sport’s welcoming environment and the minimal requirements with regard to equipment.

Domenic Martel, a manager at Bloc Shop, a local bouldering gym, started climbing when he was 20-years-old. He was immediately drawn to bouldering, a type of climbing that does not require ropes or harnesses. Boulderers ascend climbing walls, usually indoors, in short and intense sprints. Although many climbers hone their technique at indoor facilities, especially during the harsh Montreal winters, most prefer to climb outside.

The diversity of body types, socioeconomic backgrounds, genders, and experience levels furthers a sense of open community among climbers that is hard to find in other sports.

“When I’m bouldering outside, I love the way [that] I need to inspect all [of] the small edges and wrinkles in the hard granite,” Martel said. “It’s so satisfying to feel [like] you are in control of the movements. I love the feeling of my shoes sticking on those small holds on the rock. Plus, I learn a lot [... from] climbing. It teaches me patience, balance, [and] discipline.”

Most climbers were introduced to the tight-knit community through their love of the outdoors. Wherever there are rocks to climb, there are climbers climbing, and, consequently, the network attracts a diverse array of people. Professional and widely-decorated climber Lynn Hill celebrated the 25th anniversary of her groundbreaking ascent of The Nose on El Capitan last year. In an interview with The McGill Tribune, she described what draws the community to the perilous sport.

“People who [climb] want more from life,” Hill said. “[They want] to be challenged. [They appreciate] diversity and travel [and] being in nature. The sport happens on a natural feature, [which is] naturally soothing to us. Rock climbing is a lifestyle, a way of living, a community of healthy, engaged, and excited people.”

Hao Wang, U3 Architecture, expressed a similar kinship with nature as a drive behind her interest in climbing. She started climbing two-and-a-half years ago when she participated in an indoor climbing certification course offered by the McGill Outdoors Club (MOC). The club hosts three outdoor climbing trips during the fall and a beginner ice climbing trip during the winter. While those afraid of heights might understandably find the sport daunting, Wang has found a diverse community willing to embrace outsiders within the MOC and the climbing world

“The people I've met in the climbing community are very open-minded, welcoming, and environmentally conscious,” Wang said. “They are also some of the nicest people I've ever known. When I just started climbing, I would show up at a crag without rope or any equipment. The more experienced climbers taught me a lot of things.”

In addition to the different personalities attracted to climbing, there is no specific body type required to succeed in the sport: Someone with upper body strength can pull themselves up onto a surface just as well as a smaller, slender climber who can swing onto the same surface. This variety in figure has furthered a sense of inclusivity within the rock-climbing community—everyone has a different, yet equally useful, skill set. Climbers scale towering walls and cliffs with or without the safety of a harness, and the sport demands a tricky combination of athleticism and strategy.

“At a higher level, [climbing] requires a lot of fitness and [flexibility],” Martel said. “A climber’s body can resemble a dancer’s body.”

Walter Jothiraj, vice-president (VP) external of the MOC, has been climbing for several years and has noticed a changing trend in the type of person who climbs. With its low barriers to entry and generally accommodating members, the climbing community is not difficult to join. Once indoctrinated into the community, it’s difficult to imagine life without it. For many, climbing is not a sport, but a lifestyle. Jothiraj mentioned the term ‘dirtbag’ in his interview, referring to a specific subset of climbers more prevalent in the early days of the sport. In rock climbing parlance, the term ‘dirtbag’ describes someone who dedicates every waking moment to climbing. According to Urban Dictionary, the best examples of dirtbags are the communities of climbers who live in popular climbing areas and live off of what they have saved.

“[A dirtbag is] 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,” the site reads. “Dirtbags can be distinguished from hippies by the fact that dirtbags have a specific reason for their living communally and generally non-hygienically; dirtbags [seek] to spend all of their moments pursuing their lifestyle.”

Rock climbing, however, is generally perceived as a young person’s sport. The dirtbag demographic has shrunk as climbers get older, and the contemporary climbing community is diversifying. Belonging to a rock climbing gym is not cheap, with day passes averaging around $25 depending on the facility.

“A lot of different types of people climb,” Jothiraj said. “The sport really blew up in the last five years or so. The climbing community used to be ‘dirtbags,’ living in cars [with] not a lot of money. Now, with indoor gyms, it has become a recreational sport. People are into the lifestyle of it [because of the] crossover of outdoor and indoor styles. Climbing is one of the best ways to experience the outdoors because you can really interact with the environment. Now, it’s more athletic and is a main form of working out.”

Hill also spoke to the recent embrace of climbing by mainstream fitness communities and the resulting overloading of climbing facilities.

“The demographic has definitely changed, [and] a lot more people are climbing,” Hill said. “Climbing areas near urban places are very crowded, so you can’t be sure that you’ll be able to get space on a popular spot, especially on weekends or during holidays.”

Montreal climbing gyms, like Bloc Shop, draw a wide range of people: Hipsters sporting man buns and tattoos, fitness freaks, unapologetic shirtless sport climbers, pure dirtbags, and groups of friends who look more interested in socializing than climbing. The diversity of body types, socioeconomic backgrounds, genders, and experience levels furthers a sense of open community among climbers that is hard to find in other sports. Whether a seasoned dirtbag or a newcomer to the sport, it is not uncommon for strangers to encourage each other on the wall or for someone to guide others to the top when they don’t know the next step.

“[Climber’s attitudes] are a very critical and important thing,” Jothiraj said. “If climbing wasn’t collaborative and friendly, it wouldn’t have taken off as it did. At indoor gyms, random people encourage each other and [guide others] when they’re struggling. A lot of the gyms in Montreal are like that.”

Indoor or outdoor, harness or no harness, a climber is tasked with defying gravity and making it to the top. The lack of equipment forces free-climbers to strategize, problem-solve, and focus on the challenge of the climb.

“The equipment is there to keep you from dying,” Jothiraj said. “[And bouldering] is a way to push yourself without having to use tools. When you’re climbing on a wall [with a harness] and haven’t fallen yet, you think that you could have gotten that far [on your own] without falling yet. Before [free climbing], the equipment was the means and the point [was] to get up; it didn’t matter how you did it.”

For professionals such as Hill, strategizing and problem-solving while climbing have become second nature. Her body knows exactly what to do.

“When I'm climbing a route that is above my level, every clip feels like I'm on the edge of falling,” Wang said. “The feeling when I finally reach the top of a challenging route is indescribable.”

“It’s like a moving meditation,” Hill said “I might have a few thoughts that are relevant, but now it’s more of a learned [skill]. It’s just happening, and I’m not always conscious [of it] now. Also, I’m not depending on my gear unless I fall, and I do want the safety if [that happens]. Because of that, I think the equipment is pretty necessary.”

For Wang, the struggles of training and the frustration that comes with failure all seem to fade into the background once she finally crests the top of the wall.

“When I'm climbing a route that is above my level, every clip feels like I'm on the edge of falling,” Wang said. “The feeling when I finally reach the top of a challenging route is indescribable.”

Dedicated dirtbags are becoming a rarity in the sport; nevertheless, the modern-day climber still demonstrates a deep commitment to the sport, even without living in a Yosemite commune.

“Climbing provides me with a challenge that I don't really get elsewhere,” Jothiraj said. “[It’s] very technical, [it’s] about finding new [techniques], problem-solving, and relaxing at the same time. [It’s my] go-to thing to destress. Nowadays, a lot of my life is built around climbing [and] spending time with friends.”

Whether you opt to more fully commit yourself or choose to remain a casual climber, the growing sport is always open to new people.