The Dirtbag Dream, and How it Nearly Ruined Climbing For Me

The thoughts or ideas expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Moja Gear. We do, however, support a platform for freedom of expression and open discussion within the climbing community.

For years, I’ve had an unshakeable and inexplicable sense of discomfort hanging over me. It only got worse as years passed. I’d assumed it had something to with vague confidence issues and pushed it away as best I could.

In so many ways, climbing helped quiet the background buzz in my head. It resonated with me: my slender frame and +2 ape index were advantageous; rope systems and other technical aspects made sense in a world where the nuances of team strategy (and dealing with people in general) often left me confused and indecisive; there was no competitive pressure, just me and the rock.

Through climbing, I felt confident and competent. As I gradually advanced from gym gumby to sport and finally to trad, the draw towards the dirtbag dream became ever stronger. I couldn’t stop thinking about climbing, and though I devoted nearly all of my free time to it, it wasn’t enough. Because my job was unfulfilling and the contrivances of city life weighed down on me, it was obvious that I needed to drop my shit and devote a good chunk of time to climbing full time. So I did.

After months of scrimping and saving, moonlighting as a bartender and working 60 hour weeks, I finally initiated #vanlife and lived the dream. For 7 months, I climbed my brains out: Potrero Chico, Hueco Tanks, Moab, Indian Creek, Red Rock, Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Leavenworth, Squamish, Jasper, Banff, Devil’s Tower, Spearfish Canyon. Life was bliss when moving on rock, but that shadow kept creeping back.

After driving across the continent, visiting dozens of towns, meeting hundreds of dirtbags, and spending countless hours alone and living in my head, I finally realized that my inner discomfort is rooted in a feeling of not-belonging. The problem is that we live in a society dominated by whiteness, and I will always be othered because I am not white.

This road trip has forced me to face this inescapable truth: I exist in the white man’s world but I do not belong in it. Everywhere I go, I have no choice but to come to terms with white supremacy.

White men get the first ascent, whether it be in Mexico or Utah or Nepal. Idyllic mountain towns are filled with bougy white people. Poorer, less idyllic mountain towns are filled with racist white people. America’s best lands were taken from American Indians, now occupied by white people. Dirtbags are almost always white men, except when they’re with their white girlfriends.

Once, I met a tall, ruggedly handsome, Instagram famous, white male climber who told me he didn’t drink or smoke pot anymore because he was “in a good place.” Though he was an extreme, I met so many others like him in varying degrees. The hardcore climbing scene is dominated by well-adjusted, heterosexual, cis white men – the absolute pinnacle of privilege. I couldn’t believe that the general attitude was one of non-conformity, of living on the edge.

I am an Asian-American man and this has largely been a humiliating experience. In media, we’re stereotyped either as mysterious and foreign or as small, nerdy, bumbling accessories to capable white protagonists. Interracial relationships often involve Asian women but rarely Asian men. Society tells us that we have tiny dicks and are effeminate.

During basic training (I spent 6 years as an army reservist), drill sergeants immediately nicknamed me “Jackie Chan.” Being in public with other Asians would inevitably lead to racist comments by some white guy (and it’s always a white guy). Dad encouraged me to squeeze the tip of my nose, making it less broad and more like pointy white noses. From all directions, we are othered and made to feel like we don’t belong. I grew up feeling hideous and invisible, and often still do.

From these experiences, I came to associate Asians with impotence and a failure to assimilate to American culture, so I assumed what I thought was a post-racial American identity. In practice, it was really just the pursuit of whiteness; I abandoned my Korean community and socialized almost exclusively with white people. With other Asians I was vulnerable, so I used white people like armor and fed off their privilege.

I tried to be the ultimate white man: competent, well-spoken, well-dressed macho, confident, rational. I exuberantly entered the Great White World of Climbing. I even enlisted in the army to feel more American. In the end, none of it worked; I was just going through the motions and never achieved the effortlessness that so many white men have.

No doubt, Asian-Americans are a privileged group. Just like white people, we can drive across the country without ever fearing the police. We show similar success in schools and corporations. There are more Asian climbers than any other people of color (POC). But this is the problem: because we don’t fear for our bodies and often exist in the same spaces as white people, we’re made to feel as if our experiences as POC are not relevant.

The truth is that we are oppressed by the same racist Western attitudes that hurt all other POC. So it’s time we finally shake off our bullshit model minority status and speak up for ourselves and for other POC. It’s time other POC stop seeing us as proxies for white people and accept us into the fold.

Despite its many problems, climbing has still been a positive force in my life and it continues to give me joy. That being said, I’m a hell of a lot more skeptical of the hype now. We are desperately in need of a culture shift, and that starts with everyone recognizing the white privilege that’s so pervasive in the sport. We need more climbers of color, LGBTQ climbers, female climbers.

Even if you don’t belong to any of these groups, you can still help—take those diverse friends of yours to the crag. Teach them to lead. Introduce them to other climbers like them. Feature them on your social media feed. Believing that you can be a neutral participant will only perpetuate the problem. So for the love of climbing, do something, because you can’t do nothing.

Want more climbing content? Get our awesome climbing newsletter, delivered weekly.


Explore more

Tags from the story
, , ,
Written By
More from John Shin

The Dirtbag Dream, and How it Nearly Ruined Climbing For Me

The thoughts or ideas expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect...
Read More
  • Martin Chin

    Climbing Culture? Or American climbing culture? The Japanese Couloir comes to mind. Latok I has only ever been climbed by men who looked like this author. The GiriGiri Boys make most of the white boys the author mentions look like white bois. Look at UIAA Comps. Gord barely makes it into the competition. Heck Harrer and Aufschnaiter were the only white boys in that entire country…

    I’m not trying to rain on the author’s POC parade. But even if America wont recognize him, it doesn’t mean that asian climbers haven’t been rocking the world for decades.

  • Allison Ong

    This article speaks to the anger and isolation that a lot of Asian Americans feel, however I think that it is misplaced in a climbing context. It has been my experience that climbing is a particularly safe place for Asian Americans compared to other places in White America (and every other sport). In the article, the author doesn’t site times when the climbing community specifically has made him feel othered as an Asian. His other references, the media, the army, and his father seem to play a larger role in othering than climbing specifically. The problem this author is describing is everywhere in the US. At least climbing is a place where the community respects people who try hard, especially if they crush, and the stereotypical Asian body type actually has an advantage.

    I’m not saying that this author’s discomfort is invalid. It’s totally valid. I’m just saying that maybe it has less to do with climbing than with everything else. Maybe this article should be renamed, “The Dirtbag Dream and How it Helped me Realize How Much Racism Was Affecting Me”.

    • chinga

      Really good insight! It reads to me like he may also be bothered by the prevalence of muscular white men in climbing, so essentially the sort of men considered most desirable by society and in contrast his race/gender combo is considered inferior / effeminate to. I certainly think he has something to say, but he could have said it better.

  • Bryan

    Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve appreciated much of the writing on this site, and appreciate the departure from the FA bro-fest you might get in other venues.

    I was reading Liz Haas’s article about “The Dirtbag Privilege”. It gently touches on the theme of privilege as it relates to race and class. This is such an important conversation that we all need to have, and glad to see it had so publicly. And Matt Mager’s article on “The Proud Misfits of Queer Climbing” showcases how a community finds strength in a world of heteronormative cisgendered oppression. This is powerful in so many ways, and I am thank that these articles have a platform.

    But why is it that when an article on here gets a little edgier, Moja Gear distances themselves with a bit of a disclaimer? I’ve noticed it in a few other articles. When Amanda Robinson Shwartz wrote in “Sexism, Racism, Exclusivity, and Privilege in Climbing”, she cut more to the truth. Or when Georgie Abel talks writes in “Sexism and Rock Climbing: A Conversation That’s Still Worth Having” about the role media and sexism play in depicting women climbers.

    “The thoughts or ideas expressed in this article do not necessarily
    reflect the opinions of Moja Gear. We do, however, support a platform
    for freedom of expression and open discussion within the climbing

    Why is that? Why can’t Moja Gear just say, “The thoughts and ideas in this article are very true, and we’re taking a position as a company to support our authors by challenging racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia. And we hold these ideas to be our own as well.” What are they afraid of? Is this the white fragility being threatened at a corporate level? Is it bad for business to call out the oppressive institutions? Are they afraid that offended readers might go elsewhere?

    I think it’s time that businesses, larger organizations, and platforms with market stake to stronger positions against systems of oppression. Instead, that responsibility is left to the brave writers and individuals to tackle them independently. Come on, Moja Gear. Get your act together. Stand up, take a position, and support all of these climbers.

    • nicbar

      Well said!

    • Natalie Siddique

      Hey Bryan,

      Thanks so much for your comment and feedback.

      At Moja Gear we do challenge racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia. I myself, a co-founder of this platform, am a multi-racial female and first generation immigrant running a business in a male-dominated industry. There’s no doubt I’m incredibly passionate about influencing positive change around these issues. Our best means to challenge these topics is to provide a space for messages like John’s, Liz’s, Amanda’s, etc. to be shared.

      However, while we challenge each of these issues and believe in a need for more community discussion, the opinions surrounding how to approach and solve these types of problems are varied … and we don’t always agree with EVERY POINT, every opinion, or every idea that authors on our site write. The nuances we may disagree with (for that matter, we might post something we ENTIRELY disagree with, if we feel it’s of quality and a valid opinion), and hence the disclaimer. Further, people that are new to our site will often think the authors work for us, and that their words are an extension of our words, but that’s not the case.

      So, even if we don’t agree with every idea, every opinion, we are all aligned in that THESE ARE ISSUES. And the best way we can contribute toward solving them is by providing an open space for them to be discussed. And I have to say, I think it’s amazing that the climbing community can have these open discussions in an honest, respectful manner. We should all pat ourselves on the back for that.

      Does this provide a little more perspective? It’s definitely a delicate topic and again, we do appreciate your contribution to the discussion.

      (And regarding being corporate, ha, there’s just two of us here … my co-founder lives in a van and I’m still just drowning in college loans!)

    • Anon62

      your privilege is showing. next time Moja should also include a trigger warning…

  • jonathan__c

    Jimmy Chin? Sachi Amma? Yuji Hirayama? There are tons of Asians that crush. How many major first ascents all over the world of big summits are Asians? I know in Canada, there are plenty of impressive first ascents on big, scary alpine peaks that belong to Japanese or other Asian climbers.

    That said, yes 77% of the US population is white, so i’m guessing that 77% (more or less) of American climbers are also probably white too. Racism will never go away until there are no more races and no more people with low self esteem (who will use racism to make themselves feel better). It’s just a fact of life and the result of statistics.

    I’m white, but I was made fun of for most of my life for being a scrawny beanpole with a girlish haircut. I grew up with no self esteem, and still have low self esteem. Sure I can climb 5.13 now, but I still don’t feel like I don’t belong anywhere, and have a very hard time fitting in with others in the climbing community. The difference is, I don’t have my race to blame for my lack of self esteem, it’s all on me.

    Yes, racism is prevalent in American culture, especially in backwater America… and it’s shitty, no doubt. But I think you are overstating the place that racism has in the climbing community. If anything, I think the climbing community has very minimal to non-existent racism compared to many other communities. You’ve even outright said it in your post that you are looking to climbing to help you overcome your issues with self-esteem, and it didn’t fix the problem completely either.

    You are probably a pretty rad dude, but you sound like you’ve been pretty damaged by life. I hope you can find some peace with who you are, and focus on the good in life, rather than the bad (because regardless of your race, there’s enough shit to go around for all of us).

    • Tamara2

      Ashima is pretty badass too! 🙂

    • Anon62

      The guy is from NYC. Apparently he imagined that the rest of the US wasn’t at all diverse from the corner of it that he lives in.

  • michelle p

    Speaking as a hapa female who spends a lot of time climbing on the route, this article come off as whine-fest from an entitled author. By the demographic numbers alone you can expect there to be more more white climbers, as they make up 77% of the US population (2010 data). In addition, from a cultural perspective dirt-bagging is not exactly embraced in the Asian community so one would expect numbers to be lower than the general population (not to mention non-representative ethnic breakdown in the climbing community as a whole). Asians on the whole are do far better than any other ethnic group economically and are far less likely to be racial profiled and indiscriminately killed by police.

    Men also tend to be overrepresented in climbing. Not surprisingly, white men have made more first ascents. I’d say as an Asian male you’re doing far better off than the majority of the US population. How many people can even afford to go on the road and climb? If you don’t like the image of Asian males in the climbing community prove them wrong by example. Climb big things or do your own first ascents instead of just complaining about the demographics of other people doing them.

    • chinga

      “If you don’t like the image of Asian males in the climbing community prove them wrong by example. Climb big things or do your own first ascents instead of just complaining about the demographics of other people doing them.”

      “If you don’t like the image of (your race) in (society) prove them wrong by example.” This is inequality, you see? You shouldn’t have to prove anything to have people see you equally. This is where society is broken. You shouldn’t have to dress extra well as a black man to avoid being assaulted by police. That’s broken and needs fixing.

      Saying “you’re privileged in space X Y and Z, so you’re not entitled to write about the inequality you face everywhere else” is not being an ally or supportive of race equality.

      Also before you say “I’m not racist” remember that racism is not a state, racism is an action. It’s a mistake we make when we don’t recognize our own privilege or acknowledge inequality others face.

  • Anon62

    Would you like some cheese with that wine?

    Asians make up 5.6% of the total US population. You then decided to drive to some of the whitest areas of the country. And now you’re bitch about being surrounded by white people?

    I went on a safari once. It was really weird because everyone in Africa was black and I felt so out of place…

    If being surrounded by other asian climbers matters so much to you, you did some piss poor planning in your trip but hey, you’re from NYC so god forbid the rest of the country not reflect your precious little bubble. If you want to be surrounded by people who like you, driving to Wyoming wont help. If you’re going to crap on a white guy who is stoked that he is “in a good place” maybe you should do it from a Road Trip in Laos… Because it’s not like there aren’t places in the world that are very Asian and have great climbing.

    But everyone is a special snowflake who gets to rant about how hard their life is, and doubly so when they’re from the most over represented minority and can afford to not work and live out of van. Puh-lease.

  • Arthur Lee

    Thank you for your post, Chinga. Michele P’s attitude is exactly what the OP is trying to disparage as seen in this quote, “But this is the problem: because we don’t fear for our bodies and often exist in the same spaces as white people, we’re made to feel as if our experiences as POC are not relevant”. Everyone should have a voice and the OP is fairly self-aware of his own privileges and shortcomings. You can’t downplay his feelings and experiences with bullshit graphs and numbers.

    As a first generation Chinese American who grew up in Central California, I can relate to the experience of constantly proving myself to white peers. I took up skateboarding, smoked weed, and I generally fit in, despite being called a ninja and having my successes downplayed by my race.

    I don’t think this article was misplaced in the climbing context. Every time I go to my local climbing gym in Santa Cruz, I’m reminded of how homogeneous the community is, and we have the advantage of being close to the Bay Area, which is fairly diverse. It is truly the pinnacle of privilege. My parents didn’t escape communist China and swim 8+ hours to Hong Kong in the night so I can live in a van and grope rocks hedonistically. The freedom of thought and carelessness is a privilege that I don’t hear about very often, but I SEE it and FEEL it everyday.

    I do think climbing is a safe space for people of color, but the truth is, it’s too new of a sport, and one that requires immense privilege to participate in. You have to have time, $$ for gym memberships, $$ for shoes, $$$$$ for patagonia to fit in, live in a hip city that even has a gym, etc. I always wonder what the sport would be like if people in places like Ecuador or Libya or India or Nepal had wide access to climbing gyms. The world cups wouldn’t be so blindingly white or model (paler/richer) asians like Japanese, S. Koreans, etc.

    In the US, we have a segregation problem to tackle. Lets be real; most white cis male climbers don’t even have a POC or LGBTQ friend that they would introduce to climbing. Watching the bouldering nationals makes me cringe because it’s so white and dudebro, and it’s in a Wisconsin, no less. So I propose that the first step in solving this diversity problem is to make more non-white non-cis friends. Whaaaaaaat? Then introduce them to climbing.

  • Johann von Matterhorn

    “We are desperately in need of a culture shift, and that starts with everyone recognizing the white privilege that’s so pervasive in the sport.”

    What are you even talking about? what privilege? It’s not like black climbers are dropped by their belayers at staggering rates. Please let me know how, apart from your experience in redneck towns, how being non-white has ever seriously affected you. Asian penis jokes? Get some self-esteem. People will make race jokes as long as races exist. Climbing is about as inclusive a culture as you could ask for being populated by primarily bougy, liberal white people such as myself. Asians and white people look different and have different cultures. There are also more whites than asians in North american and that will be reflected in the gym or the crag. Theres literally no reason to believe that some sort of systematic bias towards white climbers exists.

    “We need more climbers of color, LGBTQ climbers, female climbers.”

    Why exactly? what would having more POC climbers really do for the sport. I want talented, dedicated, intelligent and kind climbers in my community. Who cares about their background. What about track (primarily black), badminton (mostly chinese), baseball (white and latino). Is it important that these sports make a concerted effort to recruit all people simply because they are LGBTQ, POC, or AEIOU?

    Honestly, not everything is a race issue and this type of thinking really hurts more than it helps.

    • Alanna K

      Johann, why does the notion of white privilege offend you so much? Personally, I think have more diversification in life, sport & work encourages a diversity in perspective & approach. Ie., identify & address blindspots that are unavoidable since its impossible to fully understand another’s perspective without actually being in their shoes.

      For ex., I’ve repeatedly heard men declare that sexism doesn’t exists in a certain environment (their climbing community, workplace, etc), but really, how the fuck would they really know without being the affected party? Rather than becoming defensive & denying it exists, by listening & respecting the perspective of people other than yourself, you become open to becoming a richer person. Racism, sexism & other social issues aren’t always overt or intentional, but doesn’t mean they don’t have a negative impact!

    • Angie

      “Asian penis jokes? Get some self-esteem. People will make race jokes as long as races exist.”

      Representation is so important. America prides itself on our multicultural ‘melting pot’ immigrant culture yet blankets our differences with ‘whiteness’. You, as a white man will have children to grow up with so many influential people to represent them in sports, media, politics, entertainment, etc.

      Asia accounts for 60% of the entire world’s population and somehow, our racial stereotypes have emasculated asian men and deemed them undesirable while asian women are constantly fetishized as submissive. In our history, Asian men could not buy land or get married in the US after working in plantations and building or railroads. Asian women were used as ‘comfort women’ in every one of our wars to give their bodies to American soldiers. But of course, you wouldn’t know this because our schools don’t consider our history relevant. For you to say ‘get some self-esteem’ shows your immediate privilege.

      These stereotypes flood the climbing world everyday. I see climbing forums talking about ‘yellow fever’ and asian women who climb are only there with their ‘white boyfriends’. Why can’t we just be there to climb like the rest of you?

      Lastly, climbing boasts it’s inclusivity and ‘sub-culture’ attitude. You don’t see track, badminton, or baseball trying to portray themselves as all-inclusive. So yes, representation in climbing is important unless you start owning up to the whiteness of climbing culture.

  • Kudu GS

    Grow the f*** up! Historically if you look across the United States even white have been oppressed if you look at the Irish for example they were lower than a black or a Chinaman at one point but you know what they didn’t let that beat them down they didn’t let that hold them back they just said screw you will show you and they went out and they did what they were supposed to and they pretty much built this country. You’re just pissy cuz things haven’t gone your way in the way you think they should have gone. Racism doesn’t exist. If it existed truly existed you wouldn’t have people like Samuel Jackson or Lil Wayne or Beyonce or Jay-Z or Barack Obama having the most powerful positions of influence and to include the most powerful position in the world present United States. So take your BS somewhere else because it doesn’t exist. Racism was never even used in the vocabulary of the English language or any language for that matter until the mid 1800s. In the modern vocabulary is a media-driven agenda. In climbing I have met more demographics and I have anywhere else and it’s specially in climbing the most tolerant of any group.