“Want to go to Moe’s today?” I looked up from my plate of pancakes to see Chris’s hopeful grin looking back at me.
I shrugged and gave a casual, “Sure,” not really wanting to.
The truth was I didn’t want to go to Moe’s. Or Marioland or the VRG or any other of the amazing crags located in the St. George vicinity, where we had been holed up in an attempt to escape the winter storms ravaging every other place in the west. I didn’t want to climb at all.
In fact, I hadn’t wanted to climb for over a month, not since we had gotten chased out of Bishop, California by unseasonably early snowfall that had turned the Buttermilks into a beautiful but dripping mess and our 6-gallon water tanks into solid ice. The weather, I knew, was a big cause of my disheartening, as we had been battling what felt like nothing but bad conditions for months on end.
But beyond that, I couldn’t quite pin down my reluctance to hit the crag.
Maybe it was how ego-driven and jealousy-ridden I had noticed the sport of bouldering becoming. Lately, the atmosphere at the boulders felt more competitive, less supportive. More contrived for the sake of sends and less pure for the sake of just climbing. Maybe it was the fact that I wasn’t immune to this competitive drive and found myself increasingly bothered that I hadn’t been able to touch a V8 since sending my first one five months prior.
Maybe it was the cringe-worthy double pop my shoulder had issued upon first arriving in Bishop after getting a little too cocky while being too cold on a V3. Or maybe it was the second time it happened a week later on a V6 when I told myself I could just suck it up and grunt through the pain. Now it hurt to put on jackets and a seatbelt, but I was subsisting on two day old $0.35 loaves of bread from Schatt’s; I certainly couldn’t afford a professional medical opinion on the matter.
Whatever combination of causes it was, the mere thought of climbing anymore gave me uncontrollable anxiety, which didn’t bode well considering my partner Chris and I were full-time vanlifers living on the road for pretty much the sole purpose of climbing.
As my resentment and reluctance to climb grew, I was left to wonder, “What good’s a dirtbag without the rocks?”
Nothing, they whispered back.
Chris and I had become enamored with dirtbag life years prior when we took a climbing trip to Bishop, California and somehow managed to live out of a minivan for a month while retaining our sanity. Hell, even our stoke was high. Four months later we scraped together just about every spare penny we could for a down payment on a new van, signed our souls away on debt, and began the maddening process of van conversion.
The next eight months were a junk show of epic proportions as we, two amateur carpenters equipped with nothing more than a miter and a jigsaw, set to work building the inside of our new home, in the middle of an Alaskan winter. We had no help whatsoever unless you counted the several dozen stray cats who kept the mice and rats away from our workspace (at the price of the oppressive, lingering smell of cat pee).
On top of building the van and selling or donating everything we owned, we worked multiple jobs and pulled sometimes 15+ hour days to pay for it all.
At long last, April rolled around and the clock ticked down to the expiration of our lease. Once the lease was up we would be living in the van, finished or not. Miraculously, we pulled out all the stops and more or less finished the van with only one day to spare.
Finally, we could reap the rewards of play that so much work had brought. We spent the summer putting our carpentry to the test on brutal back roads to access Alaska’s most remote crags (which, granted, is most of them). Every day was filled with scrubbing mossy boulders in granite talus fields, putting up first ascents, and basking in the sublime perpetual daylight in the Land of the Midnight Sun.
As summer chugged toward a rainy close, we took our cue from the birds and headed south, trading in Alaska for a new adventure.
Full-time life on the road got rocky when we hit our first major bouldering destination in Squamish, BC. Notorious for the humidity, Squamish usually provides only a narrow window for sending. The unusually warm weather of this year made it practically unbearable. So there we were, in one of the world’s meccas for hard bouldering and we were hardly able to grope our way up the slippery warm ups.
But still, we justified our efforts and frequently reminded ourselves that road life was awesome. Surely, it was better than waiting tables and settling in for another long winter in Alaska absent any outdoor climbing.
After Squamish, there was Leavenworth, which again, was unusually hot until overnight winter came in and snowed us out of Icicle Creek. This weather pattern of too-hot and then instant snow continued, chasing us through Smith, Tahoe, and finally to Bishop.
Bishop, my favorite climbing place of all time, was going to be my rescue. For someone who got scared on just about any topout, Bishop’s hulking quartz monsters had inexplicably captivated me. There was just something different about being so high that your pad placement hardly mattered.
Day one in Bishop, I injured my shoulder. I was devastated. Still, I managed to climb as much as I could, albeit quite timidly after incurring the second injury days later. To avoid the heat and record high humidity (even at the near 8,000 ft elevation of the Buttermilks) that once again followed us, we started getting up at 5am to catch a narrow morning window of sending temps, and that system worked for a while.
Until it dumped snow and forced us inside our cramped, windowless van for days on end, shivering in the cold. Risk of carbon monoxide poisoning seemed like a small price to pay if cranking up our Coleman cookstove meant keeping warm. Eventually, we realized we couldn’t wait out the snow for weeks on end and said a disappointed goodbye to Bishop. Worse than leaving, however, was that I couldn’t seek out a desire to even come back.
The dirtbag dream was officially feeling more like a nightmare.
Everyone, especially other climbers, assume that your life in a van is amazing. After all, the idea of full-time climbing and dirtbagging has been ingrained in our culture since the old days of Camp 4 and the Yosemite greats.
Echoes of “you’re so lucky” stopped feeling congratulatory and started feeling more like a burden, a condemnation of guilt because I felt anything but lucky. Now when someone said it, all I could think was how they had no idea the tremendous hard work and sacrifice dirtbagging demands. The way it can erode your mental well-being over time.
By the turn of the new year a month later, I had stopped climbing altogether and took every effort to distance myself from it. Part of doing so meant not posting anything about it on social media. One day, an old friend from Alaska commented on a photo taken while hiking in Snow Canyon State Park, “Seriously, do you guys even climb anymore?”
The words taunted me and with them came the resurfacing off all the guilt I was experiencing over not wanting to climb. It was then I realized climbing had become too entangled with my identity. I was acutely aware of how messed up it was that I was embarrassed for not wanting to partake in something I did for fun because it wasn’t fun anymore, but I couldn’t shake the urge to scream out my thoughts.
So I did what any millennial writer would do. I took to social media. I boldly stepped up on my soapbox and called out to the climbing community. I opened up about everything I was experiencing, fully prepared to see my follower count decrease in the hours that followed.
To my surprise, I instead received overwhelming support! People commented and messaged me thanking me for my transparency and admitting that they, too, had struggled with burnout (whether it was work, climbing, or whatever). The cloud that had been hanging over me suddenly lifted enough to see the hoards of other people that had been standing beside me the entire time.
Climbers have always been gruff souls, fueled by rugged individuality and prideful willingness to endure the suffer-fest that is so often our sport. But in cultivating the culture of grit and endurance, we’re ignoring the mental health struggles we all face, whether it be burnout, eating disorders, or any number of other mental problems that plague us. As a community, we need to be talking about these things and to realize that our struggles are not in isolation.
To all the climbers, dirtbags, and vanlifers out there feeling unhappy and guilty for it, I want you to know you are not alone.
Burnout is bound to happen in absolutely anything we devote our whole selves to.
While we may not be able to stop burnout itself, we can stop feeling guilty for it. We are no less climbers for going through slumps, for skipping fingerboard training, or for taking breaks, however long they end up being.
Climbing will always be there, and trust me when I say, getting back into it will always feel like coming home.