Dirtbag dispatches – Intestinal Misadventures of the Vertical World

Published in New Zealand Adventure Magazine, Oct/Nov 2017


One moment, I was sitting on a rock ledge, 30m off the ground, overlooking the most perfectly turquoise of oceans. Serene and blissful as the Dalai Lama getting a shoulder rub in a hot spring. The next, I was plunged into the depths of a horror I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. 

Bathroom disasters can pounce at any moment, even halfway up a giant rock face. Of all the logistics to consider when tackling a long climb – one that could take hours, or even days – the one burning question for most non-climbers is: “How do you go to the bathroom?” 

It’s a legit question. Vertical camping offers many challenges, from what lightweight food to bring to what gear to have in case you get stormed on. Dealing with #2s is no less important.

The simplest method is the mud-falcon. The mud is your business and the falcon is the flat discus of rock on which you deposit your business. A comfortable ledge for squatting and an abundance of large, flat rocks is helpful. 

The falcon is then hurled into the great beyond. It must be a smooth action. It is most unsatisfactory to launch the falcon with such force that your business promptly dismounts, and lands on your foot. 

This is a common bathroom solution in remote mountain ranges, where you and your climbing partner are hopefully the only people in a five kilometre radius. But it’s not an option if there are climbers crawling all over the wall and along its base.

Is there a more unpleasant way to go than being taken out by a flying disc of poop? The Nose, the most famous line up the 900m monolith of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, California, is usually so clogged with climbers that a mud-falcon would stand a decent chance of humiliating – or even decapitating – some poor, unsuspecting victim below.

A wag bag and poop-tube are now deemed essential El Cap items. The bag is re-sealable heavy-duty plastic, with a large mouth and a drying agent inside. Once filled – check your aim! – the bag is deposited into a sturdy receptacle, known as the tube. Twist-top buckets work well. The tube sits under the haul bag, which shields it from potential rips or tears as the bag and tube are heaved up the massive face.

A porta-ledge – a climbers’ sleeping platform that can be suspended from the side of a cliff – offers the unique challenge of trying to stay steady on something that wobbles with any subtle shift in weight. It’s unsurprising, given that a porta-ledge is a sheet of polyester, attached to several poles and pieces of webbing that anchor it to the rock wall. It is made of thin, light material, which seems flimsy and almost laughable, but is tested to hold the weight of three thousand hippopotamuses.

For #2s, you would normally tether yourself to the main anchor and lean your bare buttocks out over the edge of the porta-ledge, with the wag bag positioned directly below your poop-shute. If the vertigo is all a bit much, you can opt to squat more comfortably in the middle. But you must then become a poop-ninja, negotiating the mouth of the wag bag as it seems to shrink, while not disturbing a highly volatile platform that could upend your bag. Don’t miss. Don’t spill. And don’t pee on the porta-ledge. 


Things don’t always go according to plan, of course. 

In the Lone Peak Cirque, Utah, a pristine granite wonderland where visitors pack it out, I had placed my used wag bag in the front pocket of my backpack, suspended from a boulder to deter curious creatures. But something mischievous found a way in. 

Why anything would ever freely choose to crawl into a befouled wag bag and proceed to demolish its contents is beyond me, but the following morning, when the unspeakable stench drew me towards it, a powerful dread filled my soul.

After managing not to faint from the sheer horror – the dark brown stains, the chewed up toilet paper, the mangled remains of what my body had already rejected, as if each log had been forced through a pencil sharpener – I proceeded to use an entire pack of baby wipes to clean up what I could. It was nasty. Astronomically repugnant.


An invasion of the backpack is one thing. An invasion of the shorts is an altogether next-level catastrophe.

It was a typically hot, humid day in Tonsai, the beach-climbing paradise in Thailand, and I had just defeated the hardest climb I had ever tried. I was beaming as I wolfed down a Thai curry and then approached a 200m-high overhanging limestone wall. 

Still radiating from my successful morning, I climbed the first pitch and sat comfortably on a spacious rock ledge, inhaling the glorious view and thinking, honestly, that life couldn’t possibly be more perfect. And then, out of nowhere, something sinister stabbed me in the lower gut. In an instant, I hunched over, cheeks clenched tight. 

The belly demons then played a cruel trick. They pretended to vacate the area, a sudden, unexplained departure, allowing my cheeks to relax without anything odious escaping. I even considered continuing up.

But, predictably, the upset returned as abruptly as it left. “I need to go down. NOW!” I bellowed with urgency. An abseil was quickly set up, and in seconds I was on a rope, lowering myself to the ground, clamping my cheeks shut with all my energy and focus.

At the base, my toes grazing terra firma, I thought I might make it. All I had to do was remove my harness and shorts.

But my resolve buckled as soon as I turned my mind to something other than keeping the floodgates shut. As I frantically fiddled with my abseil device that chained me to the rope, it came to me. There is always a moment of clarity just before something awful is unleashed, gifting you a split-second of calm as you resign yourself to your inexorable fate.

And then, a gush of warmth. A soggy weight, sagging my shorts. Muscles that were squeezing so tightly suddenly turned limp, like a dying sunflower. As the feverish grip of panic released me, I felt an almost cathartic relief, doused with a sharp dose of shame. 

What followed was a flurry of activity to conceal my crime. I snagged handfuls of leaves to wipe off what I could. Like a dog, I scooped up handfuls of sand to bury the blemish I had left on the ground. Getting poo on my skin, my hands, my gear, was no longer an unimaginable horror. It was reality, and salvation was in a shower in a bungalow, hundreds of metres away.

This was also the most popular place to climb at this hour on this whole peninsula, and I expected a conga line of climbers to appear at any moment. When it didn’t, I could’ve almost kissed the ground, had I not just defiled it.

Before the trudge back to my bungalow, I had to pull my shorts back on. Like pulling on wet togs, but infinitely more vile. Walk swiftly. Head down. Nasal passages shut. Dozens of minutes in the shower and countless layers of soap. But such a stench, once smelt, never really leaves your memory.

The risk of unceremoniously losing the contents of your bowels should be enough to deter anyone from ever considering climbing a long rock climb. Why subject yourself to such antics, when you can be close to a pleasant, flushable toilet at all times? But it’s a small risk compared to the glories and wonders of the high and the wild. 

There is a special privilege that comes with bedding down after an exhausting day of adventuring up a gorgeous, steep, slightly terrifying wall of rock. To relax on a porta-ledge and track the sun as it sinks behind a mountain crest, the sky turning darker shades of blue. To inhale the still air and vastness of your surroundings, which make you believe that all the sublime beauty in the world exists in this singular moment, and for your eyes only.

Such blissful moments make all the shitty ones worth it.

About Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng is a journalist and photographer whose work has appeared in publications in several countries, including the US, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the UK. Since he discovered climbing about ten years ago, he has worked as little as possible so he can travel widely, chasing rock faces in all corners of the world - from stalactite-blessed limestone in China, to the alpine granite of the Bugaboos and the Sierra Nevada, to quartzite giants in Morocco. His work can be viewed at dirtbagdispatches.com
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