Published in New Zealand Adventure Magazine, Aug/Sept 2018
Words and photos, including cover shot, by Derek Cheng
It was The Grateful Dead – not rock or ice, surf or snow – that first led American climber Heidi Wirtz to a life on the road in the 1980s. She was a high school student in Sacramento when she discovered the Dead, and her love for the music only grew.
“I went to college in Humboldt State, studying oceanography, and then dropped out to follow the Dead in Europe. But it wasn’t like I was going to follow the Dead for the rest of my life. I was just doing what was fun, following my heart.
“I was actually on a Dead tour when I got a ride to [Colorado mountain town] Crested Butte, and I immediately thought I should move there because it was so pretty.”
And so began Wirtz’s love affair with skiing, living through three winters in a tent in Crested Butte, starting when she was only 19.
Wirtz, now 47, is still in many ways the consummate ‘dirtbag’ – often living in vehicles or tents so she can pursue a passion at the expense of creature comforts including job security, proximity to family, and the fattest pay-cheques. What’s unusual about her is that she has been doing #vanlife when it wasn’t insta-fashionable, and when it was even more dominated by men as it is today.
Climbing has alway been a male-dominated sport. But these days, women are everywhere at the climbing crag, embarrassing their male counterparts with their superior technique, intelligent banter, and generally more pleasant demeanour. Non-climbers often see the sport as requiring brute strength, but the truth is that it is more about strength and power, relative to weight. That means the biggest forearms in the world won’t help if you also weigh 200 kgs. It also means that it should come as no surprise to see that the performance divide between men and women has all but vanished.
Last year, Austrian climber Angie Eiter climbed a grade 37 sport climb: La Planta de Shiva, in Spain. There are only four sport climbs in the world harder than Eiter’s achievement, climbed so far by only three men – Czech climber Adam Ondra, German Alex Megos, and American Chris Sharma. Bouldering, which is more strength-based than sport climbing, has only seen a handful of men climb harder than V15, a grade that American Ashima Shiraishi achieved in 2016, when she was only 14 years old.
Among New Zealanders, Mayan Smith-Gobat has been blazing a trail for many years, having climbed a grade 33 and several grade 32s. In bouldering, Erica Gatland recently became the first NZ woman to climb a V12.
And as women blur the gender boundaries of elite climbing, they are also taking to the dirtbag lifestyle. Across North America, I’ve come across countless ladies in their 20s who are loving #vanlife. There’s Emily Matherly, a Colorado-based climbing teacher and business-owner who moved into her van two years ago. And Alix Morris, who chases odd jobs while climbing in Yosemite and around the world. And Stevie Lewis, an artist who works remotely and used to live in a Honda Element, before upgrading to a Ford Transit called Franny The Vanny.
Lewis says she feared she made a huge mistake on her first #vanlife night, feeling alone and smothered by her own insecurities. But she soon discovered the dirtbag community was a loving family – accepting, generous, and friendly, with a penchant for sharing big meals at the end of a hard day’s climbing, and beers to watch the sunset in the most beautiful places nature has to offer.
But Wirtz has been doing it for decades. After tent-living in Crested Butte and becoming fixated on climbing, she bought a Toyota pick-up truck.
“To be a good climber, I thought I had to be on the road. So I bought the Toyota and built a bed in the back. I had so many different jobs. I managed restaurants. Cleaned houses. Shovelled roofs. Bartended. I killed crabs for a while. I wanted to work on one of the boats, but I didn’t have enough experience, so they said I could stay on shore and kill crabs. It was horrible.”
Meanwhile Wirtz was making a name for herself by climbing bold, difficult, traditional climbs as well as setting speed records in Yosemite, and in the early 2000s, outdoor companies including Black Diamond and The North Face offered her sponsorship deals.
“Somebody offered me a pair of climbing shoes to take my picture, and I really needed a new pair of climbing shoes. I didn’t want to get sponsored. At that point, I thought I had sold out. And then The North Face said they would send me all over the world to go climbing, and I thought, ‘Well, that sounds good.’”
Expeditions took her to first ascents in such far-flung place as Siberia, Morocco, Canada, Pakistan, and Patagonia.
These days Wirtz owns a yoga-climbing retreat business and is based in Boulder, Colorado. But when I met her two years ago, in the Sierra Nevada, she was still living in the back of her Honda Element.
“I still aspire to #vanlife, but now it’s a zoo. I used to hang out at Indian Creek after the ski season, and I’d literally be the only person there, and hope someone would show up so I could go climbing. When it got more and more crowded, I used to cry about it a bit, but you just have to go further out to escape the crowds.”
Back then, Wirtz felt she had more to prove as a woman in a male-dominated sport and lifestyle. “Being a female, you weren’t thought of as an equal partner. It was assumed you were being helped up by the guy. When I started putting up first ascents in the 1990s, I thought I should do it with a girl or we wouldn’t get any credit.
“I remember going into the cafe in Yosemite and I was climbing with [male climber] Micah Dash, and everyone would say, ‘Hey Micah, how’s it going? Have you sent yet?’ I would just be standing there, thinking, ‘I was there too.’ That attitude still exists. I had to earn my respect more as a woman, but in the climbing community, there’s been so much effort to make it better in recent years.”
Sexism in #vanlife is something that some women have experienced more than others. Kaya Lindsay, a 25-year-old Californian who has been living in her Sprinter van for two years while working as a social media manager, says it is an inevitable part of being the minority gender.
“With the dirtbag community being mostly male, the chance for sexism to be present is higher,” Lindsay says. “Men are constantly critiquing my gear placements, telling me what to do – even if I’m the more experienced climber – and generally making me fight to prove that I am a good climber.”
She was once harassed by a guy who went as far as pulling her hair to get close to her, but nearby friends – men and women – managed to drive him away. Despite this, Lindsay says she has no regrets about moving into her van. “It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. Ever.”
Floridian Genevieve Jahn, 38, says the dirtbag community has been protective and kind to her, and she has never experienced the kind of harassment that she went through as a dancer and marketing executive.
Jahn, who has been in her Toyota Bandit for two years, grew up in a Catholic, Italian family. “It wasn’t really acceptable to take off as a woman on your own. There’s a lot of fear about it, and stigma from a fucked up, patriarchal society about women being bearers of children and home-makers.
“I was starting to dislike the mindset of corporate America, where people are defined by their jobs. I had lost my job and started an outdoor travel blog with a girlfriend, focusing on women being outdoors, and that was excelling. I had always hoped to travel and experience different ways of life, and I felt like I had nothing left to lose.”
Jahn, who found climbing only after she started living in her Bandit, shares her vehicle with her husky dog Sailor, and works various jobs as she has explores the western USA.
“I’ve loved every minute of it. I thought I would do it for a year or two, but somewhere along the line, I decided that this is the way of life for me, how I should have always been living, and what I was always searching for. Living nomadic, and in a vehicle.
“It’s the endless possibilities and the freedom. You get to do whatever you want. Everyday I wake up and make decisions for myself – because I have that freedom. When you’re not living a traditional life, you can claim who you really are, and be confident in that.”
Lindsay and Jahn have substantial social media followings – part of modern day #vanlife that didn’t exist in Wirtz’s heyday.
“We used to just go climbing and not have to document everything on social media,” Wirtz says. “Too bad that wasn’t going on when I was younger – maybe I’d have some money in the bank.”
Wirtz doesn’t know how much longer she will live this lifestyle, but that doesn’t concern her.
“I travel so much, even now, that I feel that I don’t really have a home. When I was on the road, there were a couple of times I wanted to stop. I would rent a place and last three months, and then say, ‘I gotta get out of here.’
“People are afraid to move. To just pack it up. I prefer it. I honestly have never been able to stay in one spot.”