Seattle Escalation Goes Beyond Dirtbag Culture
FIFTY YEARS AGO, a Pacific Northwest rock climber had a certain look: a showerless hippie guy hitchhiking on Highway 2. Famous mountaineer Fred Beckey, whose life was told in the documentary dust bag– when posed with his thumbs up and a sign reading “Will provide for food”. Today, climbing is an Olympic sport and the people who participate in it are not bastards at all. Take Audrey Sniezek, who doesn’t look like that old stereotype at all; in a single day, she could scale the World Walls near North Bend and then sit down to lead a team meeting for Microsoft.
When Sniezek started climbing as a student in the early 1990s, there was no bouldering gym nearby — a rocky ravine near Case Western Reserve University was her version of the Seattle Bouldering Project. Instead of crash pads or self-belays, they used top ropes tied to trees. Seattle had Vertical World, which proudly claims the title of America’s premier climbing gym, even though at the time there were only rudimentary boulders glued to painted plywood panels.
In the 1990s, the sport grew in the Northwest, particularly in North Bend, thanks to Bryan Burdo’s 1992 guide. Exit 32: North Bend Rock. But climbing was a counter-cultural pastime, stuck to the man. Most dedicated dirt has shunned a 9-to-5 (and homeownership) for a nomadic lifestyle supported by grocery store trash-diving and seasonal odd jobs that maximize time on the wall.
The Dirtbag type certainly still exists; just look at the climbers who live in ramshackle Subarus along the banks of the Skykomish River in the town of Index. But the culture has expanded. Decades ago, climbers were predominantly male and predominantly white, but that’s slowly changing (thanks in part to initiatives like Climbers of Color). Additionally, many climbers have desk jobs with Seattle’s tech giants.
Although Sniezek is a professional climber, the Washington resident also moonlights as a Microsoft product manager — or some days it might seem the other way around. “It’s a very demanding job. It has great visibility,” says Sniezek from Ohio en route to climbing Kentucky’s Red River Gorge. She has a professional resume, but also an online climbing resume that records notable first ascents and sponsors.
Despite a white-collar gig, Sniezek lives in his van for much of the climbing season, parking it as close to the rock that holds his next target. Often her early mornings were spent deep in the woods, perfecting a heel hook or a slab move – skills that led her to compete in the International Federation of Sport Climbing World Cup. But his calendar can also include a meeting on Teams.
Even when she’s not at work, technology has become an important part of her climbing life. When Sniezek drives her van to a new city, she finds climbing partners through social media. Climbers use the Mountain Project app to find a library of routes, constantly updated with reviews and photos.
Even with technology that makes both work and play easier, juggling a corporate job with a decades-long climbing career is no small feat. Sniezek sometimes finds goals on the East Coast to score an extra three hours of pre-work climbing time in the morning before remote work. Still, she says, “there are definitely times when at the end of the day my eyelids just can’t stay open.”
“I may not have optimal conditions; it might be the wettest part of the day, or the coldest part of the day,” Sniezek says of his demanding work schedule. “That’s what I have. So I’m making the most of it.”
One of the reasons a corporate gig becomes confused with a rock climbing career, something unimaginable at the end of the 20th century, is the cost of living. A steady, well-paying job can snatch key climbing hours out of the workweek, but it also funds trips to cliffs around the world, not to mention cozy digs for road crashing. It’s not just a salary; Microsoft reimburses up to $1,200 per year for employee fitness activities.
Although the sport has grown rapidly — Seattle now has half a dozen athletic gear, some with multiple locations — it’s still “very tight-knit,” says Sniezek. “I’ve always found it to be like family. There are people you can meet and climb once and feel such a connection because of your love of the sport that I can’t find anywhere else,” says- she.
“I don’t aspire to be a dirty bag,” says Sniezek, marveling that some of her die-hard peers actually have a desire to dive into trash cans. Coming from an upbringing where she often didn’t have enough, Sniezek opts for a compromise between frugality and non-traditional life on the road. She doesn’t identify with the optional, glorified wrestling chosen by some climbers, a style of dustbag that “is like a kind of badge now.”
“I just find it refreshing and inspiring and also a bit, maybe rejuvenating, to be in the community,” Sniezek says. She moves easily, sometimes daily, between the world of software and tech products in the still narrow society of rock fiends. , also a coach and advocate for young athletes. “Even though it’s growing so much, I still feel like over time people find a home in rock climbing.”