The Great American Dirtbag Dream

First question: what do you love more than anything else in this world?

Hang on to the first thought that pops into your mind. I’m not you, so I have no way of knowing what that thing might be. Maybe you’re hyper-social and can’t spend a minute without your friends. Maybe you’ve found the love of your life and their name comes to mind. Maybe you’re a huge nerd for Star Wars or some other creative enterprise with a freaky cult following.

Second question: how do you demonstrate your love for your thing?

Think about your day-to-day. How are you spending your downtime? What about your uptime, if there is such a thing? I think that there are two parts to this answer. First, how often do you truly engage with your thing? And second, what are you willing to forgo to pursue your thing? More on this later.

Third question: when you think about your thing, do you feel happy?

I think most people have something that they hold near and dear to their heart. It seems to me that the happiest people take their thing and make it a priority in their life. I’ve encountered several people who are willing to procrastinate on their happiness by putting their thing aside for a more convenient time, like retirement 60 years down the line. While I’m not advocating for hedonism, I do mean to raise the point that your happiness should be a priority in your life. It’s too short not to.

Enough of this rhetorical nonsense.

Enter Mal: crack fanatic, pebble wrestler and camera-wielding crazy woman.

I recently took a long hard look at my life and the decisions I’ve been making, and you know what? I certainly don’t have it all figured out, but goddamn, am I lucky to know that my passion for climbing is my priority. It shows.

I like when people ask me what I do. It’s a great opportunity to gauge someone’s understanding of the pursuit of happiness. Depending on the person, I’ll either say, “I work my dream job at a climbing gym,” or I’ll say something about how my parents are gracious about my decision to work at a climbing gym despite finishing a four-year degree.

I don’t think it’s completely accurate to call my job at the gym my “dream job,” but it sounds nice, so I continue to use the phrase.

And don’t get me wrong, I love my job at the gym. I love showing people around my church of technicolor polyurethane. I love the way kids’ eyes light up when they run up to the walls. I know that feeling well.

Previously, I said that my passion-as-priority shows. What doesn’t show quite as readily are the sacrifices I’m making for my love. I’m constantly seeking small gigs and extra shifts to make ends meet. My type-A personality has toughened up – albeit only slightly – in response to peoples’ condescension about my career decisions.

First world problems, sure.

My dream job would have me climbing outside often, shooting photos and writing about life lessons harvested from numerous climbing partners and experiences. I’d be living out of a van with a nice man and a dog. (#relationshipgoals) The dirtbag dream!

Basically, I’m seeking the revised version of the American dream, which I’m going to call the great American dirtbag dream: do what you love and love what you do. Deal with the consequences.


Head Games

I drive my right foot into the ice as hard as I can. The teeth of my crampons gnash into the ice like the cold breeze that bites at my exposed face. My left foot feels secure; two front points exert enough downward force on seemingly brittle ice to support my bodyweight.

I exhale, stand and pull my upper body into the icy curtain. My hands are wet and paradoxically burning with white hot pain in the -6 degree weather (Celsius, since it’s Canada.)

As I raise my right hand above my head to slam the pick ever upward, I gasp as my right foot suddenly slips from the ice. Instinctively, all of my muscles tense. I pull hard on my left tool, my forearm burning with the exertion. Without a point of contact, my right wrist is weak from the fear of falling and my ice axe dangles limply above my head.

I retrain my focus and find my footing and place the pick. The adrenaline tingles throughout my body as my mind reels just a moment longer. Then, my attention shifts to find my next placements.

Everything about ice climbing feels fierce and defiant. With good technique, you feel more in control of the situation at hand. But even then, you’re scaling a frozen waterfall. Yeah, it’s kinda crazy.

I love that moment of clarity: the swift transition from dangling from an ice tool, panicked, asking myself “What the hell am I doing?” to a composed, pragmatic and methodical, “I can do this.”

Jason on Icy BC, WI5.
Ice tools.


How to Bellingham

Step one: Buy a used Subaru and a Patagonia puffy jacket.

These are staples around the City of Subdued Excitement. You will see them everywhere and without them, you’ll be sure to stand out. Even if you never, ever go to the mountains, at least you look like you can hang.

Step two: Choose an outdoor sport and consequently, your entire friend group.

Just get on Instagram or Tinder if you’re not sure which route to take. Do you see yourself as more of casual day hiker or adrenaline-junkie downhill mountain biker? Accomplished alpinist or dirtbag boulderer? Nearby Bellingham, you can ski, climb, hike, run, bike, kayak, downhill unicycle… the list goes on. And yeah, downhill unicycling is a thing.

Step three: Decide whether you’re actually going to do that sport or just say that you do.

There will be plenty of dudebros at the numerous breweries around town that will tell you all about slaying the gnar, but when you hit him up later to get out and get after it, he’s probably got a hangover and a good excuse not to go.

Step four: Just add weed!

When scanning Craigslist for your new digs, you’re definitely going to come across countless declarations of “420 friendly.” Bellingham is very 420 friendly.

Step five: Get yourself a restaurant job to support your gear addiction.

The job market in Bellingham is saturated with bright eyed, bushy tailed college grads. You might be washing dishes for a while despite getting your degree. Further, there’s all of the professionals that have lived elsewhere and settled in Bellingham to begin their families to claim the “real” jobs. They’ve earned it.

With your new sport and friend group – whether or not you actually do it – comes the cost of the equipment it takes to do it. An alpine touring set up doesn’t just materialize out of thin air! And if you’ve decided climbing is your jam, your homies aren’t going to be psyched when you want to repeatedly whip on their gear as you learn how to crush the crack. You need your own rack.

Hustle the tables, sling the ‘za or do whatever you need to do to get by.

Step six: Get out there and do your thing.

When you come home from a day in the mountains, you’ll immediately realize that Bellingham is actually a pretty special place.

In this town, it’s totally appropriate for your appearance to raise the question “Hipster or hobo?” as you make your way from coffee shop to co-op to bar. You could shower like a normal person, or you could have yourself a Bellingham shower by pulling a beanie over that tangled mess of nonsense you call your hair.

It’s okay because nobody cares what you look like. People want to talk to you about who you are, what you do and how it went, because in Bellingham, people are stoked on getting outside and having a good time. Everything else – like your crappy job or your janky Subaru – will figure itself out.

Good News

You can climb Washington in January… It’s just a little on the slow side and kind of painful. Good news, indeed.

I knew that there was a reason why there weren’t going to be a ton of people out there at Index over the weekend, but I didn’t really think much of it until we got started.

We rolled in sometime around 9pm or so – two friends and I in a Volvo station wagon – and all I could think was, “Oh jesus, I didn’t plan this very well.” There was thick snow. Everywhere.

Given that I’d only packed an ultralight backpacking tent intended for Washington’s more pleasant summer months and a 20 degree sleeping bag, I knew that it was going to be a cold night… or that I was going to have to find a cuddle buddy. And I wasn’t about to third-wheel in the back of a Volvo with a couple I’d recently met.

Cuddle buddy it was.

We met up with a fellow Bellingham climber, Stamati, and even though I knew it was rude…

“Hey Stamati! How are you? Can I sleep with you tonight?”

Yeah, I went there. But he was cool with it, so it turned out okay.

The four of us clambered into his camper and waited for the light to come back so that we could get down to the granite business we came to Index for.

Stamati and I watched the sun come up over Mount Index sometime around 9am and each wrestled with the internal struggle: to begin the day and get to climbing or to stay cozy beneath two sleeping bags, two blankets and two jackets in the back of the truck. Eventually, the urge to climb motivated us to begin making breakfast. Coffee helped, too.

Layered up and ready to rock, we made our way over to Japanese Gardens where I volunteered the first belay. It was the first time I had to decide whether or not to give a gloved belay… Definitely chose the gloves because I trusted that they would provide good traction.

Stamati boldly took the first frigid lead and proceeded to run up an Index 5.9 followed by an Index 5.11c. Jesus christ, the guy’s an animal. I guess warming up in 36 degree weather isn’t much of an option.

He took one whip. Then another. And then took a fat whip that made him decide to come down for a moment to rethink his life choices.

“Hey Stamati, how do you feel after taking that fat whip?” This face.

Another friend of mine put up a rope on Godzilla, an absurdly-trying-but-worth-it 5.9 on the Lower Town Wall. Feeling cocky and cozy in my numerous layers, I said to my party, “I think I’m going to try it on top rope and then decide whether not not to lead it.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever had the pleasure of watching a praying mantis do it’s praying mantis thing, but that’s basically how climbing this crack went.

If you don’t have the patience for video nonsense: It was really stupid slow. There was no way in hell I was going to lead that beast of a crack when I felt like my body was too cold to function.

There’s a reason why you’re body says, “Nope, nope, nope,” to climbing Washington in January. But I assure you, your body doesn’t know what it’s missing out on. It’s a slow and painful but good time.