The Dirtbag Adventures: Episode 1 - Stories from the road with Matt “Hammerhands”
Matt Hanrahan is a former employee of Next Adventure and is currently pursuing the dirtbag dream; living out of his van and climbing. He has no idea where he'll end up next, but thanks to an amazing community of climbers and outdoors folks, not to mention the world’s most supportive girlfriend, he's making the most of everyday. You can read his updates here, or follow him on Instagram @handsofhammers
Last week I packed up my climbing, backcountry ski, and camping gear. I loaded it into a 1998 Ford Econoline that I'd outfitted with a bed platform, a small counter, and some truly amateur insulation. Then, I drove off. For the last week and for the undetermined future I will be climbing my butt off all over the West, with no plan to speak of. I couldn't be more stoked.
When I lead a climbing route, there's a series of checkpoints. For a sport route, it's the bolts. Climb. Clip a QuickDraw to the fixed bolt. Clip the rope to the QuickDraw. Feel safe for three seconds while the rope is clipped into something higher than my waist, then start climbing again. Climb. See the next bolt. Get scared, but keep climbing. Repeat from step one.
The bolts serve as the checkpoints. Short term, achievable goals that break down the intimidating route into manageable sections. These checkpoints help me climb, but also detract from the experience of the route. Climbing traditional routes is a little different. There's no bolts, no fixed checkpoints, just a series of opportunities to put in my own protection. Climb. Get scared. Shove a cam into the crack. Repeat from step one.
The difference with "trad" climbing is that I'm creating my own safety net. I alone am responsible to protect the climb and keep myself safe. Maybe that last piece of gear wasn't placed quite right. Maybe I skipped the last good chance to put in protection and I'll soon be leading into the no-fall zone, risking too much. These routes can be the most challenging even when the difficulty ratings aren't bad, but they can also be the most rewarding because I feel ownership of every moment the climb, and every part of the system, all the way to the top.
Either way, there's a chance of a fall. Whether I climb above a bolt that's been around for years or a nut I just wedged into the crack myself, I might fall and test it. Feel a hold slip, then feel the others holds follow suite. Float in the nothingness of space. Scream a word I wouldn't repeat here. Feel the rope tighten and stretch, the way it's supposed to, as the last piece of protection takes on the weight of the fall. Check for injuries, shake it off. Repeat from step one.
I don't believe that climbing shows us everything we need to know in life, but sometimes the things we love can function as metaphors, especially when it comes to helping us confront our own desires. I think that in my life it's time to live in a way comparable to climbing a wandering, adventurous trad route. No checkpoints in the form of a monthly paycheck, no fixed markers of where next week is supposed to go, and (hopefully) the discovery of something greater.
Living out of a van is something I've desired for a long time. To climb away from the security of a regular job and an apartment, opting instead to hike, boulder, climb and ski, with anyone who isn't totally sketchy, for as long as I can pull it off, anywhere in North America.
I've already started with two days of failed attempts in the North Cascades (humility is an important skill for climbers, and deserves practice!). Yesterday I climbed with Mo and Nicole, complete strangers I met at the Kootenai Canyon trailhead outside Missoula. This weekend I'll be in Salt Lake getting my Wilderness First Responder recertified. At some point I'll be in Colorado, and in Portland, again, or maybe Squamish? Or Zion? If you see me out there, please say hello!
As I write this I'm sitting on a crash pad, propped up against the back of my Econoline 150 with it's truly amateur camping buildout. I'm parked on the side of a Montana fire road, surrounded by pines and slightly-snowy hillsides. Climbing gear, packs and clothes hang to dry on the van's open doors. I have no idea where I'll sleep tomorrow night.
I feel like I'm a few moves above the last piece of gear, and I'm really excited about where this life might take me next.