The New Crowd

Seattle Rock Climbing Moves Beyond Dirtbag Culture

The new breed of outdoor climber holds down a corporate job—from a van parked near the best crags.

By Taylor McKenzie Gerlach September 2, 2022

Audrey Sniezek balances a climbing life with a corporate one.

IMAGE: MATT MARTINEZ

FIFTY YEARS AGO, a Pacific Northwest rock climber had a certain look: an unshowered hippie type hitchhiking on Highway 2. Famous mountain man Fred Beckey—whose life was chronicled in the documentary Dirtbag—once posed with his thumb out and a sign that read "Will belay for food." Today, rock climbing is an Olympic sport and the people who take part aren't necessarily dirtbags at all. Take Audrey Sniezek, who looks very unlike that old stereotype; on a single day she might climb at the World Walls near North Bend, then sit down to lead a team meeting for Microsoft.

When Sniezek started climbing as a college student in the early 1990s, there were no nearby climbing gyms—a rocky ravine near Case Western Reserve University was her version of Seattle Bouldering Project. Instead of the crash pads or auto belays, they used top ropes tied to trees. Seattle did have Vertical World—which proudly boasts the title of America’s first climbing gym—though at the time it had only rudimentary rocks glued to painted plywood panels.

In the '90s, the sport expanded in the Northwest, particularly in North Bend, thanks to Bryan Burdo’s 1992 guidebook Exit 32: North Bend Rock. But climbing was a countercultural, stick-it-to-the-man kind of pastime. Most dedicated dirtbags shirked a 9-to-5 (and home ownership) for a nomadic lifestyle sustained by grocery store dumpster diving and seasonal odd jobs that maximized time on the wall. 

The dirtbag type certainly still exists; just see the climbers living out of rundown Subarus along the Skykomish River banks in the town of Index. But the culture has expanded. Decades ago, climbers were mostly male and mostly white, but that's slowly changing (in part thanks to initiatives like Climbers of Color). What's more, many of the rock climbers have desk jobs with Seattle’s tech giants.

Though Sniezek is a professional climber, the Washington resident also moonlights as a Microsoft product manager—or s0me days it can feel like vice versa. “It's a highly demanding job. It has high visibility,” Sniezek explains from Ohio en route to climb in 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 her van for a good chunk of the climbing season, parking it as as close to the crag that holds her next objective. Often her early mornings are spent deep in the woods, honing a heel hook or slab move—skills that led her to compete in the International Federation of Sport Climbing World Cup. But her calendar may also include a meeting on Teams.

Even when not at work, technology has become a major part of her climbing life. When Sniezek drives her van into a new town, 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 aids both work and play, juggling a corporate job and a decades-long climbing career is no simple feat. Sniezek sometimes finds objectives 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 where by the end of the day, my eyelids just can't stay open."

“I might not have optimal conditions; it might be the most humid part of the day, or it might be the coldest part of the day," Sniezek says of climbing around her demanding work schedule. "That's what I have. So I just make the most of it."

One reason a corporate gig gels with a climbing career, something unimaginable in the late twentieth century, is the sheer cost of living. A stable, well-paying job may snatch key climbing hours from the workweek, but it also funds travel to crags around the world, not to mention comfortable digs to crash in on the road. It's not just a salary; Microsoft reimburses up to $1,200 per year for its employees’ fitness pursuits.

Though the sport has rapidly expanded—Seattle now has a half-dozen gym outfits, some with multiple locations—it’s still “very close-knit,” says Sniezek. "I have always found it to be like family. There are people that you can meet and climb with one time and just feel such a connection because of your love of the sport that I just don't find anywhere else,” she says.  

“I don’t aspire to be a dirtbag,” Sniezek explains, marveling that some of her hardcore peers actually have the desire to dumpster dive. Coming from an upbringing where she often didn’t have enough, Sniezek opts for a compromise of frugality and nontraditional life on the road. She doesn't identify with the optional, glorified struggle chosen by some climbers, a dirtbag style that “is like kind of a 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 into the still-tight society of rock fiends, also coaching and advocating for youth athletes. "Even though it's growing so much, I still feel that over time people find a home in climbing." 

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