To most of the world, a dirtbag is an epithet for a nasty, unpleasant person. Not among rock climbers.
As a verb for climbers, dirtbag means that you have dropped out to live hand-to-mouth from your tent or pickup truck, pursuing with single-minded devotion your passion for rock climbing. As a badge of one’s commitment, every climber must devote part of one’s climbing life to dirtbagging.
Dirtbagging has a distinguished lineage going back at least to the 1950s. Inspired by Jack Kerouac’s “rucksack revolution” proposed in On the Road, climbers took to living for months and years in the campgrounds of Yosemite, Jackson Hole, and right here in the Gunks, creating for a generation the hardest rock climbs in the world. Our legendary Gunks’ forefathers (and foremothers) claimed the supreme dirtbag appellation: The Vulgarians.
For decades, the Gunks’ free campgrounds, the DEC’s multi-use site (known as “multiple abuse”) on Route 299 and the Mohonk Preserve’s Camp Slime, were dirtbag paydirt. Camp Slime was once described by a visiting writer as “a dank ghetto” that made Yosemite’s national historic national landmark Camp 4 “look like the Ritz-Carlton.” Slime was the dirtbag’s dirtbag campground.
The Gunks, with its egalitarian distribution of thousands of climbs from easy to expert, a place that has been called the Crucible, is the finest location in the world to learn to climb. It is also known as the friendliest, tightest-knit community of climbers in the country, if not on Earth. Our congeniality, our camaraderie, was built by apprenticeship on the crags, where the experts tutored the beginners, and was nurtured by storytelling each evening in the campgrounds. Before any of us lived here, before we took apartments in town or bought homes around the Ridge, we were all baptized in the campgrounds, where climbers like Bryan Federchuck, who passed away on September 12, embodied the Gunks’ dirtbag soul.
Every March, Bryan would pitch his tent at the back of Camp Slime, staying there through November. Some years he also kept a room in New Paltz, Bryan’s version of a city-country arrangement. Clad always in the same flannel shirt and khaki pants, shaggy curls haloing a pointed face (accented with a terminal cigarette), and sporting that distinct Camp Slime aroma, Bryan cut a gaunt cross between Gene Wilder and Pigpen.
A fixture at Slime, at the Mountain Deli and at the Trapps’ meet-up, the Uberfall, where solo climbers trawled for partners – it didn’t matter if it was your first day or you were working some desperate test-piece – Bryan was game, a laconic everyman’s climbing partner embodying the Gunks’ come-one-come-all invitation. Over the years, I’d heard any number of visiting climbers and weekenders walk away from him saying, “He’s so friendly. He’s a local without attitude. He’s what makes the Gunks great.”
Bryan came by dirtbagging the old-fashioned way, gnawed by the rat race: as a cardiac researcher trap-doored by Reagan-era grant cuts; as the vice-president of a travel company smashed by the insurance lobby; as a self-taught programmer who wrote computer code for law firms, tool shops and gas stations. He quit jobs when he was offered raises at the expense of his staff. At his father’s go-follow-your-bliss suggestion, Bryan slipped away into Camp Slime’s embrace and never looked back.
He forever looked out for others, which made him a gifted climbing partner. On the sharp end of a climbing rope, I knew I was in the Gunks’ safest hands. During his brief fatal illness, without sleep and in torrential pain, grateful to the end to his doctors, nurses and caretakers, he called me at four in the morning – just once – hallucinating, mistrusting the nurse providing his meds. Two hours later, he called back to apologize. As our climbing partner, Joanne Dalbo, noted after the hospital vigil, “Bryan taught us all how to die.”
Last year, when the for-fee Shawangunk Gateway campground opened, the free campgrounds were shut down, with limits set on consecutive stay-days. Dirtbagging was done. But with help from friends, Bryan found a way, and kept on dirtbagging.
Bryan Federchuck was the Gunks’ last dirtbag. With Bryan’s passing, so, too, passes the Gunks’ rucksack revolution.
Off belay, Bryan.