Since I can’t write about climbing because I haven’t been climbing much outside due to endless rain, I’m going to write about climbing philosophy. The cheap kind. The type you read when you have absolutely nothing else to do, after watching all episodes of at least two seasons of any TV series, spending two hours convincing yourself not to feel guilty about not running that day and spending another hour counting the flower blossoms in the tree in front of your kitchen window.
So, I was sitting at MBC one night with friends, and I run into a friend who’s a super accomplished french alpinist, climbs in the Himalayas with celebrity climbers and all. We start talking our plans since we last saw each other several months earlier, and he tells me he gave up an expedition because he couldn’t get funding and I tell him I gave up an expedition because I didn’t want to spend my hard earned money on 1 mountain (we are talking about 8000 m peaks here). Then he goes “you should pay for my trip, rich Brazilian girl”.
Next morning the boss walks in and asks about my vacation this summer and I tell him I’m heading down to South America to climb some big mountains, surf and rock climb for a few months and he’s like “oh I wish I had that life”.
And then some other people heard of my plans and were like “you’re living the life”. I agree in parts. I do live the life, sometimes, but mostly I’ve worked hard enough to live the life a few times, and ever so more. It doesn´t come free. And to me it is quite obvious how to do it, but it is amazing how mysterious and obscure something so obvious is to many people.
So because I am such a democratic person, I am going to teach you the super hidden secret on how to travel a lot for long periods of time, and this one goes especially for Europeans. I am not rich and I own a lot less than you, I can guarantee that.
FIRST, A SMALL GEOPOLITICS CLASS
We third world climbers have an upper hand on living the living the life life. That is because we are used to making the most of life with very little.
For example, our countries don’t have well established social systems that can support us. You can’t make a living off of unemployment rights because in many many third world countries there isn’t such a thing as unemployment support from governments. Public services are crap and even though you pay taxes, if you want health treatment and decent education you have to pay for private (so that’s paying twice, see… the taxes for public services and then taxes for private).
That means having a good job to pay for all that. Good jobs are hard to come by, especially considering minimum wage is hardly above 300 dollars a month in most places (that’s an optimistic number). And there’s always dozens of people competing for the same openings. If you don’t work hard, the market eats you alive. No job means no money, but mainly… no climbing.
Then, if you make it to adulthood without dying of dengue fever or starvation, being kidnapped and having your ears cut off or get killed because you didn´t have enough money on your wallet when you got mugged, then you can consider yourself lucky and dedicate yourself to “leisure”.
So imagine living like that and still being able to climb. Kind of a luxury right? Yes, climbing for us is not an option between biking, sailing, golfing, hockey or curling. It is a privilege first if you can do it, and then if you want to keep doing it, it is a life altering choice, because unless you give up the security of a job, you cannot live the living the life dream.
So we are used to having creative solutions for our problems. I dare say even Americans don´t have it easy either, as most US climbers I met had to make significant sacrifices in order to travel for long periods of time in expense of future stability (USA gives only 2 weeks of paid vacation time a year!).
In other words, we live a simple life. Not simple as in owning 4 Gore-Tex jackets or 5 different pair of skis. That´s not simple.
After I quit my management level job at the Brazilian branch of one of the largest information companies in the planet, I went on cycles of climb/work. Climb one year, work one or more years. Not that I quit climbing while working, I just base myself somewhere I can climb a lot, and make cash. However, I don’t own anything normal adults own like vehicles (yet) or apartments, and the longest I stay out of the job market in my field, the most difficult – if not impossible – would be to get back to it.
Are there climbers or mountaineers from the “third world” that have the dough? Definitely, although very, very few. Maybe they have rich parents, maybe they have corporate jobs, or a “mom and dad” type of sponsorship, or they managed to make a living off of climbing somehow. Some have apparel sponsor, but that is rarity, and the ones that actually get money to climb tend to be expedition climbers that eventually sell their endeavors as books and lectures, and mostly aren’t really climbers per se. You know the type.
I also once heard “guides get a lot of money to climb Alpamayo”. Well the 10 or so that get to guide Alpamayo hardly get more than $200 a day, and it is a lot more work than guiding the Cosmiques Arete for €150 a day plus the fancy refuge and cable-car-approach. Also, the vast majority of South American mountain guides work odd jobs in the off seasons, and guide fees down south are a lot less than in the US and specially in the Alps. Porters usually get paid enough to feed their families for a day. So there is no comparison, period.
So mom and dad paid for college and after that I paid for my life through work. Lots of hard work, because that is the only way I know how to make anything happen. All my travels and climbing expeditions have been paid out of my own pocket. So my closest friends here know I work a lot, and climb some, but that is the price for another coming year on the road, just climbing until I run out of money again.
I don’t have the luxury to sit on my ass expecting a sponsor to come out of the blue and give me money to achieve my goals, because sponsors do not care about what is going on in third world countries, because the market for them there is too small, so they don’t need to be represented locally.
Also, there is tons of expeditions and climbing grants available to Europeans, and in the US as well. There is none of that in South America.
To some all of this may sound obvious, but for the last year most of the people I’ve ran into do not seem to begin to understand that the world bellow the Equator line functions quite differently. On to the next point.
SO WHAT IS THE SECRET?
WORK. That thing you do with whichever skills you have in exchange for money.
THERE HAS TO BE ANOTHER WAY!
Please tell me! I wanna know!
You thought life was a picnic in the park with butterflies and that you’d be a Chris Sharma and date model types turned climber girlfriends as easy as that right? Wrong.
You´re not special, and not better than anybody else. Drop the entitlement attitude. Sorry for the honesty. If you don’t have a sponsor, rich mom and dad or a trust fund, you will have to work, even if a little. Forget sponsorship and paid leaves and sabbaticals (companies that pay for that require years of previous dedication and proven performance and that conflicts with being able to climb a lot).
Yes, because life isn’t just about working 15h/week for climbing (unless you want to be stuck at the same place for a long time). Climbing trips to other places cost money – gas, van, airplane tickets, excess baggage, visas, alpine club memberships for the insurance, replacing worn out equipment, eating, sleeping, etc.
So if you don’t want to work a 9-5 job, and want some flexibility (so that pretty much excludes all high-paying jobs) and still make dough, it helps to save. And to me the best way to save isn’t putting a little bit onto a savings account every month. The best way (and easiest) to save is to not spend. It´s amazing how people, especially the young ones, underestimate the power of saving money by NOT SPENDING IT.
For example, here’s things that most people don’t need and that could help save a lot and travel a lot on a few bucks and climb in as many places of the world as possible:
- You don’t need 90€ E9 pants or the whole new spring collection Black Diamond apparel just to boulder at the gym.
- You don’t need to be spending 15€ per night, 4 nights a week on booze (that’s 720€ a year/a basic trad rack/round trip tickets to South America), and this is a modest estimate for Chamonix standards (and BTW, that may be “ski bumming” but that´s not “dirt bagging”).
- You don’t need 5 different backpacks for all disciplines of climbing.
- You don’t need the most expensive climbing shoes for your gym workouts.
- You don’t need to own a collection of beanies.
Stop buying stuff that makes you look like a climber. Be a climber first and then buy only what’s really necessary. I’m tired of seeing boulderers buying trad gear or sport climbers with brand new technical ice axes that just sit in their closets and never get used. Buy stuff after you learn how to use it and when you really need it, learn to climb with less than what you would like and with cheaper stuff than you would dream. That’s how we do it south of the Equator. It will make you tough and you´ll drop the pickiness, to say the least.
Another tip on the monetary department, is to not be in debts. Don’t buy stuff that you will be paying for for long periods of time. That is the type of attachment you don’t want to have (except for health insurance and and private retirement fund, in my case).
And finally, always, always, always, have an emergency fund. Shit happens, cars break, there’s family emergencies… and you gotta have somewhere to get it from. It’s not for drinking, it’s for emergencies.
AND WHEN YOU HIT THE ROAD…
You don’t need to be staying at the most uncomfortable, sleazy hostel because it is the cheapest but then spending twice the amount of your stay on partying, several days a week (Spanish climbers do that a lot). Especially if you are going to the greater ranges – and climbing on or above 6000 m – you need to eat and sleep well otherwise you’ll be spent by the time you hit the mountains, it’s gonna suck and you might as well have stayed at your home crag and save yourself the embarrassment (and money). Be smart.
If it´s not clear yet, in any type of trip or lifestyle, partying is one of the most money consuming activities while travelling. On top of that it´s bad for your shape and consequently to your climbing goals. I once spent in a night out partying in Lima the equivalent of three days on the road, meals included (I eat a lot). It wasn´t smart. Again, be smart.
Especially if you want to climb alpine in the (really) big mountains, you need to drop the pickiness and vanity. There’s no room for that in the big peaks. Get used to being hungry, cold, wet, spent, not eating and sleeping at luxury refuges and not being able to call a helicopter. That’s grown up climbing and the best training for that kind of suffering is enduring living with little every day of your life.
If you´re going to be on the road constantly, you will not want too much stuff to be dragging around, and after a few weeks you´ll learn that all you need is your kit and 2 sets of clothes, one of them being for climbing, the other for walking around the street and sleeping. Jeans and a shirt will usually do, and you can also climb in them. How stylish.
Think of it this way, if you haven´t figured out it yourself yet: the more you save, the less you spend, the longer you travel. The longer you travel, the more places you go, the more you climb, the more people you meet. That´s building a network of climber friends around the world that can help and climb with (and host you) and that you can help (and host) whenever you´re based somewhere. I had the pleasure of opening my small studio to a friend from Brazil who´s from a very poor background and whose dream was to climb here, and if it wasn´t for the “free” accommodation, he might have never made it. That´s (climbing) community. And isn´t that a happy outcome?
Living in a poor country is tough. But maybe that is why we are so passionate about climbing, and that is a good example to be followed. The more you focus on climbing, the less time you waste on things that will eventually detract you from having a great and diverse climbing career. Simple as that.
And on last note, be contempt in being anonymous. The strongest climbers I know personally are completely anonymous (well I know some famous sport climbers but in terms of alpinism, yes, the anonymous ones are the strongest). Being famous does not make you better than other climbers. Time spent worrying about recognition is a waste of time (inspired by “time spent wasted is
not a waste of time”) and probs money. Live your passion and not people´s expectations (expectations=fancy apparel to show off, fancy smartphone to show off,etc etc etc), and you will climb for a long time all over the planet.