Slacks to Softshells: Gambling on Life as a Dirtbag Climber

A plow scratches and scrapes across the lot, a beam of light finds its way into my sleeping bag. The couple inches of opening to the cold air is too much, and the noise, ugh, the plows ... I come to ― Yep, I’m still living in my station wagon. Yep, it’s still winter in the White Mountains. I grab the top of my sleeping bag and pull it down towards my face, curling further into my cocoon and hiding away from the realities of the morning ahead. I’m cold. Not like what you think of cold. I mean, I’m really very cold. My down sleeping bag feels soggy and gross. Surrounded by wet ropes, gloves, boots, and my own breathing, the down seems clumpy and not quite what it should be. Rolling over to the other side, I feel an ache in my back. And my neck ― what the hell happened? Well it turns out sleeping in the driver’s seat isn’t a great idea. I had stuffed backpacks and blankets in the footwell to make it more level. It’s not. Why am I sleeping in the driver’s seat and not the back? Because the forecast said it was going to be near -20⁰ last night so I curled into my 0⁰ bag with the heated seat cranked under me. In one move, I’d turned the car off and burrowed myself away in silence.


benny dirtbagging living out of his car


The plow scrapes by again. And again. Ok, my gosh, I’m up. I’m cold! Shivering actually. It’s still dark and I can see the lights of warm hotel rooms above me, but not well, just faintly. Shit … the car is covered in snow. It dumped last night. With chattering teeth, I swiftly grab the keys and start the car. It’s time to warm up. Heated seat on, I retreat again into my bag. The car thermometer is well below zero. I check my phone, it’s six in the morning. There’s a text from my mom, “I hope you didn’t sleep in the car last night.” Whoops. Try explaining life as a dirtbag ice climber to your mother. Good luck. Finally warmed, I crawl out of my bag and throw on some warm layers. Grabbing the handle and pushing into the door, I’m stopped in my tracks. I got plowed in and the next thirty minutes are going to really suck. Shovel in hand, I roll down the window and snow bellows in. The harsh wind rips at my scrunched face and I squint to look out. FLOP! I fall into a deep pit of snow after heaving myself out the window. Of course I have my slippers on. My feet are snow-logged. It’s time to dig. There’s ice in them hills and this car needs to get moving.


benny lieber ice climbing with twin ropes


This was a typical morning in my barebones winter life. Well, maybe I only crawled out of the window once or twice but you get the point. A year and a half before, I had left my life behind. I used to be a dedicated design student. I played collegiate sports. I wore button-down shirts and pastel short-shorts, ripping my moped through the sunny and warm streets of Savannah, Georgia. I dated a beautiful woman from Venezuela, a fashion designer, we went to nice restaurants, the beach, and New York City. So what happened? Many people reading this already get it ― I caught the bug. Long story short, at the end of my senior year I threw most of my belongings in donation bins and dumpsters, and I hit the road. I moved to Mt. Rainier and lived in a rusty beat-up trailer. Then I lived in a canvas tent in Alaska. It rained every day. I really didn’t like my job, but something had happened inside of me and I was showing my unsure self the way. During my junior year, I had become so deeply moved, inspired rather, by stories of mountain climbers. I knew how to backpack and I’d gone rock climbing a handful of times but I had never seen a glacier. I’d never held an ice axe. Sometime during that year, however, I reconnected with childhood Benny ― the first Benny. He wanted to go to Everest, he even knew about the route. He wanted to wear the big puffy down suit and climb up the big snowy mountain. He wanted to be like Shackleton or Hillary. He wanted to explore the world. And there he was again, inside of me, reappearing as I neared the end of my schooling.


benny on a climbing expedition


That was a long time ago now, so it seems. What I didn’t know is that I would end up being one of the only, and often the actual only person living in their car full-time in the White Mountains in winter. I spent two winters shivering alone in my car. Was it fun? No. Not at all. I felt lonely. I was cold. And I suffered. But why was I doing this? I was following that vision. Young me had entered my life again, I grabbed his hand, peered down and I told him, “Look, we can do this, but you’ve got to show me the way.” And so he did. At the end of that first winter in the car, despite climbing nearly every single day, I had saved just enough money from baking at a brick-oven pizza shop, of which I lived in the parking lot and scavenged most of my diet and I drove over 5,000 miles back to Alaska and through a series of fortunate events (Hint: I had no money) I stood on the summit of a real Alaskan mountain.


Fast forward to now and I live a little less like a dirtbag than that extreme version. I still eat a lot of ramen and dig old snacks out of my duffel bags. The motive is still the same: Climb in the big mountains. It’s somewhat confusing to reflect on now. With years in the mountains behind me, those days of wearing nice slacks are hard to remember. The little things fade, but the big picture ideas remain. I think back to my old life ― in a lot of ways I think I lived like everyone else. Until I connected to my childhood self, I mostly did what everyone else did. Eventually I remember feeling like something was not quite right. That sitting at a design desk wasn’t the best thing for me. Now I feel that my radical roll of the dice restructured my life with powerful decisiveness. It was the courage to just try, and maybe the willingness to suffer.  To be honest, while I have awesome friends and a loving family, I actually didn’t really have many believers. I just wasn’t a mountaineer and I didn’t know anyone who was. The whole concept generally seemed like a terrible idea to everyone else. I understood then that it was not going to be easy and I held close to a Martin Luther King Jr. quote I have always been fond of: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”


benny and friend traversing in whiteout conditions


These days I live fully immersed in the world of climbing mountains. It gives me life, it gives me energy and inspiration. It makes me whole. I work as a guide and spend the rest of my time either climbing or just dreaming about being on big expeditions. In the spring I’ll go back to the Alaska Range, where I find peace and solace in the remote presence of Alaskan giants. It’s cold there too. I can handle it, I suffered many cold nights alone in the car. Life in the tent is a hell of a lot better than the car anyway, even if it means no heated seats. I find myself scared when I sit in camp looking up at the towering masses of rock and ice. The mountains are big and strangely alive. They talk to you, but in a language that we can only do our best to understand. While I try to learn about them, I feel they already understand me, they accept my vision and being, though they always play hard to get. I can’t impress them, I can’t defeat them, and I can’t possibly surprise them ― they already know my next move.

But with the same courage that pushed me away from the design studio, the knowledge and skills I learned dirtbagging for several years, and the passionate wide-eyed spirit I grew up with, I remember what MLK Jr. said and I do what I’ve done before ― I take the first step. 


Aspiring BennyByRyanColley NOV18 18





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