Derek Cheng in­tro­duces us to the women liv­ing the #van­life

Adventure - - #209 - By Derek Cheng Left to Right: Ste­vie Lewis, Kaya Lind­say and Emily Matherly

Our reg­u­lar dirt­bag writer, Derek Cheng, takes a look at the women who are liv­ing the #van­life and lov­ing it... It was The Grate­ful Dead - not rock or ice, surf or snow - that first led Amer­i­can climber Heidi Wirtz to a life on the road in the 1980s. She was a high school stu­dent in Sacra­mento when she dis­cov­ered the Dead, and her love for the mu­sic only grew. “I went to col­lege in Hum­boldt State, study­ing oceanog­ra­phy, and then dropped out to fol­low the Dead in Europe. But it wasn’t like I was go­ing to fol­low the Dead for the rest of my life. I was just do­ing what was fun, fol­low­ing my heart. “I was ac­tu­ally on a Dead tour when I got a ride to [Colorado moun­tain town] Crested Butte, and I im­me­di­ately thought I should move there be­cause it was so pretty.” And so be­gan Wirtz’s love af­fair with ski­ing, liv­ing through three win­ters in a tent in Crested Butte, start­ing when she was only 19. Wirtz, now 47, is still in many ways the con­sum­mate ‘dirt­bag’ - of­ten liv­ing in ve­hi­cles or tents so she can pur­sue a pas­sion at the ex­pense of crea­ture com­forts in­clud­ing job se­cu­rity, prox­im­ity to fam­ily, and the fat­test pay-cheques. What’s un­usual about her is that she has been do­ing #van­life when it wasn’t in­sta-fash­ion­able, and when it was even more dom­i­nated by men as it is to­day. Climb­ing has al­ways been a male-dom­i­nated sport. But these days, women are ev­ery­where at the climb­ing crag, em­bar­rass­ing their male coun­ter­parts with their su­pe­rior tech­nique, in­tel­li­gent ban­ter, and gen­er­ally more pleas­ant de­meanour. Non-climbers of­ten see the sport as re­quir­ing brute strength, but the truth is that it is more about strength and power, rel­a­tive to weight. That means the big­gest fore­arms in the world won’t help if you also weigh 200 kgs. It also means that it should come as no sur­prise to see that the per­for­mance di­vide be­tween men and women has all but van­ished. Last year, Aus­trian climber Angie Eiter climbed a grade 37 sport climb: La Planta de Shiva, in Spain. There are only four sport climbs in the world harder than Eiter’s achieve­ment, climbed so far by only three men - Czech climber Adam On­dra, Ger­man Alex Me­gos, and Amer­i­can Chris Sharma. Boul­der­ing, which is more strength-based than sport climb­ing, has only seen a hand­ful of men climb harder than V15, a grade that Amer­i­can Ashima Shi­raishi achieved in 2016, when she was only 14 years old. Among New Zealan­ders, Mayan Smith-Go­bat has been blaz­ing a trail for many years, hav­ing climbed a grade 33 and sev­eral grade 32s. In boul­der­ing, Erica Gat­land re­cently be­came the first NZ woman to climb a V12. And as women blur the gen­der bound­aries of elite climb­ing, they are also tak­ing to the dirt­bag lifestyle. Across North Amer­ica, I’ve come across count­less ladies in their 20s who are lov­ing #van­life. There’s Emily Matherly, a Colorado-based climb­ing teacher and busi­ness-owner who moved into her van two years ago. And Alix Mor­ris, who chases odd jobs while climb­ing in Yosemite and around the world. And Ste­vie Lewis, an artist who works re­motely and used to live in a Honda El­e­ment, be­fore up­grad­ing to a Ford Tran­sit called Franny The Vanny. Lewis says she feared she made a huge mis­take on her first #van­life night, feel­ing alone and smoth­ered by her own in­se­cu­ri­ties. But she soon dis­cov­ered the dirt­bag com­mu­nity was a lov­ing

fam­ily - ac­cept­ing, gen­er­ous, and friendly, with a pen­chant for shar­ing big meals at the end of a hard day's climb­ing, and beers to watch the sun­set in the most beau­ti­ful places na­ture has to of­fer. But Wirtz has been do­ing it for decades. Af­ter tent-liv­ing in Crested Butte and be­com­ing fix­ated on climb­ing, she bought a Toy­ota pickup truck. “To be a good climber, I thought I had to be on the road. So I bought the Toy­ota and built a bed in the back. I had so many dif­fer­ent jobs. I man­aged restau­rants. Cleaned houses. Shov­elled roofs. Bar­tended. I killed crabs for a while. I wanted to work on one of the boats, but I didn’t have enough ex­pe­ri­ence, so they said I could stay on shore and kill crabs. It was hor­ri­ble.” Mean­while Wirtz was mak­ing a name for her­self by climb­ing bold, dif­fi­cult, tra­di­tional climbs as well as set­ting speed records in Yosemite, and in the early 2000s, out­door com­pa­nies in­clud­ing Black Di­a­mond and The North Face of­fered her spon­sor­ship deals. “Some­body of­fered me a pair of climb­ing shoes to take my pic­ture, and I re­ally needed a new pair of climb­ing shoes. I didn’t want to get spon­sored. At that point, I thought I had sold out. And then The North Face said they would send me all over the world to go climb­ing, and I thought, 'Well, that sounds good.'” Ex­pe­di­tions took her to first as­cents in such far-flung place as Siberia, Morocco, Canada, Pak­istan, and Patagonia. These days Wirtz owns a yoga-climb­ing re­treat busi­ness and is based in Boul­der, Colorado. But when I met her two years ago, in the Sierra Ne­vada, she was still liv­ing in the back of her Honda El­e­ment. “I still as­pire to #van­life, but now it’s a zoo. I used to hang out at In­dian Creek af­ter the ski sea­son, and I’d lit­er­ally be the only per­son there, and hope some­one would show up so I could go climb­ing. When it got more and more crowded, I used to cry about it a bit, but you just have to go fur­ther out to es­cape the crowds.” Back then, Wirtz felt she had more to prove as a woman in a male-dom­i­nated sport and lifestyle. “Be­ing a fe­male, you weren’t thought of as an equal part­ner. It was as­sumed you were be­ing helped up by the guy. When I started putting up first as­cents in the 1990s, I thought I should do it with a girl or we wouldn't get any credit. “I re­mem­ber go­ing into the cafe in Yosemite and I was climb­ing with [male climber] Micah Dash, and ev­ery­one would say, ‘Hey Micah, how’s it go­ing? Have you sent yet?’ I would just be stand­ing there, think­ing, ‘I was there too.’ That at­ti­tude still ex­ists. I had to earn my re­spect more as a woman, but in the climb­ing com­mu­nity, there’s been so much ef­fort to make it bet­ter in re­cent years.” Sex­ism in #van­life is some­thing that some women have ex­pe­ri­enced more than oth­ers. Kaya Lind­say, a 25-year-old Cal­i­for­nian who has been liv­ing in her Sprinter van for two years while work­ing as a so­cial me­dia man­ager, says it is an in­evitable part of be­ing the mi­nor­ity gen­der.

ABOVE: Kaya Lind­say has spent the past two years liv­ing in her can while work­ing as a so­cial me­dia man­ager. RIGHT: Ste­vie Lewis, artist and dirt­bag, climb­ing a steep lime­stone line in El Potrero Chico, Mex­ico

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