All about the Benjamins

If there is one thing that we can all agree on, it’s that you can’t get far in our modern world without some form of currency. According to the sagely advice of The Beatles, money can’t buy me love. This may be true, but almost everything else on this planet is for sale. As a correspondent for the Mountain Training School, I often get emails from potential students of military ilk who have questions they’d dearly like answered before committing to the long haul of guide training. Far and away, the most prominent concern they have is of the financial challenges inherent to this lifestyle. Now that I’m beginning to stare down the barrel of fiscal ruin myself, I think the time is ripe to examine the subject.

Whilst coins and banknotes are a relatively new invention in the narrative of human existence, the idea of currency is as old as time itself. Even before apes climbed down from the trees and harnessed the power of speech and fire, there was a system of supply and demand in action. This, of course, is remarkably less complex than the concepts of stock exchange, compounding interest and floating currencies, but the fact remains that every creature on earth has to engage in some form of labour in order to receive compensation. For the lion’s share of human history (and pre-history, for that matter), that compensation was simply food. It hasn’t been until very recently that agricultural and industrial advances allowed a food surplus to exist, which in turn has freed many individuals to undertake various other crafts. With our basic needs provided for, humans inevitably turn to higher pursuits. This is ably defined by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, but that’s a subject on its own and one better left for another time. Climbing, skiing and hiking; these are all prime examples.

Outdoor pursuits are expensive. There’s no two ways about it. I recently read a tongue-in-cheek quote that stated that they are “As addictive as cocaine, and twice as expensive”. Without going to the length of statistical analysis of addiction levels for cocaine users and current street prices for the drug, there is definitely some truth in the matter. Climbers, skiers and hikers are all chronic junkies. It’s just that our drugs of choice happen to be adrenaline and dopamine, which are much more socially acceptable and much less damaging to our health (most of the time). So with that established, let’s look at the costs involved, shall we?

The most obvious overhead for outdoor pursuits is equipment. Most, if not all, outdoorspeople have a passion that borders on rabidity for gear. Whether your poison is ice climbing, kayaking, mountain biking or trad climbing, the associated gear needed to engage in your craft generates budgets that make NASA’s Apollo missions look like an amateur gig. On perusing the gear list for an attempt on Denali this year, I realised that an appropriate sleeping bag had a price tag that matched the GDP of some African countries. And just like any other junkie, the gear junkie doesn’t know when to stop. There’s always a newer, shinier, cooler gadget on the market, or a new fringe of the sport that needs some specialist equipment. Rock climbing alone has a plethora of niches, from bouldering to big wall, each of which demand their own specific pieces of equipment. None of them are cheap.

Next, there’s the cost of travel. This is the big one. Unlike gear, transport costs are not an investment (at least it appears this way when taken at face value, but more on that later). When you purchase a four-season tent or a trad rack, you hold in your hot little hands a tangible, lasting token of your financial outlay. You may need to replace gear in the years to come, but for the most part you have invested in a piece of equipment which promotes your safety and ability to engage in your activity of choice, in turn increasing your happiness. Transport, on the other hand, is a pay-as-you-go enterprise. Seemingly at least, your money is represented only from the moment you embark the plane to the moment you step foot in a distant airport. To add insult to injury, there are often hidden costs involved which can quickly blow a budget out. I once paid $350 in excess baggage fees from Madrid to Coyhaique and by all reports seem to have gotten off lightly in comparison to other astronomical fees my friends and colleagues have suffered.

Then we have all the ancillary costs which insidiously build up over the course of preparation and execution of outdoor pursuits. To state the obvious, we need food to survive. We also need water, which in winter environments means we need fuel to melt snow and ice. Insurance is a must for any remote environment, as rescue fees are sometimes sufficiently excessive to make the Sultan of Brunei break into a cold sweat. We need accommodation before and after most trips. Some countries levy fees on the application of visas. Communication devices, including satellite phones, Spot GPS beacons and mobile phones each have their attendant fees. The list goes on.

Good golly, Miss Molly. Some heavy stuff here, some negative vibes. Let’s say we swing the tone of this article gently toward a sunnier disposition…

In light of this staggering list, some people have grave concerns about their ability to pay for expeditions whilst maintaining the level of security that their “old life” afforded. In some form or another, the most common question I receive is this; “How did you fund the training whilst still maintaining your life at home”.

The short answer is, I didn’t.

I’ve never been wealthy. I didn’t have rich parents and I’ve never won more than $45 on the lotto. What I did have was a stable job in the Army and a plan. Ever since my first ascent on the modest flanks of Mt Ruapehu, I’d been saving to make guide school and my subsequent adventures a reality. It took many years and some amount of sacrifice, but that’s par for the course for anything that is truly worth doing. I sold all my superfluous shite, cancelled all my bills, took my name off the electoral roll and began the journey in 2013. I’ve never looked back. For me, this was not an act of courage as some believe. I’ve always had a nomadic streak and this was simply a culmination of the experiences that lead me to the eventual realisation of the needs of my character and psyche. To some, abandoning the pillars of security and predictability are all but impossible. However, beyond the borders of our comfort zone lie freedom and personal growth. There’s a lot to be said for that.

The upshot of all this is that despite the financial challenges posed by the Dirtbag lifestyle, it can be done. It means giving up some of the things you’ve come to take for granted, but it enables the acquisition of so much more. Often these gains are vague and intangible, but this doesn’t make them any less vital. As I alluded to earlier, it seems like the costs of travel are a net loss. As is often said, and as trite as it sounds, travel is the one thing you can buy that makes you richer. Even had I returned to Australia at the end of my guide school course and never again stepped foot into the wilderness, I’d still carry with me the memories from those two tumultuous years. I’d crammed more adventure into that period than many accumulate over the entirety of their lives. Had I forgone this experience, I’d be forever left wondering what may have been. Regret is a savage and persistent beast to live with.

It must be said that the Dirtbag lifestyle is not for everyone. I’ve never been able to engage in it at the complete and all-encompassing level that some others do, and therein lies the point. There is a broad spectrum of involvement in aficionados of outdoor pursuits, from weekend warriors to full-time vagabonds. Somewhere in that range is the niche that fits your individual needs. There are ways and means to either earn a living in the mountains or to support your hobby with supplemental employment. That said, it is an apprenticeship. Like any apprenticeship, you need to work your way up from the bottom. Like any worthy pursuit, it requires dedication and hard work. Luckily, these things are virtues within themselves.

I’ll end with a quote from Henry David Thoreau, who questioned the wisdom of “Spending the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it.”

There are more valuable commodities on this Earth than money.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
Originally published in February 2015

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?