Interview with Jen Wood of Dirtbags Climbing

During the turmoil of last Novembers US election, Emily Harrington quietly became the forth woman to free-climb El Capitan, the great, granite, 3000ft cliff in Yosemite national park. She reached the top in 21 hours, 13 minutes and 51 seconds, one of only four women to have ever made the climb in a day. A handful of men, Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell and Brad Gobright have managed the notoriously difficult route Harrington achieved, The Golden Gate.

Emily explained to the San Francisco Chronicle ‘Throughout this experience I learned that there is no belonging or not belonging, no formula to achievement up there. I was creative and experimental and I found my own way.”

If you’ve really struggled through lockdown without access to gyms, climbing walls, surf spots and long hikes away from home you might have found yourself going slightly gaga without the prospect of your next adventure. Reading about Harrington’s triumph and watching excellent documentaries such as Free Solo and The Dawn Wall have been awe inspiring. Especially during a time where the most thrilling part of the day is finally putting the kids to bed so you can muster up the last of your energy to microwave dinner before falling into bed.

Thankfully, climbing has been one of the few acceptable forms of outdoor exercise during lockdown according to the UK government, only if done in your local area however. Which rules out a swift shunt up El Capitan. Though if, like me, a smaller boulder is more appealing, you’re in luck. Climbing outdoors has been a lifeline to many during the madness of the last year. Many people have turned to outdoors pursuits to keep a pathway to sanity, despite the pandemic.

Dirtbags Climbing were out there long before we were clapping for carers or worrying about the R number. Jen Woods and James Dickinson founded the company back in 2017 when they saved a sewing machine from a tip and set about up-cycling their old outdoors gear to save it from landfill. They’ve since expanded to recycling as much old gear as they can get their hands on. They don’t mass produce and do everything they can to be as zero waste and eco friendly as possible. Made up of a small team of climbers, Dirtbags up-cycle, repurpose and recycle just about anything that comes their way between climbing breaks on their home turf of the Lake District. Dirtbags are the real deal, a company built out of a love for our natural environment and actively working to preserve it. So naturally, here at Inland Sea we were thrilled when they agreed to collaborate on our new project ‘Drop In.’

The Drop In initiative invites you to post or drop in your old wetsuit at one of our nationwide collection points and Dirtbags will then up-cycle them into brand new useful products like yoga and changing mats, phone cases and laptop covers.

I caught up with Jen to find out more about Dirtbags, climbing and up-cycling.

INLAND SEA: Hey Jen, could you tell us a bit more about how Dirtbags got started?

JEN: James, our co founder - found a sewing machine in a skip and he fixed it up, it sat on our dresser in our bedroom for a while until we had a huge gear clear out. We had climbing ropes WELL past their best, and a few other items. For the next few days we just got creative and threw ideas around. Then we spoke to friends, and then friends of friends, and basically anyone who had textiles they didn't want to throw away. We eventually grew out of the bedroom, and into the kitchen, and James had to build a workshop in the garden on a very shoestring budget. We collected old pallets for weeks and he built it up into an amazing workspace (all with a broken leg!). Last year we began employing staff and moved to our current unit in Gatebeck, with heating, and so much space! Our designs began with the waste, and ideas of how to reuse them. It is still like this today, we get boxes of donations in and we all have a creative session looking at all the different uses for the fabrics and components. Doing it this way, I believe means we can really make the most out of the donations and become as zero waste as possible.

INLAND SEA: I’m sure you guys have some hair raising climbing stories. What are your best and your worst?

JEN: What I love about climbing is that there are so many different facets. On one hand it can be really sociable, a bunch of mates all trying one boulder problem. And it can also feel like it takes you away from the chaos of life, spending the day hiking up a mountain to get to the route, climbing up and quietly eating a sandwich and having a brew at the top. I absolutely love days like that. At the very base of it, it is just a whole community forged on looking at a bit of rock, and then trying to get to the top of it. It is simple, meditative. I don't really have a worst experience, and a lot of climbers will attest to this, as climbing is very type two fun. I may hate it at the time - but ask me over a beer later and I'll be gushing at how great the day was. 
We have had a few epics over the time. The winter when the Lake District froze over we managed a day ice climbing over in Coniston. Everyone was out, there were queues up the routes! I'd never ice climbed before so James gave me a quick briefing at the car before we headed up. The ice was in such good condition, James decided to bypass the queues on the easier routes, and lead me over a harder grade. When you fall, your natural instinct is to reach out and grab - which meant that every time I slipped, I dropped my axes and grabbed the ice, luckily I had loops holding them onto my arms! Once we got to the top, I was exhausted. I lost a (borrowed) axe on the walk back down and poor James had to retrace our steps in the dark to get it back. It doesn't even end there. Once we were back at the car we opened the boot and chucked all our stuff in, without thinking - I closed the boot....click. Keys were inside. So we had to call for help, and a family member drove all the way out to bring our spare key. Luckily we got to sit nice and warm in the pub while we waited. We've not been ice climbing since, think I'm banned. 

INLAND SEA: Have you got some advice for people who'd like to start climbing but have no idea how to start?

JEN: Just find your nearest climbing wall, get an introduction, the staff are all very knowledgeable, and start going. Especially bouldering, most people go on their own, eventually you get chatting to people which opens loads of doors. Climbers are the best as mostly they are always excited to introduce something they love to new people. There are loads of clubs as well. 

INLAND SEA: I got one of your chalk bags for my birthday last year, it’s not only excellent quality but it has Snoopy on it! You have some gorgeous bags, how do you source the material?

JEN: From all sorts of places, really. Individuals send us ropes, bags, etc. Businesses send us boxes of their offcuts. Climbing walls and activity centres let us know when they are doing a clear out. We are currently working with Alpkit once the shops open to have a 'rope amnesty' to encourage people to donate their old things rather than bin them.

INLAND SEA: What are your top tips for preparing for a day of climbing?

JEN: Food. Food. Food. No one is happy when they are hungry. Also, check where the parking is, double check you have all the gear you need. and take a map and a torch in case you have an epic.

Thanks Jen and Dirtbags! For more information on DROP IN, our address and full list of collection points to drop your wetsuit please check our main page.

Sources: The Guardian, The Dawn Wall