Fitz Cahall has one of the most recognizable voices in outdoor media. He took The Dirtbag Diaries from a rough podcast recorded in a closet in Seattle to a million-plus iTunes downloads (but still recorded in a closet in Seattle). In 2006, he was a dirtbag climber and hopeful freelance writer looking for a home as a writer for outdoor publications. He took the advice of a friend and wrote the stories closest to his heart, and The Dirtbag Diaries grew, got sponsors, and when opportunity knocked, Fitz evolved, moving onto directing and producing an internet TV series, The Season, and then other films through his media company Duct Tape Then Beer, including The Joy of Air, The Gimp Monkeys, 35, Strong, and the most recent, The Road From Karakol, many of which have been selected and won awards at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, 5Point Film Festival, and Mountainfilm.
1. In the span of a few years, you’ve gone from freelance outdoor writer to podcast creator to film producer. How did that happen?
I think I’m a product of forces beyond my control. I would have happily made a living as an outdoor/travel magazine writer, but by 2006 there wasn’t really a home for me in print media. It came down to economics. That and the fact that the stories I liked to tell the most, editors weren’t interested in them because they didn’t involve a) a star athlete b) Top Ten Towns To Buy A Fifth Home In and c) how to sculpt abs. That said, I knew what I wanted to do in life and it was to tell stories preferably about my community. The internet gave me the best platform and the biggest audience. For my first project, I picked radio and started The Dirtbag Diaries. I posted my first show – so bad, but still filled with heart and honesty – and sent it to two dozen friends, not really expecting much. Two dozen downloads turned into hundreds and then thousands in the course of two or three days. I remember thinking “my life is about to change.”
I think I was lucky. Right time. Right dream. Plus from a technical standpoint it was all coming together. There was enough bandwidth to deliver files quickly. iTunes was a clear powerhouse. Companies hadn’t yet developed budgets for digital content, but we were able to convince people that they should be. Patagonia took a risk and has been with me since the beginning of The Dirtbag Diaries. I worked so hard for it, but to present this as a lone hero story is to ignore the beauty of the moment. We were prime for this type of content – the content creators were just pulled in, almost like diving into a fast-moving river. The next steps were obvious. My title is now “creative director,” but at my core I’m still just moving words around in a Word doc.
2. You’ve told stories of elite athletes and more normal folks alike on the Dirtbag Diaries and in your films. What’s the main thing you look for in a story?
Honesty first. It has to come from heart. Then it has to have a basic formula of anecdote to reflection. You have to have a story and you have to know what that story means to you. If you were step back and take the 20,000-foot view of our passions – every trip is a little story. Some of them will leave us changed – maybe in a big way, but more likely a subtle, intriguing, even humorous sort of way. I love that.
3. Tell us about your first memory of rock climbing.
I’d been to a gym a few times and thought this is pretty cool, so I went with the college rock climbing club, which was comprised of mostly grad students. They saw me top rope a route, and then handed me the rope to lead a 5.10 that none of them wanted to lead and I said “sure” because that’s what I thought you did when you go rock climbing for the first time. I think they thought I knew what I was doing, but probably by about the fifth bolt it dawned on them that I had never done this before. I ended up untying while on lead and just held on with one hand to thread the rope through the anchors, because, well it seemed like what you might do when you’d go rock climbing. Fortunately, one of the guys in the club took me under his wing.
4. What are you stoked about working on over the next 12 months?
Well, we’ve had an absolutely insano previous 12 months, so what I’m focused on is a little more nuts and bolts. We’ve got a film that I’m really excited about – The Road from Karakol. It just premiered at the 5 Point Film Festival and took home Best of the Fest. We were so busy making the film that we didn’t have time to worry about how to distribute, which is not how we normally work at Duct Tape Then Beer.
A year ago, we had a hard drive show up on our doorstep from alpinist Kyle Dempster, who is one of the world’s best alpine climbers. Our team was supposed to compile climbing footage from Kyle’s solo trip through Kyrgyzstan where he rode his bike between giant mountain ranges. It was supposed to take us two weeks and be three minutes long. We found a wonderful character inside that hard drive. Kyle is such a unique voice and his story of real adventure was startling. So now we need to figure out how to get this out to the world. It’s not nearly as sexy as other parts of my job, but it’s arguably the most important.
5. True or false: You have free soloed up to 5.12.
I’m going to take the fifth on that. I have a young son and I hope to convey to him that the most rewarding, scariest risks you can take are the ones where you will be around to pick up the pieces of failure. That’s not the case with free-soloing. You can find those risks in climbing without untying. You can find them in creativity, business, and love. They are much scarier than climbing without a rope. Growth occurs when we screw up, when we fail and work back from an adverse position. There is no screwing up in free-soloing, so for me it wasn’t something that was going to nourish me in the long term. I have to fail to become better.
6. What would you tell people who go to a Banff Film Festival Tour stop, get inspired, and wonder if they could ever make a festival-worthy film someday?
I’d say leave the visuals to Sherpas Cinema or the Camp 4 Collective and don’t worry about what camera gear you don’t have, and think about finding a topic that is unique that means something to you, because passion is what will carry you through in the beginning – not Red Epics or cranes or cineflex. You can buy those things, but you can’t buy passion. Start by making things for your friends. In the adventure world, they should always be audience you care the most about whether it’s your first film or your last film.
7. Best pitch of climbing, anywhere in the world.
That’s too hard. Your question should be “If you could airlift one crag into your backyard, which would it be?” Still difficult, but I’d have to say either Lover’s Leap which boasts the best 5.7s on the planet, or the Cookie Cliff, which boasts some of the best 5.11 cracks on the planet.
8. What are you reading/watching lately that inspires you, outdoor or non-outdoor?
Netflix’s House of Cards. It’s so well-executed. It’s like climbing into a big sleek limousine and telling secrets for an hour. Kevin Spacey just owns his role, and ever since Fight Club David Fincher has been one of my favorite directors. It’s also awesome and inspiring because it’s a new way of producing content and is another sign that the marketplace is coming to the creatives and fans side vs. advertisers and business as usual. That’s a good thing for people who love adventure content. I believe things will continue to open us for us.
9. Do people ever recognize your voice from The Dirtbag Diaries?
Yes. I’ve become a lot less awkward when it happens. I will be able to carry on a conversation with you rather than turning bright red and running for the exit. Working online is so much more social than working in print.
10. What’s the closest call you’ve had in the mountains?
Oh, dude. You’re asking me to kiss and tell. Fine then, if it’s going to be that kind of party, here we go: So there I was. I’d gotten a wild idea to snowboard all the Cascade Volcanoes above 9,000 feet and was in the process of trying to tick three off in a day – North, Middle, and South Sister. I was alone, moving faster than I should have and I slipped while transitioning in a really precarious spot and took a 300-foot slide/fall through cliffs. I broke my hand and had some pretty bad bruises and cuts, but that was it. All my gear was 300 vertical feet above and I had to get back to it, which was terrifying. I still love ski mountaineering, but I am really selective about what I ride as I feel like the difference of between shredding and catastrophe happens in a split second and I don’t like that lingering over my day. I only ride things I can fall down.
Bonus. How do you define adventure?
I define it as creativity. It does not come out of marketing initiatives. It is a product of time invested, friendship and landscape, be it urban or deep wilderness. You will find it at the intersection of imagination and the ridiculous.
Photo by Becca Cahall