Duncan Brown shares how he lives the “Digital Dirtbag” dream

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Life on the road as a climber certainly has it's charms. I mean, how can you resist being out in nature, surrounded by beautiful mountains, alongside newfound climbing buddies all while pushing oneself to the limit on a newly discovered project?

Sounds too good to be true right? Most climbers think it can only be done if you're willing to give up everything in order to get by, ala "dirtbagging". Well, I'm here today with an amazing climber, and "digital dirtbag", who is walking proof that it doesn't have to be.

Duncan Brown is the founder of Athlete by Choice, Duncan is the epitome of what it really means to be a “Digital Dirtbag”. Without risking it all he has cleverly crafted a life and a living around his love for climbing as well as his passion for health, fitness, personal development and of course, travel.

In this interview, Duncan shows us that location independence truly is possible and that there's never been a better time to learn a digital trade. It’s now possible for anyone to freely pick up freelance jobs, new clients and build a business via an internet connection and a Skype account. But of course, professionalism, expertise and dedication to one’s craft definitely play a critical role to cultivating success, as you’ll soon see.

At the end of the day what remains clear is that it truly is possible to design a life of location independence, engaging work, exciting projects, and adventures across the globe.

Duncan throwing down on the obscure (but highly worthwhile) classic sport rig, “Raptures Of The Steep” (25 / 7b).

Duncan throwing down on the obscure (but highly worthwhile) classic sport rig, “Raptures Of The Steep” (25 / 7b).

Q: Tell us a little about yourself (your work, life, how you spend your time) and especially, how you got into climbing?

Like a lot of kids I was always climbing all over things, up trees, onto roofs and all that jazz, then I did some indoor rock climbing a few times in high school but I didn’t get into the sport at that point. I was a very outdoors sort of kid and went fishing and camping and hiking a lot but never really knew about outdoor climbing. Then after high school I was studying Geoscience and a class mate was a climber and I got introduced to it then at about 19 years of age.

I was hooked immediately, as a lot of us are. I climbed daily at the local gym and soon went outdoors. My first day outdoors was seconding a 2 pitch Henry Barber 5.11b called ‘Soolaimon’ and then onsighting an Andrew Bull 5.10d sport route called ‘Intergalactic Bugs’ – needless to say, from that day on I could not get enough of climbing in the outdoors!

Since that day climbing has been an integral part of my life (apart from a brief hiatus when I was pursuing music production full time for a bit, but that’s a whole other story!). Climbing has dictated most of my choices of where to live and what to do for a living.

From moving to the Blue Mountains in Australia to spending numerous years living in Yangshuo in China. I have tended to gravitate towards places that offer both a plethora of climbing opportunity as well as the potential for employment.

I had spent quite some time working as a coach in climbing gyms, and as a swimming and gymnastics coach and a personal trainer, then with the internet becoming more and more a part of our every day lives I had the idea of trying to meld my love of teaching and coaching climbing with the digital age to try and provide an online climbing coaching service.

Since it’s beginnings as a blog, Athlete By Choice has developed into a lot more now with the cornerstone of what I do being individually tailored climbing training and coaching solutions delivered through a free and easy to use App and website that means you can train anywhere in the world and have me along for the ride laying out your program, coaching you and helping you to maximise your training time and achieve your goals.

This isn’t restricted to climbing, of course. I work with climbers (of all types, from boulderers to mountaineers) as well as skiers, mountain bikers, trail runners and more.

Being able to work on building a business that is both location independent as well as rewarding (in that I get to help people achieve their dreams and goals in the outdoors) has been amazing and while the business has a lot of room for growth yet, being able to integrate my passion and work into my climbing and travel rich lifestyle has been an amazing journey and I hope it can continue to grow and evolve for many years yet!

Q: Athlete by Choice seems like a great way to scale your professional coaching and training expertise in order to reach a wider audience. Could you explain what someone can expect when signing up and participating in your online program?

One of the things I strongly believe is that there is no one answer to the question of how to train for any given sport, especially not in outdoor sports like climbing that are so multi faceted. Every person, goals and situation is different and can require a different approach.

Bearing this in mind, for my individually tailored programs what I do is arrange Skype chat so that the client and I can meet face to face and get to know each other better so there is a level of familiarity and comfort and we aren’t just text on a screen to each other – we are people and get to know each other as such.

We discuss the clients goals, experience, sporting background, their time availability to train, their access to training equipment and facilities, and so on, so that I can gain a clear overall picture of their situation and from there I can work with them to develop their training program.

The program is then delivered through a web platform and smart phone App that they can access from anywhere and that presents them with their training calendar and activities. They can train and immediately respond to each activity with feedback and comments so that we can monitor their progress and make changes along the way as needed in response to their reaction to the training.

We can monitor and graph biometric data, sleep patterns, training volumes – anything at all that we feel is needed to track and measure response and improvement over time to make sure the training is producing the results we want to see.

We chat regularly through the platform, email, phone, Skype, any form of communication that suits the client best and I do my utmost to keep them motivated and on the right path with towards achieving their goals.

Duncan cruising his way up some glorious Australian rock.

Duncan cruising his way up some glorious Australian rock.

Q. In your opinion, does this business model allow you to truly become location independent?

As all of my clientele are online this model really is a location independent model – so long as I have internet access, I can work. Without this model I would definitely need to live in a large city in order to have enough clients to make the business work, but with an online model I have access to the entire globe as potential clientele and that gives me the freedom to live in a wider range of places.

I have made my home now in a town called Natimuk which is the town next to Mount Arapiles and the Grampians and which is a small but vibrant little climbing town with endless climbing potential of all types on my door step. But without the business model I am using it just wouldn’t be viable to live in a small town like this without having to work in a different profession.

Q:You also keep busy with your work writing articles in climbing magazines around the world as well as publishing your own collection of eBooks. Is writing something that comes naturally to you, or have you worked on it like any other skill?

Writing skill is definitely not something that I am naturally gifted with! I write quite a lot and I feel that I can convey a message or concept reasonably well but I am quite envious of the talented writers out there that can craft an engaging and eloquent piece that really draws in the reader and gets them engaged – it’s a never ending learning process and hopefully I can continue to learn and improve.

I see climbing as an integral part of what I do. Being out there and going through all the same processes of goal setting, training, projecting, etc, means that my clients and I are all on the same page and they can watch me going through the processes as well and hopefully that helps to motivate them to work hard on their goals, too. My hope is that in always being out there doing the same thing as my clientele helps us to relate well to each other. Plus, going out climbing all the time is just darn fun!

Duncan sitting on the top of a mountain looking out.

The perks of climbing and living in the Outback!

Q: Based on your expertise what are some of your favourite foods are in order to stay fit and fueled for a day out at the crag?

Nutrition is such a complex subject that science is still working hard on understanding properly and there is simply just so, so much conflicting and confusing information out there and with every person having different needs there just isn’t any formula that works for everyone.

For example, I personally have quite a slow metabolism and can gain weight very quickly (muscle or fat) and if I ate the same as someone else with different metabolic needs I can end up the size of a barn in no time.

I think Michael Pollan summed up my thoughts on the subject well when he said “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. If you eat a healthy balanced diet of fresh produce then you can’t be too far from the right path!

At the same time I am not one to be scared of enjoying a treat here and there and I don’t think that worrying about weight and body fat percentages is of much use to most recreational athletes. If you eat healthily and train effectively you will reach a healthy weight for you in time and will stay happy and healthy for longer.

Q: If you were to give 3 simple tips for any climber to kick more ass out on the rock what would they be?

Have goals – An athlete without goals is like a rudderless ship. Know what you are trying to achieve and steer your training towards specific short and long term goals.

Know your strength and weaknesses – Use your strengths to your advantage and spend more time trying to improve on your weaknesses. An extra hour per week working on your weaknesses will help you more than using that same hour to work on your strengths.

Get out of your comfort zone more often – Don’t like slabs? Make yourself do at least one every time you climb. Don’t like roofs? Same deal. Make yourself do things outside of your preferred style every time you climb. This helps to improve your catalogue of movement skills and helps you to become more comfortable in a wider range of climbing situations, making you a better all round climber.

Q: And finally, what are your 3 favourite climbing destinations around the world and why.

Ah, this is always such a hard question to answer because everywhere has something special about it that endears it to you!

As much as it has been said before, Fontainebleau has to be one of the most amazing place to go bouldering in the world. Beautiful old growth European forests littered with perfectly sculpted sandstone boulders and endless sandy, flat landings. You couldn’t make a more perfect bouldering area if you tried. It really is a must see destination for every climber.

I lived in China for many years and while it’s a big, big place I am going to include it as one destination. It’s has an endless limestone karst landscape in the south with a mind boggling amount of sport climbing potential. ]It has sandstone splitter cracks in the west, adventurous alpine in the north west, winter ice and summer bouldering in the north east, and every style everywhere in between. Go there, experience a wonderful landscape and culture and have an adventure!

And finally, my home: The Wimmera. The flat plains of western Victoria in Australia out of which the great rocky sandstone mountain range of the Grampians protrudes along with it’s smaller cousin, the quartzite wonder that is Mount Arapiles. Trad, sport, boulder. Repeating multi pitch traditional classics from the 1960’s or developing new bouldering sectors. This place has it all, and more.

Another beautiful moment among the stunning Grampians rock.

Another beautiful moment among the stunning Grampians rock.


Well, there you have it folks. The first installment of the Digital Dirtbag series has given you a real glimpse into what a life dedicated to climbing, travel, adventure and dedication to one’s professional work can reap.

If you would like to see more from Duncan and Athlete By Choice you can find him at:

- www.athletebychoice.com

- www.facebook.com/athletebychoice

- @athletebychoice on Instagram

Or alternatively drop him a line at info@athletebychoice.com if you would like to talk more about how ABC can help you achieve your own goals!

Duncan is proudly supported by Goal Zero, Evolv & Climbing Anchors.

If you think you would be a great fit for the Digital Dirtbag series or know someone who might be interested in sharing their story then send me a message on Instagram @adventureinmyveins