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AUGUST 2014
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What happens when an outdoor girl dates in the indoor world? A whole new kind of adventure

The desert just wants to be loved The conversation died. My date made a brave attempt to fill the silence.

"I don't even know what to ask you about rock climbing," he said.

Most of our dinner had been spent recounting his life: a struggling musician who gets a dream job on Broadway, starves in L.A., lives the high life in Japan and now performs in Las Vegas. He knew little about me other than the fact that I rock climb - and that I'm the type of woman who would boldly accept a friend's challenge to walk on stage after a show, hand a musician my business card and tell him to call me.

Drummer Boy was one of the more interesting men I'd met in Las Vegas. But I was most fascinated by the texture of his skin - unnaturally smooth, devoid of the lines left behind by one too many powder days or desert climbing trips spent baking alongside the cholla and Joshua trees. I compared our hands: mine scarred and scabbed, his nearly perfect. I ordered another drink.

I'd whipped 20 feet off the side of a cliff more than once, but it took living in Las Vegas for seven years to brave dating outside the climbing circle. For me, going out on the Strip was like observing the mating rituals of alien life forms - females with thin, elegant arms and males more skilled with hair product than I ever was. The Las Vegas I live in isn't glamorous or en vogue with Hollywood's A-list. My Las Vegas is sandstone walls, desolate trails and hiking out of the canyons by moonlight. It's about the feel of warm rock under bare feet and the solitude of Red Rock at sunrise. I can recall the texture of each minuscule handhold on my favorite route on Mt. Charleston's limestone. But for the life of me, I cannot remember which nightclub is in which hotel.

Since strapping on my first climbing harness nearly two decades ago while living in Aspen, Colo., first dates have been burritos and a Fat Tire on the tailgate of a pick-up after climbing. I decided to make a serious effort to date outside my circle after a non-climbing friend at a local climber party made a frightening observation: "You guys are like a tribe & I'm not even sure you can mate with people on the outside."

I've dated my share of climbers - almost married one - but it never worked. It seems when two people with an identical passion come together they don't just connect - they collide. In a sport that's mentally and physically intense, a couple arguing while climbing isn't uncommon. An ex who couldn't comprehend my fear of falling thought it would help to yell, "Dude, that's so lame!" while I was run-out above my last piece of gear and visibly in a state of panic. My reaction was definitely not to blow my sweetie a kiss.

On the other hand, the odds of a successful relationship with a guy on the outside weren't good. I could list dozens of male climbers whose mates weren't into the outdoors, but not one climbing woman who dated a non-outdoor guy. With the odds skewing in a girl's favor, most single climbing women are off the market before mastering how to tie a figure-eight knot. Plus, leaving an indoor-guy behind to get dirty with the guys every weekend could result in severe damage to the male ego and the relationship.

Still, I believed it could work with a writer, artist or musician. They would surely understand my climbing partnerships and about starving and sacrificing to do what you love. Plus, they probably wouldn't call me dude and, if it didn't work out, there'd be no custody battle over the rope.

When Drummer Boy picked me up a week later for our first date, I let out a sigh of relief: Whew, at least he has a four-wheel drive. Though something wasn't right: The car was immaculate. I tried to find any vestige of dirt, but nothing. My date didn't wear fleece, Windstopper or anything labeled Patagonia. In fact, he'd never heard of Marmot and didn't shop at REI. Clearly, I was out of my element.

Apart from passion - his for music, mine for climbing - our greatest common denominator turned out to be our zip code. His night got going when I'd wake up. He'd never explored the snowcapped peak north of the city, Mt. Charleston, and I'd never ventured into the dark, smoky University District landmark, the Double Down. After a few dates, his phone calls became erratic and then stopped. Like a failed attempt on a route, I evaluated my dating performance.

From Date 2: Lunch at the Mt. Charleston Lodge. I drive.
Drummer Boy: This is a nice car. Is it new?
Me: Yeah, I thought about getting the hybrid but I decided on the Matrix.
DB: Why the Matrix?
Me: Because I can sleep in it.
DB: Um, why would you sleep in your car?
Me: Because I am so over sleeping on the ground.

In the rock climbing world, we take the phrase "car camping" very literally. You need a vehicle in which you can sleep, eat, read, cook and hang out for days, weeks, months, even years. To us, this is normal. We appreciate comfort, but hotels cost money, and money means working and not climbing.

From Date 3: Beers after a movie & his light, mine dark
Drummer Boy: You must climb with men all the time & big, burly men, with no shirts.
Me: There's definitely no shortage of those in my life. But after you've lived with about 20 of them, you get over it.

I neglected to add that apart from my former fiancé, the other men were roommates or couch-surfing houseguests (also common in the rock-climbing culture). I could have mentioned that in a ski town where rents are sky high, it's standard practice to sardine-can into one house. But, it didn't occur to me. It just seemed so obvious.

My male climbing partners laughed as I recounted my dating blunders over a few pints. One asked if Drummer Boy ever called me again. "Nope," I said. Over the years, these men have caught hundreds of my falls, and that night they didn't miss a beat. "Dude, that guy's so lame."

While I've had my share of accomplishments in a sport that's a metaphor for successful partnerships, I've yet to experience that natural connection in my personal life. It's been climbing that's romanced me in tiny European villages and on exotic beaches in Thailand and Greece. It's adventurous, bringing with it intelligent conversation and meaningful friendships. On more than one occasion, climbing has soothed my aching heart.

On a cold afternoon this December, I carefully applied Super Glue to the athletic tape protecting my raw fingertips. I was trying to "redpoint" - that is, climb without falling or resting on gear - one of the hardest routes of my climbing career: Don't Call Me Coach, which has a grade of 5.13d. My climbing partner prepared the rope for my attempt, intermittently jumping up and down to stay warm. He didn't complain about the icy wind that whipped through the Virgin River Gorge - he gets it.

I didn't make it that day. I sailed off the rock, falling close to the route's anchors. By the time I was on the ground my frustration had faded. In climbing, there's always another chance.

And I'm always willing to take it. After 20 years, I'm still completely captivated by climbing, proving this isn't merely lust or attraction, but real love.

Stephanie Forte is a writer and rock climber. Rock and Ice Magazine once named her one of the top 10 women in American rock climbing - an honor that got her exactly zero dates in Las Vegas.


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