The Rules of Dirtbag Dating

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The elements of romance...perhaps.

It’s a singular feeling when you’re 33 and talking to your mother and she says, “You know what I think you should try? Match.com.”

Then there’s another feeling when you say to your mother, “Well, Mom, I had this weird feeling about meeting women and telling them I live in a van full of climbing gear, but then I realized I really only am interested in women who could be interested in a guy who lives in a van full of climbing gear. If that makes any sense.” I think my mom is really proud.

There are some interesting things about dating people who love the outdoors, aren’t there? Like you fantasize about dating someone who loves to go backpacking and then you find out that it’s really hard to spoon when you’re each zipped up in a sleeping bag and it’s too cold to put your arms outside of it. And even though you think it would be rad to have a significant other who climbs, you go on a climbing date and are sure your partner/potential girlfriend or boyfriend has lost all respect for you when you get Elvis leg and start whining as you freak out on the crux move a few feet off the belay. Or you want them to live their dreams and you want to live your dreams, but it kind of sucks when they’re gone leading a wilderness trip for a month or you’re gone for a two-month bike tour and you have to get out your phone and look at photos of them to remember what they look like.

But then of course, you get all those sunsets and sunrises together, and maybe you get to hold hands during that last wide part of the trail walking to the car, and instead of sitting on a rock somewhere looking over an alpine lake wondering about girls, you get to sit on that same rock with a girl and talk to her about hip hop and books and what she was like in high school and all that.

But is it unromantic to buy your girlfriend an avalanche beacon for Valentine’s Day? Because I did that once and what I thought it said was, “Here’s something that means we can spend time together in the backcountry.” But I could definitely see someone taking it the wrong way, especially because it came with a shovel.

I mean, I want to open doors for a girl. Give you my jacket when we go to a movie and you’re cold walking home. Cook you breakfast when you’re sleeping in on a Saturday. But it begins to get fuzzy at the trailhead. Although I’m a gentleman and you’re a lady, you will be carrying either the rope, or the rack. Take the tent, or the stove and fuel and pots. If I am cooking us dinner over a camp stove, you are setting up the tent, or vice versa. Right?

My friend Teresa went on a couple dates with this guy in Seattle and thought it was going pretty well. The third date, she invited him over to barbecue and they met at a grocery store to pick up a couple things before riding to her house. Which, at the time was at the top of 8th Avenue, a 30-block steadily uphill ride into a headwind. He had told her he did some cycling and had finished a handful of races and road rides. So she was surprised when he stayed behind her for the entire ride up the hill. Into a headwind. The entire ride. “I mean, are you effing kidding me?” she said when she re-told me the story a couple weeks ago. Either the guy didn’t know anything about cycling etiquette and had lied about his experience or he was a jerk. Either way, that was their last date.

My friend Sara told me last year she was done dating climbers, for a number of reasons — a lot of men she dated seemed to like the idea of being with someone who was a climber, but didn’t like the reality; or she found herself having more fun climbing with her girlfriends and platonic male friends than a romantic partner; or the dating pool was just too small if she limited herself to only climbers. Now she’s happy with a guy whose main thing is paragliding, and he’s remembering how to belay and they’re climbing together and actually having fun doing it.

Teresa said one time, I just feel like men at the climbing gym are so focused on climbing that they don’t notice women. I said Are you shitting me? Of course we do. At least I do. As a man, I will tell you there is nothing we are so focused on that we don’t notice women. Nothing. We may be too dumb to notice when you are interested, but we never fail to notice. If I speak for other dudes who are dirtbags, we are especially in tune when we see a woman who exhibits characteristics that suggest she likes to wear backpacks, or sleep in the dirt, or do pullups.

Sometimes I say there is no better sound in the world than a beautiful woman laughing, except the sound of a beautiful woman laughing at something I said. But then I think the sound of a beautiful woman yelling “On belay!” from 120 feet above me is better. Especially if it’s after she led the crux pitch on the route.

Brendan Leonard is Semi-Rad. Photo by Shutterstock.

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{ 35 comments…read them below or write one }

  • S J

    RE: Teresa’s Seattle cycling date.
    A gentleman is supposed to let her draft behind him to block the headwind, although can you blame him if his ulterior motive was to check out her “rear” view?

  • Suzanne

    Haha… love this. When my boyfriend and I met we both loved the outdoors, but had varied interests in what that meant. Now we’ve gone from him carrying both the rack and the rope to me carrying our new rope bag with straps and sometimes I might even get to lead. :) Plus, even though we may not get to spoon on backpacking trips, we now own a double bag that allows for serious cuddle time on car camping trips. Perfect dirtbag love. :)

  • Derek

    Incredibly well written and relatable. It’s nice to know I’m not the only sensitive dirtbag in a culture teeming with dominant male stereotypes

  • Peter

    This isn’t “Rules of Dirtbag Dating” — this is “Rules of Yuppie Poser Dating”. I’m sorry, but anyone who calls themselves a “dirtbag” then goes to a climbing gym is a total farce. Not to mention, anyone who refers to themselves as a “dirtbag” is a total farce.

  • Danny

    Peter- you are everything that is wrong with climbing. Your elitist views on this sport make me cringe. If somebody is living out of their car at the base of a crag, who’s to say they can’t call themselves dirtbags? THEY ARE! I’m glad you don’t call yourself a “dirtbag”, because you would give dirtbags a bad name (although I’m sure you would feel the same smug self-satisfaction that you get from defining other people’s lives no matter what you were doing).

  • AP

    Really liked this. While I’m not a climber, I really connected with the idea that for those of us who love the outdoors we should be able to find someone out there for us to share that love with. Couldn’t help but chuckle a little bit that the couple in the picture of the article didn’t tuck in their ground tarp underneath the tent so water doesn’t flow inside it. I guess they weren’t expecting rain and/or dew

  • Jeff

    Not to brag or anything, but I met just the girl you describe on a mountain one day. We’ve been engaged for years now. I always buy her gear. And jewelry. And she always leads the crux pitch.

    So, flashed it.

  • Paul

    What a great article. I am also not a climber, but I relate to it in that I am reminded I should be with a girl who has similar interests. I never have cared to follow norms, but I have also not tried to partner with someone with similar interests.

  • David Williams

    My girlfriend and I met on the top of a mountain in Scotland. She was with her boyfriend, I was on my own. The boyfriend is long gone but over the last 12 months we have steadily added to our personal list of mountains climbed. She kicks my ass climbing and I gently kick hers on the mountain bike but she always lets me light the fire. Kindred spirits. PS……Her birthday presents this year include an ice axe and mountaineering boots. Now those are presents for a girl I actually understand.

  • Kalilileth

    It has been said that “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”…In the true tradition of the quadratic equation, think I’ll leave the fish for the boys and hang on to the bike!

  • Sandor Lengyel

    Oh, the romantic gifts I’ve given my girlfriend-

    - Avy beacon, shovel, poles, pack
    - Band saw, mortise and tenon jigs (for making log furniture)
    - Carbon fiber paddle
    - Chainsaw
    - Blocks of Low Fluoro and High Fluoro wax (of course, I have the wax the skis too)
    - Panniers
    - Surf SUP
    - Chainsaw chaps
    - Pulaski and McLeod (for trail work)
    - Bike tires, tubes, pumps, multi tools
    - Power tools galore
    - Tent
    - Thermarest

    Must be doing something right, still together after 13 years and tens of thousands of miles.

  • Angie

    The only time I (wilderness field instructor) didn’t hand the fire making over to my boyfriend (who is a wild land fire fighter) is when he told me bow drilling a fire was easy. He tried for about and hour and then I schooled him when I busted an ember in my living room in a matter of minutes and blew it into flames on my front porch.

  • Ang

    Nice article, I believe many women out there are thinking along the same lines. If you gave me an avalanche beacon I would wonder where the plane tickets are and when we’re leaving. If you want to cook me dinner in the backcountry, I would be more than happy to pitch the tent and zip our sleeping bags together. If you wanted to know if I was ready to lead a multi-pitch route and camp together on a tree ledge I’d ask if you’re doubled back and packing protection. It’s very difficult for us to gauge whether our fellow climbers, backpackers, etc are just there for the sport or looking for more. There’s nothing worse than thinking you’ve caught someones interest only to discover they were just looking for a (temporary) climbing partner. Putting yourself out there is one thing, but to be literally left hanging can completely ruin your outlook on finding “that” partner. Oh well here’s to being single, active, and loving life even if I’m only sharing with friends for now.

  • DatingBuddha

    Brendan and the guys on this comment stream seem like amazing guys. I am with you about respecting evolutionary biology, however. Always, always, always let the dude light the fire. If you are the chick, be the water collector because you need more water than they can possibly imagine. You actually will care if you are caked with dirt or smell like a week old ham sandwich. And whatever you do, do not declare an interest in the same dream climbing objective that he has. I once dated a guy who flipped out when I said I was thinking about Aconcagua when he was six months out from his trip. He told me to stop following him around like a little sister and make sure I could bite off 16,000 feet first. That was the end of that relationship. It was with no small amount of satisfaction, however, that I heard he was later helicoptered off Aconcagua at a hair over 15,000 feet and (by the grace of God) a few hundred feet shy of my personal altitude record. He’s now dating a woman who climbs 5.6s and is out of breath climbing the stairs to the climbing gym.

  • Jane

    Gentlemen, your dirtbag girl doesn’t have to be a climber from the start to enjoy reaching summits later. Pick up the new lady climbers that are already outdoorsy. I was already hiking and camping when I learned to climb on a first date with a guide. Perfect. Didn’t work out with the guy, but I have no qualms with dating another climber. As for fighting over who’s going where and when, well that’s just relationship basics regardless of your interests. Climbers are not unique in that – the word is Compromise.

    Either way – just remember, you can make the fire but when it comes to ascents…. ladies first!

  • matt

    My GF has received courtesy of gear junkie boyfriend….

    Marmot technical shell
    30 degree down bag
    2 pairs skis / boots
    one touring bike
    running shoes
    an amazing wicking shirt
    microspikes

    She can start the fire, I don’t care. There’s always something to do camping!

    great article btw.

  • es

    Directions for spooning on a camping trip:
    1) Place sleeping pads together touching from top to bottom. Heads are uphill if there is a slant.
    2) Unzip both bags completely.
    3) spread one bag out in the middle of the pads and place down parkas or a towel to beef up the size of the bottom layer
    4) Zip up mosquito netting. This will become important later. Better yet, zip it up the second you get inside the tent.
    5) Get buck naked.
    6) Cozy up on top of the bottom layer.
    7) Cover selves with second bag .
    8) Make your own heat.

  • Morgan

    No way, y’all – all this “let him make the fire.” I know how much my male partner enjoys coming back to a raging fire already started for him. It’s one last thing he feels like he “has to do.” He enjoys starting it, but when he comes back from digging a hole and there’s already a fire started, he’s really grateful he taught me the finer ways of making a fire. That’s really important in winter camping – not waiting for one person to do it, just because of their genitalia. That’s actually really important in all parts of camping.

  • ButteredKatt

    Instead of a wedding ring I gave my husband a RoadID wrist band and he gave me an emergency beacon. Luckily we haven’t had to use them yet

  • Ryan

    I always lead into a headwind, because I’m a gentleman….

    and if I couldn’t buy my wife cycling gear, I wouldn’t have the slightest clue what to get her.

  • Laurel

    Well, I’m 52 years of age, and a dedicated mountain person. I didn’t start sleeping in the back of my SUV with my gear spilling over on top of me on climbing trips from Canada to the western United States until my kids grew up and left home. That’s when life for me began. One of my greatest “second dates” was an emergency overnight bivy during wintery March on a peak out by Lake Louise. Sure, men notice women “out here.” It’s how they’re hardwired. Just give them the Facebook thumbs up “Like” on that one and let them be their natural selves. They notice our smiles, our gear choices, our form on the walls or the way we handle turnbacks and pitfalls. They notice our as*es, our Mountain Brain choices, and if they’re nervous around us, the brand of our sunglasses. They’ll try to impress, with their skill and their best, ’cause challenge is part of their design, but what the “good guys” notice most of all is how real we are – unpretentious, low-maintenance, self-defined. Men don’t always let on what they notice, because they’re trying strategically to (first) gain our acceptance. Women don’t always let on what we notice because we’re strategically anticipating the same acceptance. If you want to be fair about the chatter about the sexes, I’d say we’re pretty much on the same page, wouldn’t you?

  • Mark

    Great article! I married my best climbing partner in 1979. We still climb together, and spent Christmas at Jtree this year, again. As far as what qualifies as a dirtbag…it’s a state of mind. You can argue that only full time climbers living in a van qualify, but anytime I live in a tent for 2 weeks, I call myself a dirtbag. The same week that I bought my fiance a fifty dollar wedding ring, I spent 300 dollars on a minus 30 degree sleeping bag. She totally understood, and has one herself now. The zippers don’t match, but where there is a will, there is a way…ask our two grown kids.
    It is very difficult to start relationships in the climbing community. I’ve watched a lot of my young climber friends struggle with it. Many of the behaviors and habits that make you a great climber (lame career, trashy car, thrift store clothes, constant traveling), make you a very unreliable significant other. If both partners are true dirtbags…who is footing the bill?

    Most young climbers underestimate the importance of giving equal time to career *and* climbing. With a career, you won’t be as good a climber, but you will be more available for relationships. Plus you can afford health insurance, a better rack, and repairs for the car. Life is full of compromises…

    Oh, and as far as men not noticing women climbers, not true at all. For most of the guys I climb with, women are the sunshine in our lives. Nothing worse than a sausage fest climbing trip.

  • Meredith

    This article was brilliant – all my climbing girls are sharing it around on Facebook, and the comments just make it even better. :)

    I particularly love the part about carrying the gear and sharing the load, because it’s something I struggled with when dating a fellow climber last year. Luckily, he got to know me as a climber, and he respected me as one – I always carried my half of the gear.

    One of the biggest fights I ever had was with a (different) ex-boyfriend who thought he would do me a “favor” and take “some gear” out of my backpack when I was off on a, ahem, party separation. He was headed toward a Triple Crown, was a UL backpacker, and was wicked fast, but when I found out we ended up in standoff in the middle of the woods, me emphatically telling him that the “whole POINT is to carry my own shit!” :-D

    And – sorry – but the fire comments are so bogus. I have my Master’s in forestry, and I make the fire – do you wanna get warm, or do you wanna be old-fashioned, chivalrous and…cold?

    Love it, thanks. :)

  • climberchick

    Mark, I appreciate your comment about how hard it is to start relationships in the climbing community. When I was in my 20s, I was with a wonderful climbing partner . But now that I’m over 45, it’s very hard to find men who still want to travel to different climbing areas and live in a tent of van ( I have a van). I’ve been road tripping by myself, to meet various climbing friends (mostly in their 20s and 30s) around the country.

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