Dating in the Outdoor Industry, As Told by Four Power Couples
From meetings facilitated by Conrad Anker to moving into the van together
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Say what you will about the pleasures of single life or the virtues of monogamy—we’re pretty sure most of us share a morbid curiosity about the globe-trotting, van-living, mountain-climbing couples who fill our Instagram feeds and have been known to grace the pages of Outside every so often. Both halves of these power duos are majorly successful in the outdoor industry (and yes, many are Instagram-famous), so we wondered if their dating lives are any different from ours. Are the meet-cutes more high adrenaline? (Yes!) Do their roles as sponsored athletes or social-media stars affect their relationship at all? (It’s complicated.) What we learned: dating is no more or less complicated when you’re a successful, nomadic adventure professional. But it can be a hell of a lot more interesting.
Emily Harrington and Adrian Ballinger
Ages: 29 and 39
Location: Squaw Valley, California
How they met: At Camp 2 on Mount Everest in the spring of 2012. “I was bringing Conrad Anker an espresso, saw Emily in their team’s hangout tent, and gave her the first shot instead,” Ballinger says. They spent the following month getting to know each other back at Base Camp. When Harrington returned from Nepal, she met up with Ballinger in California for a climbing road trip. “I thought it might be a fling, or that things might feel different now that we weren’t in this bizarre and intense situation on a big mountain, but it didn’t,” Harrington says. “We hit it off and never looked back.”
Behind the scenes: “In my past relationships I always prioritized as much time away from home as possible, chasing my climbing and skiing dreams,” says Ballinger. “With Em, hiding out at home is probably our favorite activity in the world these days.” Still, both see their public following as a net positive. Ballinger says they strive to be authentic on social media: “We are who we are, in private and in public.” Sometimes people will recognize them when they’re out skiing and climbing, and they like the support. All they’re worried about right now is having fun. Ballinger puts it simply: “We all know life is going to kick our ass sometimes. The right partner eases the ass-kicking.”
Hilary Oliver and Brendan Leonard
Ages: 33 and 37
Location: Denver, Colorado
Power-couple credentials: She is a badass writer who travels around the world to explore the more meaningful aspects behind adventure. He is an award-winning filmmaker and the creator of Semi-Rad.com. They’re both grassroots athletes for Outdoor Research.
How they met: In 2012, Oliver had been laid off from her magazine job and started waiting tables at Watercourse Foods, a vegetarian restaurant where Leonard was a regular. When she left the restaurant for an office job, one of her former coworkers gave Leonard her number. He was living in his van at the time and traveling a lot, so they took the time to get to know each other in between trips. Their first dates included late-night bike rides around the city and a full-moon ascent of the Third Flatiron. Six months later, Oliver quit her job, became a full-time freelancer, and moved into the van with Leonard.
Behind the scenes: Leonard acknowledges that their lives overlap more than is the norm. That includes editing each other’s work, bouncing ideas off one another, and planning trips together (even if they’re not traveling together). They’ve also learned each other’s favorite sports and now they both climb, bike tour, trail run, and ski. “We live, work, and play together, which I don’t know is the right thing for all couples, but it seems to work for us,” Leonard says. They like to keep it to themselves, though. “We try not to overdo the couple thing on social media,” Oliver says. In fact, she jokes, “I’m a lesbian. Brendan just started ‘dating’ me on social media because he thought it would help his Instagram following to have a girlfriend with a long, blonde ponytail.”
Taylor Rees and Renan Ozturk
Ages: 30 and 35
Location: Park City, Utah
Power-couple credentials: She is a climber, producer, and environmental activist who recently earned her master's degree in forestry from Yale. He is an artist, co-founder of Camp4 Collective, and professional climber for The North Face.
How they met: They met in the spring of 2011 at a party for the Teton Arts Lab in Jackson Hole. At the time, Ozturk was working on first edits for Meru. “He had that special glint of ‘tortured artist who enjoys sleepless nights on the computer’ in his eyes,” Rees says. For their first date, Ozturk invited Rees to climb the Golden Face/Complete Exum route up the Grand Teton: “It was a 24-hour first date so we count it as 10 dates,” says Rees. “We learned a lot about each other by screaming over the howling wind. Me: ‘Do you have me on belay?’ Renan: ‘No! We’re simu-soloing so don’t fall, seriously!’ ”
Behind the scenes: “Is this where I say some cliché thing about how you can’t want what others have?” Rees responds when asked if she has any relationship advice. “Life is fascinating and weird and worth staying awake for. Hopefully good relationships come from that state of reverence.” Before the two met, they already shared a love for sleepless nights and exploring cold, remote places. Their joint endeavors only amplified the sufferfest aspect—in 2014, for example, the pair joined a painful expedition to summit Myanmar’s Hkakabo Razi. The documentary they produced after, Down to Nothing, was an official selection at Telluride Mountainfilm. With a slew of new film projects in the works, the two have big followings, but they keep it separate. “At the beginning of our relationship, the public aspect of our lives made me really uncomfortable,” says Rees. “But once you realize that social media will never reflect the truth of your lives, it’s easier to let go of that unease.”
Dana Richardson and Keith Ladzinski
Ages: 35 and 40
Location: Boulder, Colorado
Power-couple credentials: She is a strategic partnerships manager, and has worked with the likes of the American Alpine Club, Sweetgrass Productions, Wilco, and The National. He is a National Geographic photographer and co-founder of 3 Strings Productions.
How they met: Richardson and Ladzinski met briefly at the annual Outdoor Retailer trade show in SLC in 2009. It wasn’t until they became reacquainted in 2012 that the two really hit it off. They lived a few hours away from each other at the time, so they took things slowly in the beginning. “We dated—truly, old-fashioned dated,” Richardson says. “We would go to museums, go on walks, go to dinner, and just talked. We really got to understand each other.” They even waited a month for their first kiss. Now they plan to be married in one of their favorite places, Big Sur, California, in November.
Behind the scenes: Ladzinski’s jet-setting lifestyle didn’t always sit well with previous partners. “I’ve been in relationships in the past where I would be nervous to tell the person that I had landed a big job that would have me traveling,” he says. “Dana’s response has always been excitement and celebration for me.” (The couple also takes four or five trips together every year.) At the same time, Richardson’s one qualm with social media fame is that it gives followers a platform to air that same kind of judgment: “In the beginning of our relationship, I felt like I had to defend myself when people would say things like, ‘How can you be together when he’s never here?’ ” she says. “He isn’t always where he is posting, folks.”