The Climber

It’s a Wednesday in December, and Stephanie Forte is ready for a day of meetings and phone calls at her public relations firm, Forte Creative Media.

With loosely tailored clothing covering her tiny frame—she’s just a smidge over 5 feet tall—you might correctly guess she’s agile and a devotee of yoga. But you’ll likely misjudge her strength. Lose the deep tan, dye her warm brown hair black, and add some tattoos, and Forte could play Lisbeth Salander adeptly taking on movie bullies.

As Forte sits in her townhome just minutes from the Red Rock National Conservation Area, only her sinewy hands hint at her avocation as an elite sport climber. She is a fierce competitor, having once been named among the top 10 American women in the sport. Last year, at age 43, she became the first woman to complete the “Don’t Call Me Coach” route in the Virgin River Gorge.

“Climbing can be a hard thing for people to wrap their heads around,” she says. “People always ask us, ‘Did you make it to the top?’ They’re confused when you say, ‘Nope.’”

Unlike traditional climbing, in which the climber must laboriously place his or her own gear in the rock, sport climbers ascend pre-planned routes on permanent anchors. The emphasis is on maneuvering through difficult climbs, much like a gymnast, rather than enduring to reach a final destination.

“It isn’t about this scary experience; it’s about pushing your body to its physical limit. And it can be emotionally draining,” Forte says.

A New Jersey native, Forte was so unlikely to become a top athlete that her high school reunion committee thought her bio was a joke when she sent it in. She never played sports and had never traveled west of Pennsylvania before the death of two close friends made her reevaluate her budding New York City career. She moved to Aspen, Colo., to learn snowboarding and soon picked up climbing. Her résumé through her 20s was punctuated with long breaks for climbing trips. As she reached 30, however, she sought stability. Trading in the freedom of a ski-bum life for the routine of a career turned out to be a boon for her climbing.

“It can be fun to live that adventurous life out of the back of your truck, but it’s actually not always easy. I was really worried about my future.” She made a list in her journal of the ideal places to live—somewhere with easy access to climbing, affordable housing and career opportunities that Aspen lacked—and in 1998 she landed in Las Vegas. A temp job eventually led to a career in public relations—and her own firm, built around clients in health, fitness and active lifestyle brands.

Today, she finds that the skills that made her an outstanding climber also serve her in business.

“Climbing is about being an effective problem-solver, and about having the determination to finish routes,” she says. “It’s about identifying your weaknesses and training for them. It’s about planning a strategy and then being agile enough to adjust when that’s not working.

“That’s what I seem to do every day when I open my e-mail.”