The Conversation We're All Having Lately
You may recall a small, but controversial piece of writing that Backpacker published back in October 2015, introducing the ‘novel’ concept of encouraging more female leadership in the outdoors industry. Or, maybe you don’t remember it, which would be unsurprising since many of us rolled our eyes and immediately discounted it as the fluff that it was. If you missed it, the failure on Backpacker’s part was taking an important issue and reducing it to four Cheryl Sandberg-esque bullet points a la Lean In, followed by a series of videos that reduced the challenges of women in the backcountry to topics such as ‘How to Not Pee On Your Shoes” and maintaining a beauty regimen at high camp. It gets cumbersome and exhausting to address all the layers of what is wrong with this kind of media, so initially, I didn’t want to spend time dissecting it.
The homogeneity of our community’s backlash to it, however, is what ultimately pushed me to revisit the article and add my own voice to the growing conversation about gender in outdoor spaces, especially in climbing. What pulled me in has nothing to do with the responses being wrong—far from it. To say that I support the notion of seeing more women in outdoor recreation and leadership is a massive understatement. How could I not? Actually, I want it to be pushed much further. Let’s invest in the idea that humans across the whole spectrum of identities should be exposed to, educated in, indoctrinated in, and made stewards of the wild and scared spaces of the outdoors. Let’s absolutely push forward the refrain that one segment of society is not more entitled than others to wilderness access, to more inherent safety, and to greater privilege within these spaces. Let’s also acknowledge the reality that certain groups do have those things, and many remain unaware of this fact or refuse to engage with it. That’s why we’re all having this conversation.
The problem for me is that many of the responses to Backpacker’s patronizing fluff pieces still leave me at least a little bit disappointed. Maybe it’s because the loudest story I find myself hearing is that of women achieving a sort of wilderness liberation or climbing epiphany that was only possibly through bonding with a group of other women in order to build up each other’s skills through an overtly “feminine” experience. Often, this story is accompanied by tips on how to maintain hygiene in the backcountry and how to be safe within a mostly-man’s world. Even more frequently, the subject starts out as a shaking-in-her-boots novice, or at least writes to the theme of overcoming an initial doubt in her abilities. Why must so many stories about women taking on a big adventure or a tough route start with fear and uncertainty about whether they were deserving of doing so in the first place? Why are WE telling that story about ourselves?
This is somewhat rhetorical—I know very well why this is the common story, and I’m not going to talk about it here (too many layers!). But even though it’s a reality for many females, it is not the only version out there. There is another version, in which women know that they are innately strong, cunning, deserving, and already wild. In this version, when the woman goes into the outdoors, she is not entering a space of peril that is reserved for others. Rather, she is entering the space that makes her come alive.
This is the narrative that speaks to me, and that reflects my own lived experience.
As someone who believes passionately in helping to shape the future of the outdoors community, I want my story to be a part of it too. I want to challenge those taking part in the conversation—no matter where you identify on the gender spectrum—to dig a little deeper. When we keep framing the issues we want to fix so narrowly, within one stereotype of woman-in-nature, in many ways we strengthen the divide between different kinds of gendered participation in the outdoors. In effect, we are calling back to the stage all the tired stereotypes we’re trying to move beyond, instead of pushing our community to relate to and engage respectfully with each other on more nuanced levels.
ON ROLES AND ROLE MODELS
I never asked for permission to be a woman in the outdoors, nor did I think that I needed to go about it differently because I am gendered as female. I grew up with an intrinsic sense that outside, in the woods, in the mountains, in the ocean, were places I wanted to be and that I had a place in them. I didn’t take skills classes, I didn’t join a Brownie Troop or, later, an all-women’s hiking club, or any of that. I never went to summer camp, even though I was jealous as hell of everyone that did. Instead, I happened to be born into a family that spent a lot of time outside together, recreating and engaging with the land. Initially, I was often with my brother because he was the only playmate I had most of the time. We played, literally, in the dirt together, investigating slugs and bugs and dead birds, catching snakes and pollywogs, and crafting our magical realism according to the seasons.
We didn’t always get along, in the orbits that siblings tend to travel, so at times and especially as I got older the woods and crags became places I explored on my own. I learned from my own mistakes. I was careful to avoid getting hurt, but sometimes I still did. I healed. And you know what else? I got scared, frequently! Have you ever been out in the woods alone when the wind is blowing? Every noise presents another opportunity to imagine a way in which you might soon perish—and I’ve got a huge imagination.
But it was the challenge of overcoming those fears that often fueled my desire to go. I guess I just felt like I was supposed to be out there. I didn’t really stop to think about whether I belonged in the outdoors, because it felt like a part of me. Maybe something as subtle as witnessing my parents interacting with nature in such an easy-going manner then formulated a similar demeanor in myself. Whatever the basis may have been, that same ethic to engage consciously with what scares me is a key factor in what drives my adventures today—especially when it comes to climbing. Pursuing those things that conjure fear and force me to calculate risk has resulted in some of the most powerful connections with myself and with others that I’ve ever had. These continue to be my biggest teaching moments.
And here’s the thing: I know that growing up in this context was a privilege. If it wasn’t your reality, that’s okay. But if the idea of this kind of comfort and communion with the outdoor world speaks to you, I want you to know that you don’t need an invitation to decide that you want in. You don’t need anyone’s permission to believe that you are capable of learning how to thrive out there.
Whatever your gender and identity may be, I don’t want your experience of learning how to exist within the wilderness and/or the climbing world to begin from a place of arresting fear and a sense of not-belonging. I want our sociocultural narrative of humans engaging with nature to be one that is inclusive, rather than one that plays upon tired stereotypes in which men (cis-gendered, straight, and White, of course) conquer the wild as a right of passage while women (also cis, straight, and White) must prove their right to be there, often through a series of trials that highlight luck-based survival, and leave out readiness, risk calculation, expertise, and unadulterated, unapologetic success.
Speaking especially to those of you who perhaps grew up being told, subtly or out loud, that you are innately weak(er), I want you to feel like it’s normal and within your wheelhouse to set a goal involving a big mission in the outdoors and then to go about attaining it—without all of the bullshit. Without giving in to any expectation to act or feel demure, timid, and like a potential victim. Without having to explain to everyone why you want to do it, and yes, how many precautions you’ve taken into account, and then to still be mansplained to about why maybe you shouldn’t.
The thing is there for you to go after, and fuck what anyone else may think.
I know on a deep level, from other chapters of my personal narrative, that transforming our inner dialogues takes time, serious effort, and courage. Sometimes the behaviors and perspectives we wish to change are so firmly rooted in our identities that it can be a real challenge for us to even recognize them in ourselves. Acknowledging them can be a painful step, often followed by a long process of self-work while navigating possible feelings of guilt for feeling scared or weak, before finally coming to a place of feeling strong.
But the narrative of woman-as-inherently-susceptible is a tired trope, and thus, this self-work is crucial. Sometimes I think we’re not even conscious of how we continue to celebrate certain stereotypes, and thus reify them.
Exhibit A: The motion-picture film Wild, based on the book by Cheryl Strayed. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed it. It’s a page-turner. Yet, though Wild is an admirable story, I think it’s rather sad that until it came along, an apparently massive percentage of the female population was holding back from activities like thru-hiking until suddenly, women had this consumable image delivered by Reese Witherspoon to push them out the door. Why has Strayed’s character in particular been relatable to so many women? In the context of her story, she wasn’t actually that great of a role model for being prepared for the challenge she set out to take on.
Surely we were all psyched to see a woman succeeding in an epic journey in outrageously beautiful places. But I tend to believe that the response to Wild was less about discovering the PCT and more about seeing pieces of ourselves and our lives reflected in Strayed’s narrative. I surmise that many of us were drawn to the display of persistent tenacity and sheer lack of fucks left to give, and of the rawness and vulnerability with which Strayed invited us to hear her story and share in her liberation. In this latter aspect, inside the framework of a story about thru-hiking, Wild banged a hammer down hard upon a collective nerve in the female consciousness that carries the experience of trauma, survival, liberation, and rebirth.
I have no bones to pick about this facet. I can easily relate to a narrative of hitting bottom and finally finding, when all feels irrevocably lost, one’s salvation through a connection with the Earth.
What is disappointing to me is that this character seems to have been such a springboard for propelling women’s entrance into the wilderness, given how poorly prepared she was. Surely, this cannot be the most relevant female role model we have today? I love what Terra Incognita founder Erin Monahan said when she and I were initially discussing this piece: “there are many women who do this shit and don’t lose their shoe.” Truly, women have been achieving this kind of badassery for ages. If you can’t think of any, here is an extremely short list of modern-age women you might want to Google as a starting point:
Liz “Snorkel” Thomas
Captain Liz Clark
What Strayed accomplished is no doubt laudable, and I don’t seek to take that from her, but we need to avoid perpetuating the notion of the woman in the wild as one who sort of bumbles her way in haphazardly, rather than judiciously, with foresight and planning. This image suggests that a woman may survive an exhausting engagement with nature thanks only to the mercy of the universe and fellow strangers she meets along the way. At the very least, it reinforces the unconscious placement of fear and concern at the forefront of our responses to women alone on trails and in the mountains.
Fear should be something that helps to guide and motivate us, rather than a barrier that shuts us down from using our own ingenuity and instinct—and on this facet, I’m speaking directly to you, ladies. Fear is natural to an extent, it helps us stay alive. But it shouldn’t be holding women back, and it definitely shouldn’t be the chorus heard through every piece of writing about our experiences, in every telling of our tales.
We get to choose our narrative. We get to choose whether to hold up our achievements without apology, or instead to cast them off as products of luck. We get to choose whether to raise our female children in a culture of possibility or one shadowed by worry and the expectation of harm.
ON FEAR AND RISK-TAKING: NOT JUST FOR THE DUDES
We definitely see more women than men backing down from “risky” situations in the worlds of climbing or mountaineering or hiking, and I don’t believe it’s always necessary. You should be calculating your acceptable level of risk according to what you know your own skills and preparedness to be, as opposed to what society tells you is dangerous.
I want the female-identified people around me to stop waiting for someone else to grant them courage and permission, and to simply take one step and then another. It makes me squirm to keep coming across this very subtle but pervasive attitude—in which any badassery we wish to partake in can only be done with lots of training from ground zero, the right gear, extra careful planning, the Ya-Ya Sisterhood Bible, contingency supplies, and if not a male partner, at least one or more female friends.
I’m not advocating recklessness; preparedness is of course important. I am advocating risk-taking. Sometimes you will be prepared, other times you won’t, but you will figure out how to deal with that. I am advocating the belief that what you dream of doing can be as much in your wheelhouse as it is in that of a person with a body marked ‘male’.
Please, for the love of all that is sacred out in those big, dark woods, or up on that windy summit, stop believing that you need to wait for a partner, your mother, or your best friend. Decide for yourself that it’s okay for you to go alone. Stop waiting silently for the dude in front of your bouldering problem at the gym to get out of the way. Stop thinking that everything in the damn world is out to get us poor females, and that it’s so much harder to do outdoorsy stuff because Periods, Squat Peeing, Ill-Fitting Clothes, and the What-Ifs.