The campaign to empower women (and girls) in the Outdoors

The campaign to empower women (and girls) in the Outdoors

Part I: Confession, I am just as guilty…….

With many of the outdoor retail companies placing a marketing emphasis on women in the outdoors, I was initially humored by this concept. I chalked it up to a marketing ploy targeted to a demographic willing to spend money to feel empowered and fulfilled. I don’t need a retail company to launch a marketing campaign to make me feel like I can reach a summit or do something insanely adventurous while purchasing their gear. After all, I was shopping for climbing gear long before they were telling me “I am a woman, a force of nature, and I can summit Mt. Rainier if I believe in myself and buy some gear.” Regardless of how I evaluate myself, if this campaign is encouraging women to push their boundaries and feel more empowered, then I am equally as stoked in the end. But why was this even a campaign and how did it gain momentum and the support of famous, well respected athletes?

Throughout the 2017 year, I have taught classes to all ages and genders on topics such as rock climbing, backpacking, crevasse rescue, team rescue, backcountry navigation, and wilderness first aid. With the onset of this retail marketing campaign, I began to notice just how many women and girls own the thoughts that they can’t climb it, can’t hike it, too scared to do it, not strong enough, and/or don’t want to fail. Where do these thoughts come from and how do we begin to change this type of thinking?

When I started climbing peaks with my son, and I’m talking rope, harness, ice axe type climbing, I noticed a difference between him and his sister who is two years younger. He was/is an incredibly strong hiker, has no fear of heights and is driven to conquer. He also enjoys the solitude and rugged exploration found in the backcountry. This made him a great junior climbing partner. My daughter, was not physically built the same. She does not enjoy backcountry solitude and her eyes just don’t light up the same at the chance to conquer a route of the next degree of difficulty.

When they were 8 and 10, I asked them if they would like to join me on completing the Wonderland Trail, a 93 mile trail that circumnavigates Mt. Rainier and takes an average of 8 days to complete. My son immediately said he was in. My daughter, as I expected, declined the offer wondering why anyone would ever want to do take on such a lonely, exhausting endeavor.

I now realize, this was the moment, I began to box her into a particular mold. I explained to people that I had one kid, similar to me (big goals, love of outdoors, no crowds) and one kid that preferred not to hike or be in the outdoors but instead stay home indulge in more social, indoor hobbies. Despite her reluctance, I continued to bring her along on many outings as she would agree to, but not big climbs and push-your-limit routes. When the opportunity arose, I would leave her home and my son and I would  take off for a couple days, climbing summits and taking pictures to show off on our return. I was ok  leaving my daughter behind because I thought bonding with my son while my daughter had the freedom to be herself and not have to suffer in the outdoors was a reasonable compromise.

I was wrong. I mean, textbook bad parent wrong. Bad daughter raising wrong. And just plain bad leader wrong. Incomplete sentences in a blog post wrong!

I had become too black and white about my kids’ outdoor experiences. It was as if I was telling my daughter, “You can climb Everest with me, or go shopping with your friends, but there are only two choices.” My daughter started seeing herself as different from me. She sees her mom climbing big peaks, volunteering with mountain rescue , and teaching climbing classes  and she just doesn’t fit that mold. I was assuming because she didn’t find the same type of joy in outdoor experiences that I did, that she just wasn’t suited for it. Yet, it enrages me when I hear a mother tell her daughter, “I don’t think you should climb that mountain, it’s dangerous and it’s just not what girls do.”

This epiphany did not hit me while teaching a class, or through reading one of my countless, educational outdoor books. No, my enlightenment came through a series of events, each one dragging me another notch further from the coveted parent of the year award.

Last summer during a traumatic backcountry incident, my daughter, the youngest of the group on this trip, witnessed a near tragic accident and was forced to instantly cope an array of possible outcomes (death, serious injury, or someone else getting hurt too). She was confused and scared, over a 24 hour period her world was spinning out of control. Once things settled down, and we were safe at home, she was left was traumatized and broken. She spent her rest of the summer living in fear of the next tragic event. I became very sensitive to her outlook, approach, and overall emotional management.

I took her and some friends snow camping in February, six months after the accident. We camped just a half mile from the trailhead, just to experience hiking and camping in the snow together. Sometime close to midnight, I became very sick in my tent and only had enough time to sit up before I was throwing up all over my sleeping bag. My daughter woke up to me getting sick. I made the quick choice to pack up our sleeping bags, a few additional items and hike back to the car. She quickly threw on her coat, snow pants and frozen boots. As I unzipped the tent and noticing the fresh new foot of snow and single digit temperatures, I turned to her and said “As we leave this tent, you stay in arms reach of me and don’t stop walking in this snow storm. I don’t want to lose you in the dark.” She said nothing and quietly followed me. She shelved all of her discomforts and focused on following me in hopes that we get back to the car so that I could start feeling better. 

Two months later, we were out in Oregon backpacking the Oregon Coast Trail. It was her 2017 goal: to backpack the Oregon coast from north to south. It rained on us 3 of the 4 days. While many people would have been miserable with these conditions, she was not even phased. Instead, she focused on the wide beach having no defined trail and she was free create her own journey, write in the sand, chase the waves and find sea shells along the way. As the rain would increase in volume, she would dance more along the trail, enjoying the feeling of crazy weather with no boundaries. She was completely in the moment and on her own journey of happiness.

More recently I invited her to a join backpacking trip I was leading for a new class I was teaching with the Mountaineers: Introducing families to backpacking. This trip was their final “field trip” to completing the course, a 2 mile hike to a lake where they would set up camp for the night. With her outgoing personality and ability to make sure everyone felt included and welcome, I knew she would be the perfect addition to our group.  She spent the entire two miles of trail encouraging the little ones to keep going even when they were tired and chatted one on one with each of the kids about anything and everything. As the trail grew steeper, the kids didn’t seem to notice the extra effort and just kept the conversation going with her. When we arrived at camp, she gathered all the younger kids and led them to a nearby creek and proceeded to teach them all how to catch minnows and tadpoles. I thought to myself, “Really???? I didn’t even know these things were in the creek.” I never sit still long enough, or take the time to notice such detailed little things. I’m more likely to leap over the creek focused on my destination or the next trail marker. The following day, I found her and a new friend walking over to a 200 foot tall boulder-filled slope 200 feet west of our camp site. They decided to play tag among the boulders, some as large as my car. They climbed up and down each rock, lunging and balancing from rock to rock in an attempt to catch each other. They continued this game for at least an hour. In the end, knees were scraped and shins were bruised but high jumps were landed and they laughed and chased as long as they could before we had to pack up and leave for the weekend.

So my child that doesn’t want to climb a big mountain or hike the Wonderland Trail, finds value ensuring everyone is having the “best day ever”, finding immense join in the small things, dancing in the rain and blazing her own path to a destination. I had missed the point all along in outdoor adventures and boxed her in a mold she didn’t belong in.

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