My courses in Women’s Studies have given me the voice and tools to go out in the world and create change to better our society.
“She herself felt that she suffered from sex-antagonism and it is possible that some unconscious feeling, let us say of the novelty of a woman’s intrusion into the domain of exploration so long reserved to men, may in some quarters have existed.”
– From Fanny Bullock Workman’s obituary in the Alpine Journal
The giant backcountry bowl known as Tuckerman’s Ravine, on the side of Mt. Washington sits luminous when hit by winter sun. Its ridge frighteningly resembles the back of a large sleeping monster. Usually it must be reached by means of snowshoes, with skis and boards strapped to ones back. It is magnificent and steep. Many have died there. When I was speaking to a male friend of mine about making a ski trip up there, he said, “ha, you? Tucks?” After hearing his words, I was more determined than ever to accomplish the trek up and ride down. I will never forget his amused smile beforehand and how it turned to a look of bewilderment when I was telling him of my successful trip a few weeks later. Such deprecating words raised ire within; then as a catalyst of sorts, fortified my mountainous future.
It is no doubt comments like this one that lead many women to their deaths. Unintentionally of course, but as Maria Coffey says in her book Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow , “It seems like all the cutting-edge women climbers eventually do get killed. They are just that much more driven. Where a guy might put in 90 percent a woman would try to put in 110 percent” (107). It has taken years to break through the door with the “No girls allowed sign on it”, and still once in a while it is slammed back in our face with enough force to nearly knock us off belay. There has always been a gender bias when it comes to women’s competence in the wilderness, but what progress has been made in the last century or so? Has it gotten any better? My hope is to at least bring to surface what has repeatedly been slipped under the radar of current awareness.
At the turn of the 18 th century women began one by one inching their way out the kitchen door and onto the trails. Long dragging skirts were pinned or held up once down the trail a ways or even (having a pair of bloomers hidden underneath) left tucked beneath a rock part way up the mountain to be retrieved on the way back down. Some of the first women to hike in the White Mountains in the late 1800’s had even been known to climb up trees at the tops of mountains despite their hindering skirts. It was hardly ever heard of that women hiked without men “guiding” them for quite some time. And it would be several centuries until women would be accepted as leaders in the outdoors.
As a reader of women’s mountain history, a few things always stuck out to me; little flare-ups of independence that were mostly kept quiet. The famous Dolly Copp who traveled the Whites and was known as an outgoing innkeeper in the White Mountains , on her 50 th anniversary left her husband, saying, “Hayes is well enough. But fifty years is long enough for a woman to live with any man.” And off she went. I also noted how there were several early women explorers that remained single all their lives, such as the sisters Eugene and Edith Cook, “key figures in the great path-building endeavors in and around the northern peaks of the Presidential Range in the 1880’s” (When Women and Mountains Meet).
Slowly things began to shift in the mountains. Women were proving they had what it took to endeavor into the harsh world of mountaineering. It was the men, which seemed to have trouble adjusting. As Jennifer Jordan highlights in her book Savage Summit , “Just as male soldiers have historically had trouble adjusting to female presence in combat, male climbers have often resisted the inclusion of a woman on their very male expeditions to the high mountains.” Whether it be a “biological imperative men feel to protect women” or “the sexual tension from having a woman present during their three month celibacy on an expedition […] most men admit that the problem is not with the women, it’s with the men not being able to deal with them, but that doesn’t help the women who have to deal with the criticism, ridicule, and isolation for months on end” (9).
Other men it seems simply have a chip on their shoulder about women climbers. Perhaps feeling their territory is invaded, and yes, threatened. On an expedition to K2 in 1978 Cherie Bech was one of three women on the team. In a snide comment in reference to her, another member on the team John Roskelley, made it a point to tell people he had “never met a woman climber ‘worth a damn’ ( Jordan 11). They lacked either strength or the skill or both at high altitude. As Jordan points out, the first two times women were included on K2 expeditions they were weakened by battles of ego and sexual tensions. Their next expedition would rid itself of these problems, by ridding itself of men (13).
After experiencing an all women’s expedition, the late climber Wanda Rutkiewicz said in an interview, “Climbing with all-women teams gives me the most satisfaction, because even the presence of a man on a rope sometimes subconsciously frees one from taking responsibility for a climbing action.” However, when asked to join an expedition to Everest she leaped at the chance to become the first Pole and first Western woman to reach the world’s highest summit. Being back with men on an expedition was no easy thing. When she was given the title of “second deputy leader” (a sought after title), the other men sent bitter vibes towards her. Their snide remarks and her irritation at their “fragile masculinity” ended up in a shouting match. She yelled back saying that “they were assholes who didn’t mind if women were on expeditions so long as they were in their tents and not actually climbing the mountain. To hell with them , she thought, I will not sink to feminine wiles to get my way and be better liked by the bastards. I am here to climb a mountain! ” ( Jordan 39).
Unlike the strong Wanda Rutkiewicz whom I admire greatly, there seems to be women who are working their way to the top in Winter sports such as skiing, but aren’t exactly resisting the “feminine wiles” to get there. 24 year old, Kristi Leskinen “decided to start her own game: women’s park-and-pipe skiing” according to Outside Magazine (Nov. 05). Though her breakthrough into the previously men’s only-freestyle is highly respectable, I am not so sure her “trick for amping up the buzz for high-flying females” is. Taking off some clothes and posing for a sexy Nordica pin-up as well as a lingerie spread in FHM. Though, she insists, “I’m not a model, I’m a skier.” Much of our current society might not see this as being problematic; but one must stop to think of how she might affect the female-youths of America . I would like to think that it is possible to live like Wanda, and that hopefully there are still some Wanda’s out there in future generations.
There are more and more women venturing out, whether it be man-less, solo, or with a hopefully non-sexist male. With such books as Solo, on Her Own Adventure , Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering , and guide books such as Walking in the Mountains: a Woman’s Guide , or Women & Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail , it is easy to find inspiration in the world of mountain women. Though, I found Leading Out: Women Climbers Reaching for the Top to be out of print. It is an excellent book delving into some firsts for women’s mountaineering. I wonder at the fact that it was taken out of print. However I suppose I should not judge how women are doing solely by the literature that is in circulation.
The 20 th and 21 st centuries have been a time for firsts among women’s history. In 1970 the first all women’s expedition to Denali was a success with all six members reaching the top, in 1978 Arlene Blum lead the first all women’s team up Annapurna I (26,500 feet) becoming the first women and Americans to ascend the tenth highest peak on Earth. On September 29, In August 1987, Climbing magazine came out with a special women’s issue and in1988 the first American woman, Stacey Allison reached the Summit of Everest via the South East Ridge . However beyond the one issue of Climbing there was virtually no media coverage of women climbers, “this was corroborated by the National Sporting Goods Association 1990 census which counted 1.8 million women rock climbers in the U.S. , nearly forty percent of all climbers!” (da Silva p. xix, from intro in Leading Out).
Since then the media coverage has slightly improved. Seal Press, a feminist publisher, publishes many books on the outdoors and women, written by women. There are articles about women in outdoor magazines, such as a recent dispatch in Outside about 20 year old Danielle Fisher, who became the youngest American to stand atop Mount Everest, “and the youngest person ever to complete the Seven Summits, knocking off the highest peak on each continent in just two years” (Outside, Oct. 05′ p.28) When I read that, my first reaction was jealousy and competition, but mostly I beam with pride that a young woman my same age has done that. I feel a collective happiness that the youngest American to summit was not a male. The lists of women’s firsts may seem long, but it is not when compared to all the firsts made by men.
With lists like that it could almost seem woman are being treated equally in the mountain world, but I could not help but notice that maybe we aren’t quite there yet, when I recently walked though EMS. I went in looking for a pair of non-cotton pants to hike in, but not only did I find that there were far more men’s pants, the ones supposedly for women, didn’t fit like women’s pants. I asked a young woman who worked there about it, and she said she has the same problem. We both joked around saying, “you have to wonder if its men who are designing these pants”. She explained that there was a new company by the name of Prana, that was beginning to make pants more fit for women, but they were expensive, and there weren’t very many types to choose from. I left the store disappointed and had better luck trying on a pair of boys pants in Filenes, though, those didn’t quite cut it either.
The pants are a minor detail compared to the progress being made in the form of women’s outdoor organizations. As Mary Butler points out, “Females are generally more motivated by self-improvement and achieving team goals, according to a 1997 report from the President’s council on Physical Fitness and Sports […] What’s really important is developing quality relationships” (Butler, par. 12). Perhaps this is why many women have been turned off by outdoor pursuits until the more recently all-women’s groups such as, Women’s Outdoors Inc., Women’s Wilderness Institute, “This year the Program tripled in size”(Butler, par. 7), and Chicks with Picks, which “ promotes self reliance through learning technical skills that help women become more equal partners with their counterparts.” The theme of all their clinics is “Women Climbing with Women, for Women”. They “promote women’s empowerment, the spirit of service, and giving back to the community through supporting local women’s shelters, Tri County Resource Center and Starting Point.” Over the last four years they have raised $75,000 for the shelters. As of now they are their largest donor ( http://www.chickswithpicks.net/brains.htm ).
With several women’s only organizations thriving, I imagine Wanda’s spirit to be smiling proud. But as Venture Center and Challenge Course Coordinator Angel Ekstrom said, “As a whole I don’t think it [women’s equality in the outdoors] has come a long way, but, we’re out there, we just aren’t perceived or valued as our counterparts.”
While speaking with Angel, the only female staff member of the Adventure education department at Plymouth State University , she recounted a time when teaching a technical mountaineering course at Colorado Mountain College . She had a non-traditional student, he was 45, just retired from the service and had been of high rank, “He challenged me in everything throughout the entire course, confronted me with everything, questioning my abilities and such […] but I needed him to go through the curriculum to learn this stuff, I just kept going, kept teaching. After the course, he wrote to me, and said, ‘I challenged you in everything, but you really stuck it out and I have to apologize, because, I never learned more.”
Questioned because of her gender, she did one of the best things and ignored it, persisted and proved her skills. Were she a man, such skill would probably not have been questioned. “When I am running a hard-skilled curriculum course, that’s when it [sexism] surfaces. I keep having to prove myself, it gets tiring, it seems men, if ever, only have to prove themselves once, but women have to prove their skill over and over, but it’s the small success stories that keep you going”
Women’s recreation in the wilderness has always been of importance, and is even more so in today’s plastic-wrapped, 9-5 world. Women still experience social injustices and inequities, which according to Sarah L. Pohl, affect them personally and interpersonally (416). “One possible method through which women are able to reclaim their voices is by participating in wilderness recreation (Bialeschki & Henderson, 1993; Henderson, 1996). Henderson (1996) explained how outdoor recreation was conducive to resisting traditional female roles, that can lead to discovering a new sense of self. She said, “In nature, conformity to traditional female roles is not required. In the outdoors, women often discover aspects of themselves that they did not know existed prior to challenging themselves in this environment” (416).
There are currently 56 males in the Adventure Education Major, and only 15 females. In the minor there are more females than males. The ratio of women to men planning on becoming future adventure educators is alarming. Considering all women’s outings and courses in the wilderness, far more are effective for all women groups just as all women’s expeditions have been more successful. For this reason, future female leaders are indispensable.
When Angel Ekstrom worked with the Women in Rock and Leadership program she, “never had 100% success with a mixed gender course,” whereas in a women’s only course they were extremely successful. She believes that it is highly important that there be all women’s courses for the reason that it creates a less competitive and more supportive environment. “I know for sure it works, and I would love to provide more, but women have to come.”
Why are there so few females pursuing a life-occupation in the outdoors? In a study by Linda Allin (2004) about Women and the relationship of an outdoor career to family life, said, “The outdoor industry is an occupational area where many jobs involve long, irregular hours and/ or residential work, taking time away from the family. Despite their increased involvement in outdoor recreation, women remain under-represented in the higher levels of outdoor management and leadership” (64). Out of the 21 female outdoor educators interviewed in her study, 9 of them were single. And those who did marry during their career did so later than the average age (28) according to current societal trends (66).
Mixing an outdoor career with family is not the easiest thing, some more extreme mountain women, such as Alison Hargreaves, have even been ridiculed for it. Away from her family much of the time climbing 8,000meter peaks, she was criticized for selfishly risking her life when she had two children and a husband at home. She had been built up as a cutting edge mountaineer, and when she did die shortly after reaching the top of K2, the media tore her apart as being a bad mother, calling her selfish, “in choosing the mountain over motherhood” (Jordan 261). A “firestorm began, causing Alison to suffer in death the indignity of having her morals and her mental health questioned in a way never suffered by the men who died with her or by the other fathers who have left children behind: Alex Lowe, Scott Fischer, Rob Hall, Paul Nunn, Al Rouse, Maurice Barrard, Nick Escourt, and so many more” (261).
Who is more important to a child? Father or mother? I don’t think they can be compared. When someone no matter what gender they are is bitten by the “climbing bug” most of the time there is just no stopping them. In Ellen Miller’s opinion, a Colorado-based mountaineer, the issue of children is something that affects the gender imbalance. After interviewing about 60 women who have summited Everest, she found that most of them did not have children at the time they were climbing. “For me personally, and I think for many women, either you want to climb or you want to have a family. I don’t think many women can do both very well” (Coffey 11).
The psychologist Geoff Powter calls a certain pattern found in climbers the “repeating personality syndrome”, the need for constant change to create excitement” (Coffey 66). Often it is the women who are “bitten by the bug” that can get competitive with the men, humming to the beat of, “I can do anything you can do better.” It is usually these that succumb to a backlash created by women’s oppression in the outdoors, taking it too far, sometimes forgetting why they are there in the first place and then ridiculed for taking risks. As I mentioned earlier, they simply put in more effort than men, trying to prove themselves. This can be fatal. Three of the first five women who climbed K2 died on descent, the other two died a few years later, on other 8,000 meter peaks.
I myself can’t help but feel the need to prove myself sometimes in the mountains. For a long while that is how I hiked. However, it is ten times better hiking or doing anything in the mountains when you aren’t thinking, “I have to get to the top faster than a guy would” or “I’m going too slow, if a guy were here, he would speed right by” when the truth is, I know I can keep up if I push myself real hard, but that isn’t why I am there. I am there to enjoy nature, overcome myself, and most of all to forget about societal imbalances, not amplify them.
Many women journey into the outdoors for different reasons than men, many aren’t there to compete and prove themselves by doing “really tough stuff.” But it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of the same things. As Angel said, “ I’m not competitive by nature, if someone wants to get in line first, be on top of the mountain first, I’ll step aside and let them push by, but when there is an educational component I can get very competitive…Sometimes it can be considered a weakness that you aren’t as competitive, don’t have as big an ego, but its not that I cant keep up or that I don’t have the skill.”
Whether a woman is an extreme alpinist obsessed with bagging peaks, or one who simply wishes to take a day hike or learn a new outdoor skill, she should be able to do so without the boys flinging stones at her from behind the wall of their club-house. Though not as often, this still happens. Women have traveled a long distance, experiencing the highs and lows of mountain culture, but like Angel said; there is still a long way to go in the Outdoors for women.
Allin, Linda. “Climbing Mount Everest : Women, career and family in outdoor education.” Australian Journal of Outdoor education vol. 8(2) (2004): 64-71.
Brown, A. Rebecca. Women on High, Pioneers of Mountaineering. Boston : Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 2002.
Butler, Mary. “Women’s Outdoor classes gain popularity.” Rocky Mountain News 27 May 2003, Local.
Coffey, Maria. Where The Mountain Casts It’s Shadow . New York : St. Martin ‘s Griffin , 2003
Collins, Luke. “Dispatches: Rising Star” Outside Magazine October 2005: 28 da Silva, Rachel ed. Leading Out . Seattle , Washington : Seal Press, 1992.
Jordan, Jennifer. Savage Summit the true stories of the first five women who climbed K2, the worlds most feared mountain. New York , NY : HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2005.
Megroz, Gordy. “Dispatches: 2006 Ski & Snowboard Report: The Hot List” Outside Magazine November 2005: 37.
Pohl, Sarah L., Borrie, William T., Patterson, Michael E. “Women, Wilderness, and Everyday Life: A Documentation of the Connection between Wilderness Recreation and Women’s Everyday Lives.” Journal of Leisure Research Vol. 32, No. 4 (2000): 415-434.
Stark, Elizabeth, and Jackson, Monica. Tents in the Clouds, the first women’s Himalayan Expedition. Seattle , Washington : Seal Press, 2000. http://www.chickswithpicks.net/chicksEast.htm.