Women in Wilderness

This summer, Opal Creek Expeditions brought together 10 Ladies of the Cascades for a 5-night backcountry adventure. Along with my co-instructor, Antonella, we shared trail conversations, night-time swims, Hamilton lyrics, giggle fits, yoga sessions, forest-tea, and a few too many falafels. We led these ladies on 30 miles of trail up and around mountains, and swam in as many lakes as we could find.

Women have come a long way in their relationship with wilderness. It was not so long ago that women were considered too frail to climb big mountains, to traverse cross country alone, or to be considered employable by outdoor outfitters, not because of their lack of skill, but because of their sex. Feminism in the outdoor world continues to be a complicated issue and women continue to combat myths about our gender – can women backpack in bear country while menstruating? Are women strong enough physically to keep up with men? (Yes, to both, in case you’re wondering.)

I think you’ll find that most women in this field have had some kind of question posed to them about the logistics of being a woman in the wilderness. Just last week I was asked what kind of weapon I pack when I explore alone at Opal Creek. When I replied that I carry no weapons, that I feel safer in the forest than I do in the city, the man who questioned me gave me a puzzled look, and walked away.

To me, wilderness is the ultimate equalizer. Fierce winds will berate your tent whether you are a man or a woman. In the backcountry, dangerous lightning can strike, wildfires will burn, and avalanches will cascade regardless of your gender. What differs is how an individual or a group responds to the challenges of experiences in wilderness.

“Women together, in any circumstance, can create a powerful bond; yet women together in the wilderness, taking risks, become empowered in a way that enables them to break through gender barriers – and therapeutic barriers- by facing the unforgiving state of nature together.” – Wilderness Therapy for Women: The Power of Adventure

I am an advocate for both mixed-gender backcountry experiences and single-gender trips. I believe that gender is part of what informs worldview and that all people can learn important skills from each other based on those unique and interesting worldviews. Our Ladies of the Cascades trip was a new route created by girls and for girls, and I felt privileged to lead them on a trip where girls worked together to solve problems – where they developed skills as a team and supported each other.

I am so proud of each lady of these Cascade mountains and so grateful for everything we shared on trail. I hope that I taught them some backcountry skills that they will carry on as they grow – but what they taught me is even greater. These ladies inspire me to be a better outdoorswoman. They showed me that ladies together are supportive, strong, and caring. That they are fierce, independent, and knowledgeable. They reminded me how it feels to belong in the wilderness and how wonderful it is to be a woman.