As a woman challenging herself in the outdoors, Jen knows what it’s like to fight all the mind games and doubt. She’s here to tell you that times are a changin’, and there’s no better time for you to take the leap.
The rotor blades of the chopper flick snow into our goggles as we huddle atop an untouched peak in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. The sky is a brilliant blue; anticipation palpable. The whirring of the helicopter fades into the distance as our motley crew stands to take in our surroundings. Ahead, the slope is steep and covered in powder, but it’s nothing I haven’t tackled before. Still, my heart pounds. I wonder if my nerves are noticeable.
A Mental Challenge
It’s my first heli-boarding adventure, on my first ski holiday in New Zealand, and I’m the only woman in the group. Having weathered my long-talked-about dreams of trying heli, my boyfriend has surprised me with an ‘experience of a lifetime’ for my birthday.
The penny drops when an Alpine Helicopters’ shuttle picks us up from outside our Wanaka hostel on a clear, frosty morning. I start quaking in my boots as two male Kiwi snowboarders join us and we’re given an avalanche safety briefing by our male heli guide. Even the chopper pilot is a guy. I’m surrounded by testosterone and about to embark on the ballsiest thing I’ve ever done.
Of course, none of this should matter. These men are nothing but warm and welcoming but I’m determined not to be the token female who can’t keep up. I want to prove to them – and myself – that I have as much right to be carving the face of a remote mountain as they do.
Standing on the first peak, I strap into my board, take a deep breath and launch down the run. I’m by far the most cautious, but by the time I reach the bottom I realise I’m not incapable, nor unskilled, nor the slowest.
With each turn afterwards, I relax more, up the challenge and remind myself that I’ve got this. I hoot, laugh and pant, and by day’s end I’m joking with the boys about our burning glutes and silly stumbles back in a Wanaka pub.
It’s this heli-boarding trip I recall every time I’m out of my comfort zone, which, as a firm believer in pushing oneself physically and emotionally, is frequently.
Years later, while high-altitude hiking in Nepal, I’m determined to make the most of every opportunity in a country I know little about but am quickly falling in love with. I’ve signed up to two weeks of trekking with leading tour company World Expeditions and our final destination is Everest Base Camp at 5360 metres.
After we reach Base Camp, our fingers frozen and cheeks chapped, we’re handed an extra challenge – Kala Pattar – and I can’t resist. As snowflakes drift around the teahouse we’ve slept in, I join five other hikers and two Nepali Sherpas to slog it up Kala Pattar, a mountain that taps out at 5545 metres and promises views over Base Camp and Khumbu Glacier.
A few metres in it dawns on me just how difficult this is going to be. I immediately lag behind. With every laboured step I take, the hikers ahead seem to take three, and soon I’m hunching over, gasping for air as they’re disappearing into low cloud. But my Sherpa is patient and I am stubborn. Now I’ve started, I’m not going to turn around, I tell myself.
Although I’m the fittest I’ve ever been, having trained six months prior to my Sydney departure, it’s this self-talk and self-belief that helps me reach the top. Confidence pushes me to lift heavy legs over scattered rocks that lead to prayer flags heralding my arrival. Finally. My elation is indescribable.
A Changing Landscape
Tackling obstacles is key to growth in the outdoors, no matter if you’re hiking in the Himalayas or the Blue Mountains of NSW. As women, not only do we need to move past self-doubt but we must also navigate a male-dominated industry – whether we’re snowboarding, abseiling, or hiking up to a local lookout.
Let’s face it, the adventure sector worldwide continues to cater primarily to men – the traditional pitchers of tents and splitters of logs – but times are changing and women are demanding it.
Take outdoor clothing, for example. Across forums and social media, women are speaking out about the lack of practical and stylish hiking pants, windcheaters and fleeces. We want colours other than pink; we want cargo pockets; we want brand managers who understand we’re definitely not ‘one-size-fits-all’. We have boobs, butts and hips, and tailors need to allow room for them.
Thankfully, a handful of companies have seen the light. Iconic France-founded Salomon (have you seen its rainbow women’s range?), sustainable Australian activewear brand Team Timbuktu, and American juggernauts REI and Patagonia understand that a growing number of women are hitting bush trails, scaling mountains, taking on surf breaks and rafting down rivers.
Through events, talks and workshops, these companies are helping us challenge entrenched cultural stereotypes. Take the #salomonwmn campaign. It’s all about proving that the outdoors is for everyone, without rules or judgement. It doesn’t matter if you’re into microadventures or multi-month expeditions, the campaign urges you to follow your own path, in your own way.