Image of the July 2016 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more articles from the
July 2016 Issue
Home / Articles / Features

Smashing stereotypes

Just like men, women don't need a helping hand. Photo: 123rf/Rawpixel

It’s 2016 so why so why are women who tramp and climb still being treated as less capable than men?

I’m a keen skier. Each year, I buy a season pass to Ruapehu and get down there as many weekends as possible. I feel like I know the mountain and its surrounds pretty well – the tracks, the huts and, in particular, the Bruce Road.

A few weekends last winter proved spectacular in terms of snowfall on the road. One weekend, approaching the Top of the Bruce was like being in Ice Road Truckers. Absolutely everything was white, and when I was forced to stop near the top car park, my car began sliding backwards, slowly, non-responsive, and I had to steer it past a line of parked cars and into a snowbank. I was quite happy with my emergency reversing skills.

One weekend there was a road restriction – chains or 4WD. I drive a Subaru, which is a poor man’s 4WD, so sometimes if the conditions are really bad they’ll specify ‘4WD with good ground clearance, chains on all other vehicles’ and you know the Subaru won’t pass muster.

I saw an identical Subaru two cars in front of me go through the checkpoint. “Lots of ice up there mate,” I heard the guy caution the driver. But when I got there, it was a different story.

“Is this car 4WD?” he asked.

“Yep,” I said.

“Well, I think you should put chains on it,” he said. “It’s very risky up there. Incredibly dangerous.”

“So you’re saying there’s a restriction of chains on Subarus?” I asked.

“No, but I think you should put chains on your car. You’d be a very silly girl to go up there without chains.”

“Well, seeing as there’s no restriction of chains on Subarus, I won’t do that, but thanks for your advice.”

He then waved through three car loads of guys driving Subarus immediately behind me without telling them to put chains on, or that they would be very silly boys to not do so.

I thought it was a great example of unconscious bias. We’re socialised to see women as less capable, less knowledgeable, and unable to do complicated stuff like opening jars, changing lightbulbs and driving.

Perhaps it’s my generation (I’m 38), but I’m more inclined to go against the gender grain when it comes to women’s apparent capabilities. The weekend before this incident, two older women in my ski club had asked a male clubbie to drive their 4WD up the hill for them. The car belonged to the husband of one, and she was convinced she was going to end up damaging it. I reminded her that women can do anything, and that she would be absolutely fine, and I did a happy dance when she decided to overcome the fear and drive it herself.

Sometimes we’re so used to society telling us we’re helpless that we forget we’re not. I agree, the outdoors can be challenging – and intimidating – to many women.

I’ve been thinking about how gender differences can affect us in our outdoor pursuits – both in terms of how we are treated and how we see ourselves. I surveyed 20 women for their experiences and was surprised at the anecdotes that came out.

Hazel Phillips skis and tramps just as hard as any bloke. Photo: Supplied

Hazel Phillips skis and tramps just as hard as any bloke. Photo: Supplied

Said one: “I’ve experienced/heard opinions from men that ‘all girls are useless’ [at climbing] despite the fact that many women were better climbers than the guy saying this. I’ve also noted some really shocking sexist comments on the New Zealand Alpine Club Facebook forum, such as ‘Go back to the kitchen and put on the kettle’.

“I’m not sure why this is tolerated. I’m sure racist comments wouldn’t be tolerated in the same way.”

And another: “I went to a club meeting with my partner. One of the club leaders made a beeline for him, talked to him and ignored me, interrupting me if I tried to speak. I’m a far more advanced climber and tramper than my partner, but this guy was only interested in talking to him. I also had a female friend with me, and the leader said he was thinking of having more social events ‘to attract the girls’ and pointed at us – he actually pointed at us! This, he said, would attract male climbers. He made it clear we were just there – in his mind, at least – as candy to attract the real climbers, the guys. I actually climb harder grades than my partner.”

A common thread was that experienced outdoors women feel they are underestimated. Said another: “If you could spend some time as a female climber, I think you would find that there is a tendency for your skills and experience to be underestimated again and again. Most guys in the climbing world are wonderful, but we do live in a world where women are frequently assumed to be less competent than they are.”

Another woman told me of being patronised when going to get a gear check for a trail marathon. “A gear check is standard for long-distance races in remote locations. The compulsory gear list usually includes a rain-jacket, thermals, gloves, hat, emergency blanket, first aid kit, capacity to carry a certain amount of water and food – so you take your CamelBak into a shop in advance to show that you have all the bits and pieces. When I was getting my compulsory gear checked for my last trail marathon, dressed in my work clothes, I approached a staff member and asked him to check my gear. He looked me up and down (particularly my high heels) and his first words were, ‘What, are you going to run it in: those?’ I would’ve walked out of the store right then if it hadn’t been the only place in Auckland where I could get my gear signed off.”

Another woman, who does trail running and some very hardcore tramping, said: “Dudes are always pretty loud when they think I can’t do something. I’ve heard things like ‘Oh, you’ll never make it up there before dark’ and ‘You can’t go to the summit of Mt Ollivier, it’s too hard’. I’ve never had that from another woman.” Mt Ollivier is 1933m.

Many women spoke of their achievements being downplayed or questioned – something that comes through strongly in New Zealand climber Lydia Bradey’s book Going Up Is Easy. Bradey became the first woman to ascend Everest without supplementary oxygen in 1980, but had her Everest claim questioned by her male teammates in the media. There were claims she hallucinated her summit (“Funny things happen to the brain,” said one). A statement from her team that went out to broadcast media claimed the height she had reached was “uncertain” and that perhaps she just thought she was at the summit.

Bradey writes: “It was a statement that set out to totally belittle my achievement. I knew exactly how high I had been; there was absolutely nothing ‘uncertain’ about it. To be subjected to such damning and chauvinistic statements … pissed me off.” (It should be noted that several men defended Bradey and when contacted for this story, she was quick to point out how much support she has had from the men over the years. “If I hadn’t had their support, then I wouldn’t be one of the very few women guiding at altitude.”)

In the book, Bradey’s friend and co-author Laurence Fearnley said: “Women have had to fight for the right to be taken seriously as mountaineers, to participate in expeditions and be treated as equals, regardless of gender. She was determined to reach the summit of Everest and as a strong-willed, authority-questioning individual she was never going to be content playing second fiddle to a group of men with less high-altitude experience than herself.”

Lydia Bradey’s accomplishments were questioned by men, but she says she wouldn’t be an international mountain guide were it not for the support of male peers like her partner Dean Sharples. Photo: Supplied

Lydia Bradey’s accomplishments were questioned by men, but she says she wouldn’t be an international mountain guide were it not for the support of male peers like her partner Dean Sharples. Photo: Supplied

You might brush it aside. It was the 1980s and we’re surely much more liberated today. But in 2013, an incident where a female climber’s hired crampons failed, thwarting her ascent of Mt Aspiring, brought out a similar tone and attitude.

Maryjane Walker went to the media after failing to get a resolution from the Wanaka store where she had hired crampons. Although the fault was entirely with the crampons – an adjustment link was worn and simply broke, and it wasn’t possible to detect this in the store at time of hiring – the store owner claimed she had “misused” them. Subsequently, Walker was construed in the article as an ingenue. Said the store owner: “We see it every year. People get out of their depth and go up into the mountains. I don’t know what sort of climber she is.” And Walker’s friend and guide chimed in: “It was an unfortunate set of circumstances but not life-threatening. She’s not a mountaineer. She’s a tramper.”

But it turns out Walker is a climber. As she replied to a thread on the NZAC Facebook page: “I am not a dickhead, I am a member of your organisation for the last 18 months and have done about two courses, and have two pairs of crampons…. So hello people, I belong to your group, and I was pissed off I hired faulty gear.”

I personally recall discussing with a male friend my desire to do the Ruapehu Round-the-Mountain Track solo. He told me flat out, “You can’t do it – you’ll never make it. There’s no way you can carry everything you need and still be able to finish the tramp.”

I got stubborn and did it anyway. Paranoid that I was indeed as useless as he said, I gave myself five days to complete it but did it in three.

I’ve since tried to stop underestimating myself and just go for it. Part of this is doing more solo trips. And I’ve noticed that while it’s ‘normal’ for a guy to go tramping solo, the sight of a female tramper on her own can send people into paroxysms of fear – they immediately go into ‘emergency’ mode on your behalf, as if something’s gone terribly wrong. A solo female tramper is still outside the boundaries of what people think is acceptable.

Many women in my survey agreed that, socialised to do so, we do underestimate ourselves – just like the woman in my ski club who was too scared to drive up the mountain road.

Said one: “The tendency for women to underestimate themselves can have some positives. In my experience, there is a tendency towards women being more meticulous and careful as a result of slightly lower self confidence. On the bad side, women can be prone to underestimating their abilities. This can lead to them not pushing themselves as much, and therefore they don’t get as much experience in the hills.”

Many women told me they wanted to find other women to tramp or climb with, but had found it hard to do so. They found women to be encouraging rather than questioning or patronising, and they enjoyed feeling like they could simultaneously ‘keep up’ with the pace and push their boundaries.

“Other women are generally the biggest source of support for the aspirant female tramper and climber,” said one respondent. “This is probably the best way for women to get better. I think it’s really important for women to stick together and support each other.

“In general, society does not place the same emphasis on women to attain physical achievements. There’s more of an emphasis on things like relationship status and clothing as markers of personal identity for women – meaning that the standard is set lower, and the incentives for achievement are subtly undermined.”

Many women had wonderful things to say about their male cohorts. One of my favourite tramping buddies, Mike, is fantastic in his approach to equality and is also one of the few people I can spend eight days in the wilderness with without wanting to kill him.

“Non-sexist men are great,” said one woman. “Because they will revel in the achievements of their female friends and treat women as equals.”

So what is the way forward?

“The outdoors is a great equaliser,” said one climber and trail runner. “There are many amazing female climbers and trampers who achieve the same things that men do. My advice to any woman who experiences this sort of thing is to use it to spur herself on and to not get discouraged.”

Says another: “I strongly encourage women to climb with other women, to organise your own trips, to buy your own gear, to encourage yourself, and your female friends, to aim high, keep pushing yourself, build your social network and supporters.

“And remember to out-climb that person. If someone cuts you down or underestimates you, success is the best revenge.”

Get unlimited access

Browse all articles, trips, gear reviews and buyer’s guides for as little as $5.95 a month.

Subscribe now

Already a subscriber? Login Now