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Women thriving outdoors

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May 2023 Issue

Women adventurers have been blazing trails across the remotest parts of New Zealand, opening up the landscape and inspiring others.

Increasingly women are at the forefront of fresh expeditions and first crossings. Penzy Dinsdale traversed the length of the Southern Alps and Tanya Bottomley the 45th parallel, while Tarsh Turner and Dulkara Martig undertook an all-female expedition of Fiordland’s Dark Cloud Range. They spoke to Wilderness about their adventures, their motivation, and the representation of women in the outdoors.

Mountaineer and multi-sport athlete Penzy Dinsdale

A problem-solver 

When mountaineer and multi-sport athlete Penzy Dinsdale missed out on a grant to go skiing in Antarctica this summer, she decided to traverse the Southern Alps instead. The 85-day epic went from Fiordland to Farewell Spit and involved tramping, mountaineering, skiing and cycling some of the country’s most spectacular, difficult terrain.

The biggest challenge came early, on day six.

“It was the huge mental weight of this thing stretching out in front of me, all these technical sections I had to do,” says Dinsdale. “I had a freakout and sent a bunch of people inReach messages and got some great responses, so I went ahead and did day seven.” That day, from Dart Hut to Lochnagar, saw Dinsdale stuck on a ridgeline. “I managed to get myself off that. Then I was like, no, I can do this.”

The technical challenge of the trip – Pioneer Pass – lay ahead, but the Aoraki/Mt Cook section proved a highlight because of the people. From Arthur’s Pass, the accomplished amateur photographer was out of the high mountains. She was also mostly alone. While she’s now more confident soloing tricky terrain, she says: “I learnt it’s not the safety stuff that worries me. It’s more fun to go with people.”

Dinsdale is usually selective about who she adventures with after poor experiences as a uni student with men who “buggered off to summit” when she’d reached her limit. (She would go on to become president of the Otago University Tramping Club.)

“The women I go into the mountains with, if one person is having a crap time we work with that person and if it’s still too hard for them to go up with support and encouragement, then we all go down and that’s fine.”

The 33-year-old opened up the Southern Alps traverse to anyone who wanted to join, which meant some sections were undertaken with strangers. Mitigating risk accordingly became part of the adventure. Dinsdale is a doctor and she employed what’s known in medicine as a ‘flat hierarchy’, meaning while one person is in charge, everyone in the group gets a say regardless of experience. Communication and teamwork are key.

She says women-only spaces, such as The Remarkables Ice and Mixed Festival’s Chicks ‘N’ Picks course, which she has been involved with, are “super important” because the dynamic is less competitive. “Most guys are amazing, but there can be one or two who make women feel like they can’t do it.”

Although she has competed in both GODZone and the Coast to Coast, Dinsdale is drawn to navigating, rather than racing, in the outdoors. The former Wellingtonian now based in Queenstown, grew up in an orienteering family and learnt how to use maps and compasses from a young age. It has led to a love of problem-solving.

At some stage, she plans to complete the Fiordland section she omitted on the traverse. She also has unfinished business with the Olivine Ice Plateau, having been on two all-women expeditions cut short by bad weather. And then there’s Antarctica.

Dulkara Martig

Competent and confident

For around 10 years, Dulkara Martig’s life has revolved around expeditions in remote places, including sea kayaking in Alaska and traversing Nepal. The multi-disciplinary adventurer blends hiking, packrafting, kayaking, mountain biking and mountaineering to journey through landscapes, and is drawn to exploration rather than extreme technicality.

Now 34, she grew up in Roa, near Blackball on the West Coast. As a teenager, she was mad-keen on the outdoors – but most of the stories reflected back at her were of men.

That changed when kayaker Jess Brown gave a slide show in Murchison. “I remember connecting so much more to the imagery of a woman doing cool things outdoors,” she says. “It made me realise how powerful representation can be.”

Martig has since helped increase the profile of women in the outdoors. She’s written a regular column for Stuff and founded two podcasts – Untamed Aotearoa and the Packrafting Podcast. In 2017, she used social media to share stories of an all-female crossing from Arthur’s Pass to Mt Cook Village. Many people messaged their thanks, telling they now felt empowered to attempt missions themselves.

Martig says it wasn’t the craziest route; they just wanted to have a good time. “I did a talk at the Nelson Alpine Club afterwards and someone asked, did you have any epics, any near misses, and I apologised for it all going to plan. Jan Arnold was in the audience and she says, ‘You shouldn’t be apologising, you should be celebrating safe and good decision-making’.”

Martig is matter-of-fact about her competence and confidence. The latter she credits in part to her upbringing: for her parents, no idea was too ambitious or silly. “I think for a woman confidence affects them more than their competence,” Martig says. “I think women are generally less confident than men despite having the same or higher competence.”

She cites Spring Challenge when she says women who are less experienced in the outdoors tend to be more comfortable with other women until their confidence is built up.

Traversing the Dark Cloud Range with Tarsh Turner (see p53) was her idea. She’s drawn to trips where there’s limited information available. She finds the exploratory nature engaging.

Similarly, she was drawn to packrafting when it was still a niche activity. The multi-disciplinary adventurers who gravitated towards it were dynamic and creative – capable people, happy to pave their own way. (Martig founded New Zealand’s first packrafting meet-up and was awarded international packrafting person of the year in 2018 by the American Packrafting Association.)

She’s curious how her passion for the outdoors will evolve. She’s now living in Te Anau and is expecting her first child and wonders whether she’ll still be drawn to longer expeditions. Already her thoughts are turning to overnighters in stunning spots.

But, for the moment: “I’m pretty content, I’d like to garden and focus on this new chapter for a while. I’m at peace with it.”

Tanya Bottomley. Photo: Ben Wallbank

A forerunner

It was while holed up on the couch in Wānaka recovering from stress fractures in both shins that ultrarunner turned adventurer Tanya Bottomley realised she was done with “running around in circles in a forest”. She wanted a challenge that better realised her values of adventure, freedom and making a difference. Her partner, Ben Wallbank, suggested the 45th parallel. “So I did what I do,” says Bottomley. “I ran with it.”

In February 2022, Bottomley and Wallbank completed the first traverse of the 45th parallel from Caswell Sound in Fiordland to Oamaru – a 600km, 26-day journey on foot, kayak and bike. The days were long – up to 16hr – but they had set aside a month.

It took 13 days to traverse Fiordland’s rugged, unpredictable terrain, where navigation proved the biggest challenge. “I hadn’t done a huge amount of it before,” says Bottomley. “It was a massive learning curve.”

Despite going six days on three days rations after a storm prevented access to a food drop, and not knowing whether their route to George Sound Hut would actually go, Bottomley never doubted their ability to succeed: “I knew we could get through in the time we had,” she says.

This positive outlook has allowed the 41-year-old mindset coach to tick off some mammoth achievements. In 2021, she was the first woman to complete the Southern Seasons Miler Challenge in New Zealand – four 100-mile races – unsupported, without pacers. And in 2020, she set herself the Peak of Possibility challenge, finishing eight laps of Roys Peak in 24 hours, covering over 120km and 10,000m of vertical ascent while raising money for Shine. The domestic violence service provider helped Tanya and her two children in 2015 when she was trying to exit an abusive relationship. Around that time, she also started running. What was initially a form of escape became a place of exploration when she discovered trail running – and she hasn’t looked back.

Empowering and inspiring women are key drivers for the adventures she chooses. “Why hasn’t a woman done it before, why shouldn’t a woman do it?” she says. Promotion is also a conscious choice. Her partner is a videographer and filmed the 45th parallel traverse for future release. “If women don’t see other women doing these things, they don’t know it’s possible.”

She wants people to know they’re capable of anything, and they don’t have to do it alone. “I haven’t got here by myself – I had an idea and then I went out and found people to help get me to where I am.”

On her bucket list is traversing the 45th   parallel through South America, which will require learning how to packraft. She’s also training to become the first person to circumnavigate the Wānaka skyline, a 250km continuous push she estimates will take 3–5 days.

“You’re never too old,” she says. “I’m getting a bit of that from people – when are you going to slow down? And I’m like, I’m just beginning.”

Tarsh Turner

One of the girls

Trapping may not be the drawcard that attracts all women into the bush, but it attracted tramper and mountaineer Tarsh Turner.

Turner was living in Invercargill, working as a ranger for DOC, when she helicoptered into Fiordland for the first time. It was a defining moment. “I realised this was where I needed to be. So I left that job and started trapping, just to get myself into Fiordland.”

In the five years since, Turner has undertaken numerous missions in the deep south including a traverse of the Dark Cloud Range with Dulkara Martig, Ana Richards and Lydia McLean. In 2022, the foursome spent 10 days tracing a 100km line from Chalky Inlet to near Lake Roe Hut (See Wilderness, April 2023).

The trip was intentionally all women, all with Fiordland experience. “It came out of conversations between Dulkara and I that some trips can end up being male-dominated. I think personally I can be less assertive if I’m in a group of men; I feel like I take more ownership when it’s with women,” Turner says.

The party had reached Needle Peak when a weather warning forced them to stay on the tops and head for Lake Roe Hut before the storm hit. It necessitated 12-hour, back-to-back days, by-passing some breathtaking camping spots. The going was arduous – but also memorable.

The traverse followed Turner’s and a mate’s successful crossing of Fiordland’s Marshall Pass in 2021. A keen writer and avid reader, she was inspired by early explorer W.G. Graves’ book Beyond the Southern Lakes. “They made it sound pretty suffery and awful, which made me want to go there.”

Family trips as a kid established Turner’s love of the outdoors and doing conservation work after university reignited it. Now an outdoor instructor, the 34-year-old says she’s her best self in the mountains and has never downplayed her abilities because of her gender.

“Initially, I probably thought of myself as one of the boys, but for me the learning has been not to have that mindset,” she says. “No, I am one of the girls and yes, I can do these gnarly things.”

Turner was part of an all-women trip into the Garden of Eden this past New Year. It included summiting The Great Unknown (2196m). “I think there was a bit of self-doubt in our group on the walk in, because we found the days quite hard. It was cool to watch our confidence grow, to realise we have the skills, we’re doing this.” The trio celebrated by seeing in 2023 in party dresses.

What’s next? A Southern Alps traverse is on the bucket list, plus Turner is keen to get a packraft. She’s also focusing on instructing and guiding. “It’s taken me away from Fiordland in the short term, but I keep coming back.”

Gender equality in the outdoors

Over the last five years, there’s been a push to increase the participation of women in the outdoors, here and overseas.

In 2018, the Government launched a strategy to address the inequalities women and girls experience in sport and recreation, with Sport NZ committing $12.7m. In terms of tramping,    the Mountain Safety Council New Zealand said the latest Active NZ survey (2021), administered by Sport NZ, showed 9.55 per cent of adults went for at least one overnight tramp in the previous year, up from 6.81 per cent in 2017. Over the same period, the female share of these numbers increased from 42.4 per cent in 2017 to 46.9 per cent in 2021 (an additional 37, 359 female trampers). MSC said the largest increase of overall trampers was in the 25-34 year age bracket, up from 19.3 per cent of overnight tramps in 2017   to 27.1 per cent in 2021.

Overseas, REI’s 2017 Force of Nature campaign was a concerted effort to advance gender equality in the outdoors. The retail co-op offered 1000 women-only events, filled its social media channels with stories of women adventurers and partnered with Outside magazine for its first women’s issue. The campaign was in response to a US national survey that found 63 per cent of women could not think of an outdoor female role model, while six in 10 women said men’s interests in outdoor activities were taken more seriously than women’s. The North Face followed in 2018 with Move Mountains, a similar campaign

The Gutsy Girls Adventure Film Tour has also raised the profile of women adventurers, starting in 2017 with 267 entries. However, Adventure Reels founder and CEO Jemima Robinson said while film quality has improved, the tour has been hit hard by Covid. “We are still rebuilding to our 2019 attendance numbers.”

Meanwhile, New Zealand’s Spring Challenge has gone from strength to strength. Combining rafting/kayaking, mountain biking, hiking and navigation, the women-only event started in 2007 with 109 teams and grew steadily until it peaked in 2017 with 600 teams. After that, it was capped at 480. It’s the biggest one-day adventure race in the world and was created by adventure racing champion Nathan Fa’avae to increase female participation in adventure racing.. Said Fa’avae: “The amount of women and their families that have been introduced to the outdoors as a result is massive, and the effects far reaching.”