I summited my first fourteener with two badass wilderwomen.
Lexi, my new roommate, and I drove over 200 miles to surprise my best friend: Country Courtney. I wore a wizard’s costume and Lexi wore a rainbow clown wig when we pulled up to her trailer. A man walked out of her trailer and I asked, “Is Courtney in there?” He said yes, looking at us with confusion and bemusement. “Can you tell her we hit her car and she should come and check it out?”
He laughed. “You hit her car?”
“It’s fucked up,” Lexi said.
Courtney came outside to find us in costume instead of a dent in her car. I hugged my best friend and I’m willing to get covid for it.
“Do you guys want to hike a 14er tomorrow?” Courtney asked.
“That’s why we’re here!” I screamed.
We loaded up the car and camped at the base of Mt. Princeton, or Chalk Peak. Historically it has been called Chalk Peak for it’s white cliffs- made of a rock called kaolinite formed by hot springs. The mountain was renamed “Mt. Princeton” by a white man who “discovered” the mountain 65 million years after the Sawatch range was formed. He didn’t discover shit. He came to a beautiful place, didn’t attempt to learn anything about the mountain from the native people who had a relationship with it, and renamed the peak after his fucking college.
We got out of our sleeping bags at 4:30am and drove to the trailhead. There is something so shitty about waking up before the sun that makes me want to do it. Of course it would be easy and nice to stay in my warm sleeping bag, but I was looking for a damn challenge. An uncomfortable experience! It was 43 degrees at 5am and light enough not to use a headlamp. I found myself eager to hike and peeved at all things unnatural- the car, music, lights.
The sunrise on the mountain cast a pink glow on the trees that softened my soul. The road up to the mountain was chalky, dusty and full of rocky pot holes. The trees turned orange as the sun continued to cast it’s light on the mountain.
We ate yogurt, granola, and a banana. We drank coffee and tried to shit in a hole before leaving treeline. Our first steps up the mountain began at 6:45am, which I found a great deal of annoyance in how long it took for everyone to be ready..
“Anything you guys want to leave at the trailhead?” I asked, sharing that I wanted to leave behind my obsession with time and annoyance for starting late. “I am happy to be here now,” I said, smiling at the gnarled pinyon pines and junipers.
“I would like to leave behind anger,” Courtney said. “I have been so angry with the people in my life.” She explained her troubling dynamics with new roommates and new coworkers and expressed a desire to find more peace and harmony within herself.
“I want to leave behind anxiety and fear of this mountain,” Lexi said, worried about the potential of altitude sickness and not being strong enough to hike it. “I want to bring trust within myself,” she said.
We hiked up and we hiked hard, gaining a little over 1,000 feet of elevation every mile. We quickly ascended over 12,000 ft where the treeline ended and the rock scramble began. We were completely exposed- the tallest thing on the mountain was our head.
At first glance the boulder field looked lifeless, blank, and devoid of a trail. When we zoomed in our attention, we actually found that the mountain still harbored so much life. Little yellow and purple flowers poked out of mossy rocks. At elevations above tree line it can take 1,000 years to develop one inch of new soil! Tiny, furry pikas squeaked at us, then darted into the crevices of the rock. Small black spiders crawled fast over the grey rocks and birds soared above our heads, catching wind patterns and drifting effortlessly through the air.
“There is a way that nature speaks, that land speaks. Most of the time we are simply not patient enough, quiet enough, to pay attention to the story.”Linda Hogan
We decided to dedicate the day’s hike to someone important in our lives.
“I would love to dedicate this trail to my dad, mostly because he would never do this,” I laughed, putting my hand over my heart for my dad who passed away from brain cancer when I was seventeen.
“He would have stayed at the trailhead with a book,” Courtney added.
“Yep, and promised to be there when we’re done. Of course he would get bored, go to town, find a bookstore and not come back until an hour after we’re done hiking. But he would have a book for everyone,” I said, shaking my head with a smile.
Lexi dedicated the hike to her mom. “She is the strongest woman I know. She is so selfless, and put herself through some dark and scary moments to bring peace to myself and my siblings lives. I want to honor her for that.”
“I want to dedicate this hike to my grandpa Joe,” Courtney said. He passed away when she was sixteen. He was the man who introduced her to playing in nature.
“Fourteeners are kind of ugly,” Courntey said.
“What?!” I exclaimed.
“There’s no trees!” she said.
“There’s no way fourteeners are ugly,” I busted out laughing. “It’s a view hike the whole damn time! But yes, I do miss trees.”
At any given moment we could stop for water or sunscreen break, look around and say: WOAH! Towering above everything around us, we could see the valley Buena Vista sits in, the forest of pines and spruces, the Arkansas River winding through the Mosquito mountain range and other towering peaks over 10,000ft were stunningly below us. The Mosquito range across the valley is sinking, while the Sawatch mountains that we stood on are rising about an inch every year.
At a certain point, my brain was devoid of thought besides: “keep climbing” and “don’t stop climbing.” It was the game of one foot in front of the other. Don’t look back to see how far I’ve come, don’t look up to see how far I have to go. Look down at my feet, watch for wobbling rocks, be careful with my ankles getting stuck in crevices, and breathe, damnit. No conversation except the occasional “whew!” and “hell yeah!” and “we got this!” carried us up the last 500 feet of elevation. We encouraged each other to keep climbing and reminded each other often that we were strong ass women.
The summit was spectacular! It may be the singular most beautiful peak I have ever hiked to. We were rewarded with 360 views of snowy peaks, grassy meadows and white, fluffy clouds. The air was crisp and the sun was warm. Somehow we had the peak to ourselves.
I made a proclamation to the mountains: “Oh mighty mountains! I promise to stand on more of your peaks, to continue challenging my body, and bring women with me! I want to use this land as an opportunity for connection and build community out here. I want to lift others up the way these mountains have lifted me up. Thank you Great Gaia, for these beautiful mountains and these beautiful friends to share it with.”
Lexi shared her gratitude to the mountains: “I have always dreamed of outdoor adventures with badass ladies. I am grateful for my able body that is capable of doing this. I’m so proud to be surrounded by strong women. Thank you to my mom who is the strongest woman I know. Thank you, beautiful mountains for teaching me that I am strong too.”
Courtney shared a reflection: “Last year I went to an outdoor education conference, and a woman shared a powerpoint with Mt. Princeton on it. She talked about summitting our own peaks, which were goals. I wrote down my biggest goal, my Mt. Princeton, was to become a raft guide. And I’m a mother fucking raft guide now! Today I had anxiety not going on the river, and I think that shows how much I love it and how much I care. I’m proud of myself.”
We whooped and we hollered, we hooped and we danced. We celebrated being on top of the mountain. We celebrated our strength and our friendship. We could’ve stayed up there all day.
Why did it feel significant to summit this mountain with women?
Why does this matter?
Historically, women have faced institutional bias and restricted access to the outdoors.
Women weren’t allowed to climb Mt. Fuji until 1912.
When the National Park Service began in 1916, park ranger jobs were listed as “men only.” Clare Hodges disregarded this bullshit and applied anyway, and in 1918 became the first female park ranger. She was the only fully commissioned female park ranger for THIRTY YEARS.
Women were not allowed to compete in the Boston Marathon until 1972. The first race began in 1897- that’s 75 fucking years of women not being allowed to run beside men. In 1967, a male official tried to push Kathryn Switzer off the Boston Marathon course, because women weren’t allowed to compete. She signed her entry form “K.V. Switzer” in order to receive a number to compete, misleading the officials to believe she was a man.
Historically, women have faced discrimination and blatant hate from men in the outdoors. Arlene Blum led the first all women’s ascent of Annapurna- one of the world’s most dangerous and technically difficult mountains. She also led the first all women’s ascent of Mt. Denali. At the Denali base camp, she was told “women weren’t allowed past the kitchen.”
Fran P. Mainella became the first woman director of the National Park Service in 2001. The National Park Service was created in 1916. That’s 85 years without a woman’s voice in power.
A survey of National Park employees conducted in 2000 revealed that over half of female rangers had experienced sexual harassment on the job.
The wilderness is not always a safe place for women. From sexual assault to pay discrimination to microaggression all the way to everyone’s favorite: mansplaining. In most of my guiding career as a backpacker, climber, hiker, and paddler I have found myself the only woman on all male teams. I have fought for my voice to be heard, my body to be respected, and my experience to be valued.
It felt safe to hike a fourteener with two women. Courtney is an EMT and Lexi and I are both Wilderness First Responders. There was no underlying sexual tension or advancement. There was no pressure to look a certain way, as the media advertises women hiking in matching sports bra and leggings with straightened hair and no sweat. There were no judgmental words like “butch” or “lesbian” or “tomboy” that people often use to describe women who are strong and who like the outdoors.
It felt empowering to hike a fourteener with two women because throughout my life I have been friends with mostly boys. My uncle took me on my first hike. My first backpacking trip was with eight men and two women. My high school cross country and track coaches were men. My dad coached my softball and basketball teams. I was hired for my first backpacking guiding job by a man and mentored by him. Men have heavily influenced my love for the outdoors and have passed down many technical skills that I am grateful to have.
It felt connecting to hike a fourteener with two women because I was reminded of the wild women in my life who have introduced me to the wilderness. My sister hiked the Appalachian trail and gave me my first backpack and tent. My friend Jess gave me my first climbing harness and taught me how to climb multi-pitch. My mom bought a paddleboard and took me down the James River. My roommate Casey lended me all of her backpacking gear for my first trip. My friend Hayley hiked the PCT and told me I would eventually learn to love the smell of my own BO. And oh baby, do I!
It felt powerful to hike a fourteener with two women because frankly, it’s not common. While hiking the mountain, we saw several dad/son combinations. We met a man riding his mountain bike and he told us, “my wife thinks this is a terrible idea.” We saw a private guided group, led by a man. We met two trail runners who were men. We met one family with a dad, son and mother hiking. The fact of the matter is that we were the only women hiking group out there.
And that’s fucking special!
Women belong in the wilderness.
Our society has a long way to go before we can create a wilderness experience that is safe and accessible for all genders and all races. The mountain of inequality is rocky and needs some erosion.
Get involved and Get Outside!
Link to Regional Meetup Groups for Women: https://www.meetup.com/topics/women-outdoors/
Outdoor Women’s Alliance groups (PNW, Canada, CO, UT): outdoorwomensalliance.com/join-us
21 Organizations to Support: https://she-explores.com/features/outdoor-organizations-we-love-supporting/
Podcasts by women in the outdoors:
Female Pioneers Who Paved the Way for Women in the Outdoors https://www.rei.com/blog/hike/female-pioneers-paved-way-women-outdoors
Women Who Made Wilderness History https://www.wilderness.org/articles/article/11-women-who-made-wilderness-history#
Women in the Outdoors https://thedyrt.com/magazine/lifestyle/issue-01-women-outdoors/
Women Writers to Quote https://thedyrt.com/magazine/lifestyle/inspiring-outdoorsy-women-quotes-on-nature/
Barriers to women in the outdoors https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1527&context=honorstheses