Gender Bias In The Hiking Community

“Whoa, check out that dude!”

“That’s my girlfriend.”

I had just climbed my first of the Cascade volcanoes, Mt. St. Helens. I was with my boyfriend, who isn’t much of a hiker but he’s a skier and a good sport and I had scored a permit that happened to fall on his birthday, so he let me drag him along. The Weather Gods were with us that day: May can be incredibly unpredictable here in the Pacific Northwest, but the morning clouds had parted to reveal bright blue skies, and the chance of afternoon precipitation was zero. It was cold enough to keep the snow in good firm climbing condition, but warm enough to take an extended break at the crater rim without freezing. The standard route ends about a hundred or so feet lower than the true summit, but most people call it good right there, have a snack, take photos, and marvel at the incredibly powerful up-close view of what was once the inside of the mountain. The sweeping motion of the great landslide caused by the 1980 eruption remains carved in the walls of the crater, the new little nubbin in the middle tries to grow, little puffs of steam escaping now and then, and Rainier and Adams rise from the earth as you gaze first to the north and then to the east. It’s a profound landscape, one of those where the story of what happened can be seen clearly in the geography, and it’s a perfectly fine place to stop and rest and take it all in, and is generally accepted as “the summit.”

However. Me being me, if there’s something called a “true summit,” I’ve got to be on it. So after a sandwich and some photo-taking, I left the boyfriend there and started walking across the snow. The walk wasn’t exactly dangerous but I could see why some might skip it, as the slope was steeper, the runout further, and a bootpath non-existent. Scrambling over some big boulders with that fun crampon-on-rock screech and traversing across the slope, ice axe in hand, then walking up a short but steep rise on the rim, careful to stay back from the edge of the cornice, I was the only person who had walked over this way. I stood alone on the true summit.

To the crowd gathered at the other summit, I was merely a tiny black dot atop the white crest of the rim’s high point [see photo]. That was when one of the other hikers pointed over at me and said, “whoa, check out that dude!” My boyfriend happened to be standing right next to him and looked over, pausing for effect, and said, “That’s my girlfriend.” One could argue that he meant “dude” in the androgynous way people say “hey guys,” but when I heard about the exchange later, that’s not what I got from it.

What I got from it was that if it’s a little spicy of a climb, it must be a man up there. Not that a woman couldn’t do it, but the assumption is that it’s a male, and there is surprise that it’s a female, not the other way around. Sort of like when you mention your doctor and someone asks his name.

Other assumptions in the hiking world:

  • Hiking alone as a male is fine, as a female is dangerous
  • Men are less apt to get lost or injured than women

That first one has bothered me from day one. I’m an only child and a single mother, and my independent streak is the only one I have. Hiking alone carries the same risks for men as it does for women, and while there are some folks who don’t believe anyone should ever hike alone, there isn’t any evidence to support the notion that solo women are in any more danger than solo men when it comes to nature’s risk factors (avalanche, hypothermia, rockfall, dropping into a crevasse, trees falling, drowning, injury, cougars, snakes, fire and brimstone, etc). Both genders are equally vulnerable to being attacked by a complete lunatic, but it’s rare for assault to occur in the wilderness (the most likely place is the parking lot at the trailhead and even then it’s not common). So that leaves the only difference as us having to deal with those creepy overly-friendly men who use trails as a pick-up joint. This attitude of “you shouldn’t hike alone” needs to stop, and people also need to know that “alone” doesn’t mean unprepared. “Alone” doesn’t mean unprotected. “Alone” is a beautiful way to explore the mountains, and no one can take that from you just because you happen to be a woman. Be safe and be smart, but be wherever you please.

The ratio of male to female SAR subjects has historically been about the same as the ratio of male to female hikers. That is to say, more men signal for help from SAR, but more men are out hiking; and that only about a third of SAR calls are female is proportionate to our making up of about a third of the hiking community. If anything, depending on the year and the study, there are more men per capita getting injured or lost out there than women. Is that because men take more risks and bite off more than they can chew while women tend to be a little more planful in their activities? Is it because our intuition often leads us back out of being lost? Or is it because men have a harder time asking for help whereas we don’t mind? Whatever the reason, the numbers speak for themselves: we aren’t flailing around out there like damsels in distress. There may be a lot of sports, hobbies, or activities in which men excel over women, but hiking isn’t really one of them; the playing field is pretty darn even.

Here’s something that gets my goat: That a man does [insert name of difficult mountain here] and posts about it on social, and gets some congratulatory yet nonchalant “way to go” sorts of comments, some likes and thumbs ups and an overall tone of “nice work.” A woman does [same exact mountain] and gets praised with “badass” and “beast” and “rockstar” with undercurrents of awe, almost reverence. Like it’s a surprise that we could do it. It seems like men have to do harder things to get the same kudos (can feel unfair to them), and that we get huge compliments for doing pretty normal hiking things (can feel condescending to us). Sometimes we even get my favorite: “Wow, that’s bad ass. Were you by yourself?” I rarely see that on man social. In fact, I bet I could tell you the gender of the hiker based on the vibe of the comments. Sometimes, because I’m a smart aleck, when a man friend tells me about some mountain or other he’s climbed, I’ll say something like “That’s impressive! I hope you weren’t [voice drops like I’m about to talk about a colonoscopy or someone who’s within earshot] alone. ” Sometimes it’s the only way to bring awareness to this issue, sometimes they have to feel how ridiculous it feels, so they can move toward this cultural shift that I keep hoping is coming.

It’s our job to challenge these behaviors and beliefs. We have to keep the conversation alive, point things out, ask questions, ask why: When your friend asks if she’s ok when they hear of a rescued hiker, point out that the news hadn’t released the hiker’s identity and ask why they assumed she. When your city friends ask if your husband goes with you hiking to keep you safe, ask why they feel you need a man for that. And when someone points out some dude doing something radical, let them know that’s your girlfriend.