It wasn’t until I met other mountain women that I felt like I had truly found my people. The anomalies among us that are too dude to connect with the classic lady-ladies but too femme to be one of the guys, we found each other out there, dirt under our short nails, no makeup, hair pulled back in various odd hats and bandannas: not, as they say, winning any fashion contests. We spotted each other’s men’s boots and lone duck demeanor, we saw other girls out there who were also on otherwise-all-male rope teams, we noticed there were people like us who blew snot rockets, and spit, and gnawed into beef jerky like animals. Sure we had sports bras on under our shirts and maybe our packs were beautiful shades of teal or eggplant, but the mountains had given us a home where we didn’t have to put on the bling disguise, we didn’t need lip gloss (unless old chapsticks in backpack hip pockets count), we didn’t have to do kitten heels or curling irons, we could just be our authentic, somewhat gender-neutral or at least non-stereotypical selves and get down to the business of summiting things. Smelling the air, reading it like wolves. Fording rivers, duct taping our feet in trailhead parking lots via headlamp light, gripping rocks with hands that would never be decorated with curled airbrushed nails. Eventually looking over, sizing each other up, and quietly coming together with a mutual recognition, forming a bond as thick as blood and as solid and timeless as the mountains themselves.
Clowns To The Left Of Me
Growing up, I never quite felt like I fit in among the girly-girls. I had close friendships with a few girls throughout my childhood and teen years with whom I remain close to this day; they are amazing women and I love them dearly. But as for the stereotypical larger group activities and interests like cheerleading, boy bands, hair & makeup, shopping, any of the school clubs or teams dominated by women? Those didn’t quite fit. But I wasn’t really dude enough to be a full-on tomboy, and I certainly wasn’t athletic enough to do sports with the guys. Aside from running I wasn’t athletic at all. It fits that the one sport-like thing I gravitated toward is the one that’s the least team-oriented. A somewhat antisocial only child introvert who loved silence and solitude, I was not built for team sports, clubs, or committees. I had great and deep friendships, I was semi-popular, I went out and did things, I just didn’t relate to the idea of Team, and gender was never important to me. So from high school and college and beyond, I made friends with men and women equally, sometimes having a guy best friend, sometimes having a girl best friend, but never feeling quite a part of the big chick clique.
Jokers To The Right
Like any woman who becomes “one of the guys,” we like the built-in wall that’s inherent to hanging out with a group of dudes, the one that keeps emotional intimacy at arm’s length and allows us solitude within the illusion of socializing. You can talk all day yet get nothing said. They don’t probe into your inner emotional sanctuary and ask what’s really going on, pointing out that you did that thing with your eyebrow, or that your voice sounds like it does when you’re hurting. They aren’t going to ask how you feel, or what your biggest fears are, your dreams, your regrets.
There is so much stereotyping in this article, which I am usually not a fan of, but for simplicity’s sake I’m going with it. I know there are always exceptions to the cliches, and that leads me to:
Here I Am, Stuck In The Middle With You
One of my life’s very best friends was a man. We talked about everything, we cried in movies and gossiped like vipers, we snuck into closed parking structures late at night to rollerskate down the ramps, we laughed till it hurt and knew everything about each other. He always said he could tell if I was ok or not by the way the phone rang when I called. So I know they’re out there, the emotionally evolved men. But my usual experience with hanging with the guys is that it’s safe and superficial and I can hide in that. But the girls, and there’s a core group of us that have known each other since childhood, and a bunch more from high school, I can’t hide from them. Within minutes of a reunion, we are talking in depth about our feelings, about aging, losing parents, considering affairs, breast cancer, why we always put other people’s feelings above our own and bend over backwards taking care of everyone but ourselves. Inevitably someone says something about self-care and we all laugh uproariously. Self-what? We have shared childhood experiences and years and years–decades–of history as our foundation.
Those are two examples of specific experiences I’ve been blessed with which are the opposite of my usual experiences. My usual experience is that I don’t feel like I belong in a beauty parlor or a perfume department, yet I can’t belch words or throw a ball either. My usual experience is that any group activity that is geared hardcore toward either gender (a wedding expo, a monster truck rally) is going to be somewhere I’ll feel out of place. My usual experience is that I don’t like pink or blue, I like gray, which is superbly hilarious from a symbolism standpoint.
The Mountains Don’t Care
When I started really hiking more and more, it was mostly solo. By “mostly” I mean that the first year I kept track of my stats, I went on 104 hikes, and of those 104 hikes, I was only not-solo for 11 of them. I loved being out there alone and free. I loved that the woods and the peaks didn’t evoke that feeling of not belonging, and it reminded me of why growing up in California I always loved the beach so much: it was that same overwhelming unconditional Mother Nature love that is so powerful and intricate and complex that there just isn’t room for our petty gender-based societal norms. All the mental static of the city with its clothes and expectations and limits and ideals and games stays in the city–that stuff is no match for the erosion of coastlines, the slow carving of glaciers, the sound of a windstorm in a forest. It’s no match for the feeling of summiting a mountain after the climb took everything you had and then some, and you had to reach deep and push through altitude sickness or vertigo or exhaustion or fear, or worse, the summit’s biggest enemy–self doubt–and despite it all, standing on top, tears in your eyes, the feeling of your best self triumphing over whatever self-imposed limits you had, before that moment, but are now letting go of. Have let go of. It’s the feeling of freedom.
The mountains don’t care, is why I love them. I don’t mean they don’t care about us and our souls, because I believe they do. It’s the healthy kind of “don’t care” as in, they don’t care what we look like or how much we make, they don’t care if we are short, tall, man, woman, or what our race or education level or religion (or lack of) is. We are just humans. All they expect from us is that we show up, and we try, that we are present, and that we respect the ground we walk on. The harshness is another facet of the notion of “don’t care:” when it comes to weather, accidents, icefall, crevasses, exposure, and the like, the mountains don’t spare the women and children first, they don’t spare the best hikers, the mothers, the newlyweds, the gifted, the pretty. They do their thing regardless; when we are on them, we are subject to whatever that thing is, be it an avalanche or a not-in-the-forecast change in weather or random rockfall, no matter who we are. We are all equals out there. I could get just as killed as you. It makes us all the same, all in it together, all aware of the sheer frailty of life. I love the paradoxes and dichotomies of being so impersonal and yet so intimate with something that ranges from completely intangible (“the feel of the air at certain times of the year”) to something so immersive, something we become one with, having all our senses set on high, forest bathing in all the scents and sounds and smells and sights around us, seeing everything, being everything. It’s still fascinating to me that an allegedly inanimate object can be so alive, so teeming with emotion, but that it’s all one-sided and impartial. I will never mean to the mountains what they mean to me, and maybe that anonymity is some of the attraction.
Forming Your Tribe
They’re out there, women like you and me. We’re the ones that don’t quite fit in at the wine parties in the neighborhood painting studios, the ones who aren’t bashful about peeing outdoors, the ones who have always been one of the guys. As we climb together we start to talk, about everything, and we get deep quick. The women I hike with I might not see or even talk to every day but the sturdiness of the foundation and the awareness that we have found someone special and are just glad to know they exist: that’s worth way more than people I see all the time. We put our lives in each other’s hands out there, we help each other through meltdowns, we bear witness to each other’s biggest life-changing moments as we stand in both victory and humility on summits we couldn’t have attained alone. We sleep in our cars for alpine starts together, we share toothbrushes, we filter water for each other, share food and sunscreen and gatorade and gloves. We don’t mock or shame when one of us has an exposure panic attack. I love my man climbing partners but I have to admit I’m far less likely to be real with my emotions around them, and far more likely to suck it up and pretend I’m not scared or tired or worried. Even when traveling on a rope team with men I’m more likely to push myself past the point of cardiovascular discomfort rather than ask them to slow it down a touch. But my girls? We can (and do) ask each other anything.
Again I know this is full of generalizations, and I’ve known my fair share of people who don’t fit the mold. And maybe that’s the thrilling conclusion of this little bit of rambling: women that hike like we do, voraciously, obsessively, boldly, don’t fit the mold. And I like people that don’t fit the mold. I don’t fit the mold. I like that we can not fit the mold together, that being a bit different than the typical girl doesn’t mean we have to feel alone; rather, it means we get to find the ones out there that are just like us and collect them like gemstones, like members of a secret club, like chosen family. Mountain family.
Wendy Harrington is a California native who has lived in a small town at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington state since 2001. Her love of trail running and peakbagging has led her to summit all five Washington volcanoes, climb to the high points of three states, and put nearly a thousand miles a year on her boots. Her loves include ridgelines, saddles, granite, one-day pushes on big mountains, anything volcanic, long solo days, and objectives that push limits and test endurance.