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AK Mountain Women Personal Trip Report

Sophia Walling-Bell

August 2019

This reflection comes after participating on the AK Mountain Women spring 2019 Wrangell St.

Elias trip, in which we spent a week on the south east fork of the Chisana glacier and achieved

two first all-female ascents.

Though I was raised in Fairbanks, Alaska and have been given ample opportunities to engage

with wild spaces, this trip, for some reason, allowed me to think about the way we engage with

nature in new ways. It was a bigger trip than I had ever done before, and pushed me mentally,

which I think is where a lot of these questions and thoughts arose from. Being pushed mentally

is tough, it’s something that I honestly don’t think I have had to face for years. But from

discomfort and challenge often comes change and thoughtfulness, which ultimately is a gift.

Why do we go into the mountains? This was something that I asked myself a lot during the

course of the trip. Is it to feel accomplished? To feel excited? Happy? Connected to the land? Is

it to fulfill egos? To truly explore and connect to the wild part that we all have inside of us? Is it

because we want to be stewards of the land? To create awareness so that it has a better

chance of lasting? Is it to build relationships? Many, many questions swirled around in my head

as I asked myself what I was doing out in the middle of the Wrangell Mountains on an isolated


And as I thought about it more, I began to wonder what the point is of standing on top of a

mountain. Of course, there’s a sense of satisfaction, and for some, a calling to see the world

from up high, not to mention that it’s beautiful. But I also began to feel that there are ways to

speak about it that are more grounded than others. That the term “peak bagging” feels like an

inadequate way of honoring these mountains and wild spaces. That it makes it into a

competition, another way of white people conquering spaces that don’t belong to us. When we

give new names to mountains we aren’t honoring the Indigenous names that might belong there

already, and we are assuming that we know the best names to give these incredibly wild places.

Though there’s some movement to change this, mountaineering and outdoor recreation is an

incredibly white and privileged sector. We aren’t hearing from the voices of people whose

ancestors have been in these landscapes for thousands of years. We aren’t aware of their

stories with the mountains, and while everyone is allowed to create their own story and meaning

for spaces, I think it’s important to honor the fact that white narratives are not the only ones

present. I think this is something that I am even more in tune with in Alaska because of the

duality of names for different mountains and villages that exist within these regions, such as

Denali vs. Mt. McKinley. This kind of change in language is powerful. By using language that is

respectful, open, positive, and less gender-based we disrupt the white male dominant culture in

the outdoor industry of “conquering mountains”, “sending” projects, and things being “gnarly

bro.” We welcome space for people to talk about the beauty of the land, the connection one

feels to plants or a place, the gifts that are offered and the reciprocity we owe to these lands that

have given us so much.

I realized that ultimately, for me, there was a lot more to being in a wild mountain landscape

than just summiting a mountain. Yes, it is an athletic and mental accomplishment, but I realized

there are other aspects of being in wilderness that are important beyond standing on high

points: How can we interact with the landscape? How can we be stewards of the land for

generations to come? How can we reduce our impact? How can we use art to inspire and

educate others who don’t have access to this kind of wilderness on the importance of protecting

these wild spaces? How can we honor the earth and create an inclusive and welcoming space

for all humans? Needless to say, the many hours spent sitting in the cold, windy tent allowed for

a lot of brainstorming around new ideas for how to create more alternative approaches to

spending time in wild spaces beyond summiting peaks or other mainstream motives.

I know that there’s a big movement in alpinism to go light and fast, and I appreciate that

sometimes with weather windows you have to go quickly to achieve a summit, but this trip

taught me that there’s a lot to be gained from slowing down and going more intentionally, even if

a mountain summit isn’t reached. By having a basecamp and being in one space for a week, we

were able to watch the landscape change around us with the storms. I was able to hone in on

the details of the textures that the wind created on the snow, the way that the snow walls

sagged and collapsed with the force of the high altitude sun and wind. I noticed the parallels in

texture between this frozen glacier and the hot desert I had been in weeks before in Utah, how

both sand and snow could act in the same ways. I spotted a raven soaring around on one of our

summit approaches, and wondered how and why it got there, with nothing but vast white all

around? With stillness there’s time to soak in a landscape, to sit with questions, to watch how

the environment works even when we aren’t there. It felt more fulfilling than going in for two

days, climbing two peaks, and then leaving. I can close my eyes and still see all of the

mountains around that glacial basin, I can picture how the clouds were forming, and hear the

wind whipping around the tent walls. After about four days at our camp I was able to tune into

these small things, and feel more connected to the landscape. I was more a part of it than

simply a visitor passing through.

I think that many people in the world of outdoor endeavors are environmentalists, whether on a

big or small scale. We care about protecting wild spaces; for their beauty, their ecosystems, and

also as our recreation sites. But while on the glacier I realized that the effort it took for us to be

out there required a lot of resources. We needed to have all of the synthetic gear to live in an

inhospitable place, we flew out to our base camp spot instead of arriving on foot, and all of our

food was in plastic single-use packaging for convenience in cold weather. Though we weren’t

doing a cruise, we still had a footprint to make this trip happen. It made me think about the ways

in which we as individuals can make small changes to transform our resource relations while in

wild spaces. Yes, political advocacy and policy change is crucial, but if there’s a demand for oil-

based products, such as plastic, because everyone is constantly using them, then it’s hard to

convince those in power to move away from supporting the oil industry. These changes need to

come from the bottom up as well as top down, and by making small changes we show that as

individuals we are committed to what these policy changes would potentially mean for our lives

in many small, habitual ways. On the mountain that looks like reimagining food packaging, doing

human-powered trips, and also being really careful about the land that we tread on and our

physical footprint impact as well as our fossil fuel one.

These trips are expensive. They require the financial resources that many, including myself,

don’t have to make them happen. Money is required for appropriate gear, food, fuel, time off

work, training and education, sometimes permits, flights, and more. They are not accessible to

everyone. Though we may say that these wild lands are for everyone, the reality is that financial

hurdles restrict many people’s access to them. Because of our history of white colonization and

theft of Indigenous lands, this is particularly accurate for Indigenous peoples trying to access

their ancestral spaces.So how do we open these kinds of experiences up to a larger

demographic? I got a generous grant from the AAC to help fund this trip, and grants are a great

way to start, but it’s also important to think about the organization that is giving these grants

away. What kind of trips and outdoor culture are they supporting? Are they willing to start these

challenging conversations that might go against their historical practices in order to include new

and more diverse experiences on outdoor recreation? Do they sponsor athletes that are working

to disrupt the status quo in more ways than new summits or speed records?

I thought of the people who had donated money to support our cause. But what was our cause?

All I had done that day was lie in my sleeping bag and eat mac and cheese, trying to stay

hydrated and fed and warm. Back to the very basics. Is this what people had donated for? It

made me think of the ways in which we could use trips like this to raise awareness around other

issues. Yes, we were a group of all women going into a pretty remote area to get some first

ascents, and while that felt exciting, it also felt pretty similar to what a lot of other trips are. To be clear, I got a phenomenal amount of personal growth out of this trip. I learned about imposter

syndrome, the power of self doubt versus positive self-talk, and that I know how to take care of

myself in these kinds of environments. I learned even more about clear communication while in

the field, the ins and outs of expedition planning, and many small tips and tricks from the other

women. But with all of that said, I also wanted to think about the bigger impacts that a trip like

this could have. I wondered about how we could use this kind of trip to advocate for

sustainability? For Indigenous people and lands? For learning to be more present? To create a

space for adventure and art and science and public advocacy to all come together? I don’t have

the answers yet, but it opened up my mind to the ways in which we can use the power of our

voices and experiences to create positive change, even in small-scale ways.

This trip taught me the importance of mental preparation for big expeditions. To have the mental

toughness to cope with cold temperatures, to deal with being hungry, to process not achieving a

goal, to manage being so isolated from the world, to assess and manage the risks that are

associated with trips like this, and to deal with having to fully rely on myself and my partners. It

wasn’t easy for me, and I also had to face the reality of imposter syndrome, a strange concept

that essentially made me second guess the skills that I had, and what I could bring to the table. I

think this was the most difficult part of the trip for me: trying to find the balance between not

having an ego and being aware that I don’t know everything, while not losing sight of the skills

that I do know, and feeling confident in myself to handle the risks. There were multiple times

when self-doubt won, and that was extremely hard to deal with. Not only because I didn’t like

letting myself down, but also because I didn’t want to let the seven other women on my team

down. This was rooted in a personal history of doing trips with predominantly males, and often

finding myself in a place where my voice wasn’t heard and my experiences nullified. This,

coupled with the fact that I had never been on a trip with any of these women before made it

harder to have concrete experiences to lean on for why this trip would be different, and that

things would be okay.

One of the really phenomenal parts of this trip was the level of communication and support that

our group of eight women had. As I mentioned, we had never been on a trip all together and I

had never even met half of them, yet the ability of our group to communicate clearly and make

smart decisions was something that I really valued. This is something that I felt very

appreciative of, and was the basis for why I wanted to participate in this expedition. I believe it is

incredibly important to make sure that everyone is given a voice, and the opportunity to use it, to

feel heard and appreciated and valued. This is a basic desire that we all have, and in trip

settings when there are many risks to manage and important decisions to be made, it becomes

even more imperative that everyone be given the chance to be involved and heard. And while

this trip left me with many, many questions around the sport of mountaineering, and there are

still many unknowns in terms of how I will approach future trips, ultimately I realized that clear

communication will always be the basis of how I operate.

I hope to continue to revisit these questions year after year, to constantly push for a way of

interacting with sacred wild spaces that feels like I am doing them justice, and creating spaces

for people to connect with themselves and others. I hope to raise conversations around these

topics, to encourage others to examine the language they use and how it creates certain

mindsets, and to be open to hearing other’s ideas and input. No one is perfect, and the process

to change these norms and systems takes time and constant work. I do not profess to create

the perfect expedition into the wilderness the very next time I do a trip, but I do hope to keep

these things in mind when I implement future trips, both big and small. I’m grateful for the

opportunity to have had this kind of experience, and to have had a team who supported me and

lifted me up when I couldn’t do it for myself. Thank you to Katie McCaffrey, Casey Patten, Mary

Gianotti, Kit Cunningham, Auri Clark, Beth Louden, and Ashley Klassen.

-- Sophia Walling-Bell

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