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Sisterhood in the Wild

Katie wrote a literary review of the history of wilderness and women for a university course last year. This is an abbreviated version to fit blog format.

Elmina Buhl dropping into a bergschrund on Fremont Glacier in 1924

The Alaska Mountain Women share a love of Alaska and the outdoors. Our expeditions encompass adventure and learning, empowerment, athleticism, and a means for sharing our concern for our planet. Alaskan glaciers are at the forefront of global climate change due to the accelerated temperature rise in Arctic regions, and their decline is at the root of long-term catastrophic sea level rise. Our glaciers, set in remote wilderness, symbolize Earth’s plight, and we are eager to explore and document their changing landscapes.

Western perspectives on wilderness have evolved over time. European explorers brought to America a belief that the means to survival lay in fertile land with a gentle climate. Cold mountainous regions filled with predators and other threats were thought to be too hostile to support a peaceful existence. The rise of Romanticism in the early 1800s, however, led to the widespread Western appreciation for pristine Nature as the antidote to the materialization and mechanization of 18th century society during the Industrial Revolution. These positive attitudes towards the natural world, as well as the huge increase in income and leisure time, led the way for natural heritage tourism and the concept of Alaska as The Last Frontier. The environmental movement which followed has now brought us to the realization that our society is overwhelming the wilderness landscape and is threatening its destruction through our enthusiasm for enjoying it and through our culture of consumption. The most wild, we are discovering, is the most fragile. Through our interactions with the environment that provides us so much joy, each Alaska Mountain Women member is developing her own set of land ethics and a sense of stewardship for protecting these vital areas.

A defining feature of our expedition team is its makeup, eight young female skiers and splitboarders with a common interest in wilderness. International mountain guide Charlotte Austin writes about alpinism as a place to explore the boundaries of human potential and explains that one reason women mountain climbers are rare is because the wilderness is still portrayed as not being a place for us to be. And despite the growing number of impressive feats by female mountaineers, media attention frequently favors men climbers. The rise of social media, however, has helped women to connect and support each other. This has definitely been proven true with AK Mountain Women’s social outreach, and mountaineering media has begun taking notice.

Becky, Hannah, and Mary on icefall on Stikine trip '18

The occasional woman is known to have climbed in the Alps in the early 1800s but even by 1900 when an all-female team climbed Switzerland’s Piz Palu, it was not yet considered proper. At that time, women still did not wear pants in public and had to change their clothing in the bushes as they neared the frontcountry, according to Alpinist Magazine’s editor-in-chief Katie Ives. But women persisted, buoyed by the efforts of the women’s suffrage movement. World War II was a turning point for many women who had enjoyed the freedom to work in areas previously restricted to men, and they continued to branch out after the war. The next twenty years saw female-led expeditions in India and beyond, and women began to see themselves as belonging on mountains. In 1963 French climber Claude Kogan made a first ascent of Nun (23,409 feet) in the Himalayas, making it clear that women surely do belong in the wild.

Claude Kogan

While women may be at some disadvantage in circumstances requiring a larger frame or more physical strength, many aspects of climbing such as technical rock skills can actually favor women, and certainly good judgment, leadership, stamina and teamwork skills are possible for all. The concept of the duality male/female characteristics in climbing is limiting since we all are on a continuum of attributes like competitiveness, risk aversion, impulsiveness, and psychological endurance. I’m happy to be on a team of women with various strengths and abilities. We work together and complement each other’s efforts, bound by a sisterhood of the wild.

Barbara Washburn on Mt. Bertha, 1940

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