Standing Tall as a Woman in the Outdoors

Danielle Maxey
Jul 2 · 9 min read

The wind blows around me, whispering through my hair and lightly beating against my jacket. I slowly move one hand out to grip the rock. Than the other. I am completely suspended in the air. I look at the ground and despite being a few thousand feet off the ground, I feel calm. There is nowhere else I would rather be, and I am home. I continue traversing the ridge, testing the rock as I move across it. There is no room for error. One wrong move and I will fall to my death. For many, the dizzying exposure is too much. It incites fear, but for me, it clears my head. I am calm, free, and at peace. Walking along on death’s edge makes me feel truly alive. It is the time when I am most myself.

I become alive in the outdoors. Who I am changes when I step outside When I step into my skis, I become graceful, charging the mountain and flying down the slopes with an ease I have never quite managed when walking. When I strap on my board, I become playful, hitting small jumps and grabbing the fresh powder to make snowballs to throw at my companions. I become focused when I put on my harness and climb up cliffs. Every move is planned out and slowly articulated. I become powerful on boulders, engaging muscles I did not know existed before to through my body up to the next move. When I hike, I become thoughtful, ideas come to me from mundane tasks to daydreams that may become my next novel. When I rappel into canyons, I become mindful. It takes practice to not think about the fact I am shoving my body into tight corners in which I can barely move. And when I am scrambling and traversing peaks, these all come together.

Who I am when I am at work or at home, becomes someone different when I am outside. I become a better version of myself, and I truly believe getting outside helps people. Many times I have taken people out for their first climb, their first mountain, their first slope, and I never grow tired of the joy when they realize they can overcome one of the biggest challenges in the outdoors, themselves. It is a moment of self-realization when you overcome that last obstacle, look behind you and see what feat you have accomplished. It is especially empowering for my female friends, who may never have thought they could do something like that, after a lifetime of hearing mainly about male athletes and their accomplishments. Moreover, after a lifetime of being told that being feminine and being an avid adventurer are two things that could not coexist.

I knew from a young age I didn’t quite fit into the classic notion of the female role. I would proudly wear poofy dresses my grandmother handmade while swinging upside down from the monkey bars at recess. I could never understand why the dress falling down and showing my underwear was such a big deal. “We all wear them”, I remember pointing out to a friend who decided to sing the underpants song after one occasion. What can I say, even little kids are cruel.

I didn’t fit in with the more “feminine” girls on the playground, who were more worried with staying clean and pretty and I didn’t fit in with the “tomboys” who would not be caught dead in a dress. It continues through my life even today. I don’t mind dirt, or not looking completely put together. It has long accepted that put together and my name would never be in the same sentence.

Growing up, I was told that I should feel flattered if boys were picking on me. That meant they liked you. I always thought that was strange and I had no idea why should I even care if boys liked me. There was much more to life than getting married or having children to me. It was not my main goal, or any goal. And while my friends like to play dolls and talk about boys in our elementary school they would marry, I would daydream about traveling and having adventures.

It has been something that defines me to this day. I have friends planning their weddings, having children, buying houses. It has never been a life I wanted, but for many, it has been a long term goal and I am happy for them. But many are not happy for me, not understanding why, even though I have a long term boyfriend, am I not considering marriage.

They assume something is wrong in my life. I’ve heard “you’ll change your mind”, “when you meet the right person,” and a lot of other bullshit people like to say about marriage and children. And after a while, defending life choices becomes old. It wears on you after a while when you are constantly being told that you aren’t feminine or fitting the female role correctly.

It has only been through the years that I have come to realize feminine does not mean one thing. A woman who climbs mountains is not more feminine than a woman who puts together dinner parties. In fact, they can even be same the woman. Feminine is not always having your hair done, your makeup perfect, and your attitude in check. It is not having children and taking care of a husband. Those can be, but it also can be being true to yourself and not letting societal notions pressure you into being someone who you are not. The female role is not a list of rules set in stone and it is something I hope to help one day change perspectives.

Through my love of the outdoors, I hope to inspire women around the world and produce a change where women are seen on the same level when it comes to adventure sports. It is a hard role to fit into when there are many who are against it. It comes from seemingly harmless comments from parents who only tell their daughters to be careful when embarking on the same trip as their sons to people who still believe a woman is not fit to be participating in these activities. This sexism is alive and well in many aspects of our society today, and the world of outdoor adventure sports and travel is no different.

There have been countless times I have faced sexism in the outdoors. And I have faced it in every sport. From skiing to climbing to mountain biking to off-roading. There is a common theme among some men that women simply do not belong in the outdoors, much less in high stakes environments. I have done many sunrise summits, or got an alpine start, and most times, it is assumed I never made it. On my descent I get “You’ll get it next time, ladies”, or “Turning back already?”, or “don’t worry about it, we didn’t make it either”. Comments that have exclusively come from men. When I reply I have already been up and down, they become sullen, giving me comments like “Well, I didn’t make it….”, or “sure…”, or they just completely ignore me.

These comments, while small, can be damaging to women and it is only my competitive streak and my desire to prove men wrong. I belong in the mountains as much as they do. Snippy comments back, outperforming them, and pushing myself harder has been the best way I have found to beat the sexism that comes from being in the outdoors. I have had men over explain how to build anchors for climbing, something I am well versed in. When I explain I already know, it is still explained. Obviously I have no idea what I am talking about.

On a recent trip to Peru this happened as my sister and I joined a group to climb for the day at a local crag. A Canadian man decided neither of us had any idea and proceeded to explain, despite me pointing out my sister went to school for this and knows more about anchor building than most people. He kept telling us it would be okay that we won’t make it to the top of the routes and he could set up lines so we could climb, automatically assuming once again that we didn’t know how to climb, even after us explaining we both had been leading for years.

My crowning achievement that day was leading a climb he was not able to top rope. It was not a particularly difficult one compared to others I have done. But I remember this one the best.

When chatting with another local there, I mentioned I had learned a lot of techniques from my boyfriend. The Canadian man then said that was why I could climb better than him, trying to take this achievement away from me. It did not matter the work I put in myself to be a better climber. The countless hours at the gym I spent climbing to make myself better and stronger, the hours and climbs I did outside of the gym to get the experience, were effectively taken away in that one statement.

It is sexism like this I face many times I am in the mountains. The assumption my boyfriend taught me to ski, rather than the other way around. The assumption I don’t know my gear. The assumption I am scared. The assumption I will make a life threatening mistake. It is constant and it is something I face whenever I go outside.

It is also something that pushed me to better myself. To make sure I know my stuff more than my male counterparts. It is also something I have to work on at home. Many times I get mad at myself when I don’t know something or I make a mistake. It is enough to make myself cry sometimes, not because I am scared. But because I am frustrated and I am pissed. Because I feel like I have let females everywhere down.

It is something I still try to work on in the outdoors. Acceptance. That I will still make many mistakes in the outdoors, and it is not because I am female, but because I am human. It is something many men need to recognize. That mistakes happen and just because a woman makes them, does not mean she is not fit to be in the outdoors. They are learning experiences. Every extreme athlete everywhere has stories where they have utterly and completely messed up. They’ve forgotten to double check their knots climbing or they have gone into avalanche terrain knowingly. Some of these mistakes are survived and some are not.

Men are not told they don’t belong in the outdoors when these mistakes happen, and statistically they are made more by men. So why do women get told they don’t belong?

It is a question that leads me to pushing my own limitations and encouraging other women to do the same. After all, if you can’t join them, beat them.

Many say that maybe in another life they would get the chance to be someone else, do something else. This is my one life. I could be adventurous and wild in another life, or I could be myself in this life. And who else could I possible be in the outdoors other than myself, to be utterly free and truly wild.

To my female readers out there, ignore the voices telling you that you don’t belong there. Go outside, find people who encourage you to be better, and push yourself. You will be amazed at what you find.

And to my male readers, still go outside, enjoy it, but try exploring with women. Don’t be degrading whether it is their thousandth time or their first. And please listen to women in the outdoors. You might learn something.

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