words by Carolyn Highland
There are many spaces where women are told how to be: how to speak, how to act, how to dress, how to think; spaces where we are put into boxes and labeled “right” or “wrong.”
In my North American experience, women are raised in a society that can make us feel that we’re not good enough unless we adhere to the narrow standard set for us. It is easy to carry this attitude into the wilderness, causing us to assume that we must also occupy the outdoors in a “certain way”. “Real” outdoor women don’t wear makeup. “Real” outdoor women are always decked out in technical gear. “Real” outdoor women have to be one of the guys.
It’s as though we have to fit into a singular image of an outdoor woman to be taken seriously.
But when you step outside and observe, you will come to the realization that a singular image, a singular reality, is a falsehood.
We don’t tell the wildflowers that they aren’t the right color, or the river that it has too many curves. We don’t tell the mountains they are too tall, or the trees that they should have more leaves. We look at the wilderness as it is, not as we think it should be.
“Real” flowers and rivers and mountains and trees look all sorts of different ways; they are each right and perfect and enough — as we are.
Getting outside may look different to all of us, but each of want to feel free, strong, connected with something greater, and get a hit of the magic that the outdoors provides.
Women everywhere are working to reject the narrowness of society’s ideals. Within public lands, open spaces, and wildernesses — not just in North America, but beyond — are women standing in their truth — whatever that looks like to them.
Recently, Outdoor Women’s Alliance’s Colorado Front Range Grassroots Team entered into a conversation demonstrating what “getting outside” means. Individual women shared their favorite photo of themselves outdoors and the story behind them. Headed by the original poster, Alicia Copenhafer, the response from team members was overwhelming.
Below are some of the photos and stories taken from the comment section of this post. From the larger comment thread, this selection provides a sample representing the diverse backgrounds, ability levels, and sources of happiness in the outdoors that exist within our community and the moments that illustrate what outdoor women look like at their self-described best:
“… at the age of 41, I successfully hiked my first two 14ers: Mt. Grays and Mt. Bierstadt. Here’s to never being too old to accomplish great things!”
“This was one of my favorite days in the mountains. If you would have told me three years ago that I’d be comfortable with class 3 and 4 exposure I would have likely laughed at you. But here I am, about to tackle a pretty exposed point, just for the fun of it. The end of this climb marked over 35,400 feet of vertical gain for the year — that’s up and down Mount Everest 1.2 times, from sea level. Without the growth I’ve experienced through pushing myself in the wild I would not have the strength to quit my career and pursue my passion for writing and the outdoors.”
“I look ridiculous. I love this picture. I was afraid and excited; it was my first time kayaking. I get down on myself for not being nearly adventurous enough in the great outdoors of Colorado but I’m making small changes to get out there and have a little fun.”
“At 25 weeks pregnant, I conquered a 14er. Climbing high peaks wasn’t new to me, but it was new to be hiking while pregnant. Just after this photo was taken, I fell face first onto the gravelly path after my leg unexpectedly gave out. Instinct kicked in and I protected my belly, but it cost me being able to put out my hands to cushion my fall. I ended up with two sprained ankles, a pulled groin muscle, and a contusion on my lung — but baby was okay! The reason I’m proud of this photo is because I’m not letting pregnancy restrict me from doing the things I love. I’ve also learned that there are limitations and that’s okay; I’m still a strong woman!”
“This photo is on day two of my first backpacking trip last summer (2016). We hiked Segment 9 of the Colorado Trail. I was by far the slowest out of the group and had to be okay with asking for breaks. I kept telling myself the mountain wasn’t going anywhere, but in big group it’s always hard to ask for breathers. The summer of 2015 I had a pulmonary embolism and I haven’t been the same since that diagnosis so this trip was my first big feat since. It helped me prove to myself that I could do anything I put my mind to. Even in the struggles of elevation gain, the long days with a heavy pack, I did it. I feel so much happier and alive outside. After this trip, I felt empowered to do anything, to try any new sport. I just needed the confidence in myself, my legs, my feet and my mind — and this trip helped me find it.”
“This was the day I summited Quandary Peak. My first 14er just happened to be in the winter. As an oxygen-dependent person, my climb was dependent on if we could haul enough oxygen up the mountain to complete this hike and to make sure my regulator did not freeze in the conditions. It took some planning, but we did it. It’s humbling to know you can’t live without medical intervention but that doesn’t mean you can’t live! Every mile tells a story; a story of struggle to draw every breath and muscles that want to quit, a story of the relentless pursuit to prove that you’re out there doing exactly what you love to do!”
“This is one of my more recent favorites … I was coming off a bad streak of depression and hadn’t had the energy or desire to get outdoors most of the spring and summer. But this day I got out and was happy. I’m not doing anything [hardcore] but the story behind this day was a turning point for me. And that’s why I love it. That’s why I felt empowered this day.”
“When I was 25 I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and suffered from debilitating migraines almost daily. I was an athlete and lover of the outdoors. I realized, as I approached my 27th birthday, that I had never attempted to summit a 14er. I decided to show my doctors what I was capable of [and planned to do Bierstadt, a 14er in Colorado’s Front Range], for my upcoming birthday. The week of my birthday ‘party’ to summit Bierstadt, I was also diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I almost didn’t go, but I’m a stubborn person and I had to prove that just because my body was failing me that I wasn’t a quitter. My (now) husband, brother, and some of my closest friends started the trip to the summit with me at 6 a.m. It was very painful for me and I was super slow compared to the rest of my party. With the summit in sight, weather began rolling in. At my pace, it wasn’t safe to [continue to the summit]. We made it to 13,705′ and had to head back down. I spent nearly 9 hours on that mountain with some of the most awesome people I know. I was really bummed that I didn’t make it to the top, but I’ll try again in the future.”
“Last summer, I hiked the John Muir Trail with one of my best girl friends (pictured) from college. On day 20 of 23, we reached Forester Pass (13,143′), the highest pass on the trail. Over those 20 days, we met some of the kindest, most generous people, and I learned more about myself than I ever expected. The transformation from day one to day 20 is hard to put into words, but my body language in this photo shows it well. I can’t find another picture where I am this confident, strong, and comfortable in my own skin.”
“A very rare selfie: I taught myself how to ski last year and, after quitting a job that led to complete burnout, made it a goal to get out as much as possible before finding the next job. This was me on day 19 of my first [ski] season ever. I was super stoked and proud to be crushing blues by myself and loving life when 19 days before I didn’t even know how to get my skis on and was petrified of the lifts.”
“When I moved to Colorado, my outdoor experience consisted of strolling around open-air shopping malls. [But then I took a] trip down the Arkansas River with my parents. I was instantly hooked! To take on a challenge and look back when you reach the end is so empowering. I now own a whitewater kayak and will … be getting a raft of my own!”
“On top of the Petit Grepon in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park after a day full of cold temps and gusty winds, and two, relatively sleepless, nights camping.”
“Another climber snapped this photo of me feeling powerful as I pulled the lip of an overhanging serac in [North America’s North Cascade mountains]. Alpine ice climbing is raw and real and wonderful, and I’m grateful for the opportunity this recent trip offered for me to learn all I could and dive into a whole new environment.”
“This was me on my first real ski tour. I started skiing somewhat late in the game — my late 20s — after more than 10 years of snowboarding. An accident left me with two broken arms, pins, and plates holding my bones together and no way of getting back on the board anytime soon. I didn’t want to give up on the mountains. So skiing it was … Relearning a process when you were already familiar with one system was a true challenge and I have to admit, very frustrating. … But this struggle taught me grit, persistence, and humility. It was one of the best lessons I ever learned, and I am carrying it with me in every aspect of my life. Change happens, challenges happen, but it can be so worth it to struggle and adapt. There are some amazing views waiting atop that mountain!”
“This picture makes me smile every … time I look at it. It was taken by my boyfriend on my first trip to Red Rocks, Nevada to climb. Usually I’m the one taking pictures, so I rarely get any pictures of myself outside, let alone ones that I like! But this picture is different: I had been scrambling for about an hour, looking for a climbing area; I hadn’t showered in a week; I felt gross, grumpy, and tired. Prompted by my own strained breathing, I took a moment to check out the scenery. This is when my boyfriend … captured this picture, and every time I look at it, I feel absolutely confident in my own beauty. I can be disgustingly sweaty, but as long as I am with the ones I love in the places I adore, I feel gorgeous.”
“This is not the most [hardcore] adventure I have ever been on, and probably not even the most scenic (don’t get me wrong, South Dakota was beautiful) but this is my best friend from basic training, Hannah, and I exploring in the woods of Custer State Park, South Dakota. This was the first time we had seen each other since ‘basic’ and the entire weekend really was a blast with some seriously perfect weather, especially for February. This picture really embodies what I feel every single second while I’m outdoors: just pure, uncensored happiness!”
“This is from my first backpacking trip in 2009. I had only recently gotten into more outdoorsy pursuits and wasn’t convinced it was for me. I went on this school-sponsored, three-day trip to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park because I had this [hardcore] petite female professor who was leading it. It was hard, I borrowed lots of gear, had food almost stolen by cockroaches, but it was also awesome. I felt super accomplished after waking up at 3 a.m. and hiking up a lava cliff.”
“This picture was taken on my first ever hike and ride. I believe in doing things big, so I picked a 14er to carry my snowboard up — Quandary Peak to be exact. It was also my third-ever Colorado 14er. This picture makes me so happy because it shows me that I’m capable of whatever I put my mind to. I can’t wait to see what else my body can withstand. I think it’s important for us to see what our bodies are really capable of before our time here is done. This was the beginning of a new chapter for me, a chapter of adventure. Always choose adventure!”
“This was me on a 420-mile tour through Wyoming. This day was the most beautiful and the most intense! I did it alone, not with a team, and every second of struggle was worth it.”
“Five years ago, I was serving coffee at your typical mountain-town espresso shop and I had a long talk with a coworker about 14ers. I’m a [Colorado] native, yet had never tried to climb one of those peaks. I’m stupid stubborn, so that day, I told her if I ever did one, I wanted to try and run [it]. Life has a weird way of working out … I drove out of Denver (and a rainstorm) at 9 p.m. to summit Guanella Pass — where the full moon was the clearest I had ever seen — […] and went up on my merry way. I saw the most intense comet I have seen to date, got to run by the clear light of a full “Sturgeon Moon”, and was star-struck when Orion’s Belt perfectly aligned with The Sawtooth [peak], none of which I could’ve planned if I tried. Here’s a pic of me trying to make my frozen face smile. Sometimes adventure and inspiration strikes at random moments; I’m glad I continue to answer the call!”
“Not my hardest or most challenging adventure, but I love that my kiddos love the outdoors as much as I do and that I get to share these experiences with them. If I can raise them to love and respect the environment, and experience some [awesome] adventures while doing it, I’ll be one proud mama!”
“This is my favorite picture because it was the pinnacle of my ski bum year. I wanted to spend a whole season skiing, but I’ve always put my career and school first, so it was hard for me to fit [a season of skiing] into my life. After graduating, the company I had co-opped with offered me a job and gave me the option of starting in July. I jumped on it. My brother invited me to live in his closet in Big Sky, Montana for the ski season. We were in [roughly] a 450-square-foot condo with three people and [a dog]. It was easily the best year of my life — I got 101 days in. This picture is from the last weekend at the resort. It had taken me a couple months to get my skiing and lungs to a point that I was able to ski the expert terrain of Headwaters Ridge, but when I did, it took my skiing to a completely different level, [with] steeps unlike anything I’ve seen before. These are two of my friends from that season, I’m still close with both. Taking advantage of that opportunity in my life was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
“This is me on my ninth 14er. I was in a car accident a few years ago and since then I have been dealing with a lot of neck and back pain and not-so-great side effects from a concussion. I have been struggling with severe anxiety, which tries to scare me away from any of my outdoor activities in fear of being hurt while being away from my kids. I really struggled throughout this hike and kept asking myself why I was doing it. I felt it might be my last. Then I made it to the top. It rejuvenated my soul and it reminded me why I love the outdoors. I need to stop letting fear and pain get in my way and I need to keep moving forward with my life.”
“I travel solo frequently … I just came off a three-week road trip with my dog and stopped to stretch my legs once I got back into Colorado. It was the 11th anniversary of my dad’s death, so I soaked in the mountain air, cried a bit, and laughed at the memories. I was exhausted from the road, heavy with so many …emotions, and just really dang happy.”
“Three years ago, I shattered the lower part of my face in a road riding accident. I used to love road riding, now I love to mountain bike. It took a while, but I feel so happy, free, and unafraid now. My latest trip to Crested Butte was amazing and I had my best ride ever. My dirty legs are my mark of victory over fear.”
“Last year I was first on the scene of what emergency responders call ‘a special death’, which means that it’s an incident that really stays with you on a personal level. Trying to assist in the resuscitation of [the deceased] was challenging to me emotionally and I dealt with some PTSD after the incident. My boyfriend and I had a U.S. Pacific Northwest camping trip planned about a month after the incident. … I found so much healing and growth on that trip. This picture was from backpacking [in Olympic National Park]. Nature is truly amazing! I was able to live presently, to sleep peacefully, and to feel strong and empowered and normal again just by focusing on the wonderful challenges of backpacking, camping, hiking in a beautiful and remote corner of our country. Being in nature made me feel whole again.”
“A decade and a half plus of planning: I summited and skied from a 15,000′ peak in Kashmir, India. 52 years young and still bagging peaks and continents!”
“This was taken at Lincoln Lake, Mount Evans, Colorado. I’ve been making the 1,000-foot descent to this crag almost every weekend this summer and found a new passion project I’m about to send before the season is over! It’s called ‘Dream Snatcher.’”
“I had the amazing opportunity to go to Fontainebleau, France … for a climbing trip. The entire trip was challenging for me because of my anxiety. However, being able to climb every day balanced me. I’m proud of this moment because I topped out moments later after struggling with it!”
“I love this photo because it is such a symbolic visualization of how I felt while it was taken — an absolute part of the landscape. Our silhouettes blend nearly seamlessly into the snow in front of us, hardly standing out against the fading light. A group of us had just skinned to the top of A-Basin on a weeknight in the spring, and my friend Deeley (the one doing the handstand) had yelled to us before we could take shelter in the warming hut, ‘No, you’ve gotta come see this.’ I felt so wildly in love with my life and the planet at the moment this was taken, in awe that this could be what a random Tuesday looked like. That feeling, of spinning, dizzying aliveness is something I aspire to at all times, and something I most often find in the wilderness.”
Editor’s Note: Punctuation and spelling in the above quotations may contain corrections to spelling and punctuation, when needed, with respect to the original quote. However, the meaning and message of the quotation was not altered in doing so.
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About the Author
Carolyn Highland says: “I have a tattoo on my left instep of the word ‘Atrévete,’ which means ‘dare yourself’ in Spanish. It’s about living boldly and creating the life you want for yourself. After graduating college with a degree in creative non-fiction writing, I spent time on New Zealand’s South Island, Chile’s Atacama Desert, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the coast of Maine, finally landing in Colorado to get up close and personal with the Rockies.
“In any given weather I can be found trail running, hiking, backpacking, snowshoeing, nordic, backcountry, or downhill skiing, or just staring up at the mountains with my jaw dropped and my heart full. I believe that the best way to protect our planet is to inspire the next generation of little outdoor women to love the wild and fight to keep it beautiful, and as a result am pursuing a career as an outdoor writer and an outdoor educator. Pass the stoke!”
Find her online: