In all of my years of solo mountain adventuring, I’ve made some interesting observations on the reactions from fellow outdoor enthusiasts when it comes to being alone on the trail. Most of them are positive and supportive, but not all. There have been two recent conversations that really stand out in my mind and I’ve been having a hard time letting them roll off my high alpine sun scorched back.
One shocking experience happened while I was on my month-long solo trip to Glacier National Park in July. I took a day to hike the popular bucket-list Highline Trail. It’s a strenuous 12 mile day on an exceptionally narrow trail that’s tricky to share. I had done another strenuous high mileage hike the day before with a heavy pack, so my legs were a bit sore and I was hiking at a leisurely pace. That’s my style regardless. I’m a slow hiker because I’m there to enjoy the scenery and take a million photos more than anything else.
People hike at all sorts of different paces and I generally don’t pay attention either way. Hike Your Own Hike is probably one of the best trail mantras out there. In essence, it’s the You Do You of mountain philosophy. It doesn’t matter what you do or how you do it as long as you’re safe and have a great time. Don’t compare your experience to anyone else’s and you’re bound to find your happy place in the trees.
In enjoying my slower pace I made sure to practice courteous trail etiquette to let faster hikers pass. There was a speedy group of three that came up behind me, two guys and a lady, and I was sure to scrunch on over to the side of the cliff. “Just enjoying the scenery, pass on by! I’ll see you at the top!” I cheerfully exclaimed. They smiled with thanks and power hiked their way through.
The hike was stunning. I could see why it’s a bucket list experience for Glacier National Park visitors. There were wildflowers everywhere, gorgeous green mountains as far as the eye could see, and surly mountain goats hopping along the cliffs. Eventually I made it to the top of the pass and happened to see the three speedy hikers relaxing with a trail snack.
“You finally made it!” one of the guys said in a fairly condescending tone. I was slightly taken aback.
“You know, just because she’s a woman it doesn’t mean she can’t climb this mountain,” his lady friend piped up.
“Oh you and your social justice warrior tirades,” he rolled his eyes at her.
My mouth just dropped during this whole exchange. I couldn’t believe it. Sexism on the trail exists, but it had never been this smack-you-in-the-face blatant before. “Yeah, I had no doubts about making it to the top. I do this for a living,” I replied to Mr. Trail Jerk.
“See?? She does this for a living!” the lady hiker retorted. “She probably knows more than you!”
“I doubt it,” Mr. Trail Jerk replied with a snort.
That’s when I got pretty defensive. “Listen man. I’m out here by myself, and it’s been that way for a month. I just made it through four National Parks alone and drove 1,000 miles dealing with car problems to boot. I’m sleeping in the National Forest solo – not in some crowded campground like the rest of you. I’ve been hiking with a loaded .45 in my pack this whole time and I sleep with it under my head because of Grizzlies. You know, the Grizzlies that the locals love sharing horror stories about and don’t hesitate showing off their attack photos. I’ve done this enough that I’m fine, and I’ve had enough training that if your god damn eyeball should pop out of your head, I’d be able to wrap it up and put it back in while we hike your ass 10 miles out of here before we get you close enough to medical attention. I got this.”
The look on his face was priceless. Somehow after defending myself as a capable woman in the wilderness, he warmed up asking where I lived and who I wrote for. “Oh! We’re from Boulder!” He suddenly turned into a chatty trail pal despite my glaring side eye upon discovering that we were fellow Coloradans.
I still think about this exchange often because I found it so unbelievable.
Shortly after I returned home from my National Parks trip, my first hike on home turf was Montgomery Pass in Poudre Canyon. I met a very friendly older guy at the top of the pass and we had a lovely chat for quite some time as we took in the amazing view.
“Good for you!” he exclaimed when finding out that I was solo for the day (and often). He wasn’t trying to be condescending; he was honestly being supportive in his cheer as he didn’t know many women who’d go out by themselves. It didn’t bother me as the other exchange did, but it made me think, “Yeah, good for you! You’re doing the same thing, too!”
This is what I don’t comprehend about the “yay for women going out on the mountain alone” kind of celebration. How is it any different than our male cohorts? Shouldn’t it be “Yay for getting out there! Period.”? What does gender have to do with it? Does testosterone somehow protect a guy from a moose attack in a different way? Of course not. Is it any less frightening getting caught in a high alpine lightning storm if you’re a man? Absolutely not.
We’re all fellow humans with a realization of our mortality and making risk assessments to avoid kicking the bucket sooner than we’re ready to. Going solo does increase this risk overall, but it’s not spectacularly drastic when it comes to gender. Research shows that women take fewer risks in the wilderness, and judgement of other women related to risk is higher. It’s not just some of the guys on the trail thinking solo women aren’t capable. It’s many of our fellow women too, projecting their own fears onto those ladies adventuring alone.
More interestingly, I’ve found that solo women in the wild are actually Mothers of the Mountain.
When some people see a woman solo in the outdoors, a gasp is given or side conversations begin with their hiking partners. “She’s out here by herself! With the bears and mountain lions, and nobody to protect her!”
“Are you OK?” they ask. “Aren’t you afraid??” I get asked this quite often, and the answer is always, “Yes, I’m great!! No, I’m not afraid at all.”
While society teaches us women that we have to fear wild animals and strange men on the trail, when we really only fear the unpredictable unleashed dog that has been growling, barking, and jumping on us.
The stark reality is that we are Mothers of the Mountain, whether we’re mothers at home or not, and whether we like it or not.
We look kind, unassuming, and helpful on the trail, so people ask us to take their family photo by the waterfall. We make sure to capture the best vacation memory for them.
People ask us how much farther there is left to go on a hike, and we reply with encouraging words that it’s “just around the bend” and “you got this!”
When a fellow hiker is lost, they ask us for directions to the campsite, the trailhead, or the mountain town they’ve lost track of. We pull out our maps and show them the way.
When someone is hurt, we’re the ones with extra ibuprofen and bandages in our packs, gladly sharing to help them feel better. We overpack to compensate for the assumption that we’re not capable and prepared.
Most people see a lone woman on the trail and think she might not be able to take care of herself. Truthfully, we’re Mothers of the Mountain helping everyone else out because they ask. And we’re equipped to help.
Then we sit by the river drinking a refreshing beer after a kick ass hike knowing that people worry about our wellbeing when they really shouldn’t. We got this. And we’ve got all of our fellow hikers too, regardless of gender.