Why Women?

Last week, an audience member asked me a question that really made me pause during my Achieving Peak Performance talk at a Haas Alumni Network (Berkeley) event, “Why did you chose to focus on women?” I’ve been pondering ever since – how to express this in a way that is understandable and doesn’t make men feel excluded?  Be forewarned that I make lots of generalizations about each sex below which are based on my personal experience and opinions.


All of the lessons and stories I tell during this talk are relevant to both genders – importance of setting big, achievable goals, preparation, hiring the experts for topics outside your core competency, picking good partners, persevering through difficult times/milestones – but they seem to resonate more with women.  This is why I have a version of the talk called “Women on Top” for female audiences.


Toward the end, I usually reveal that it was the aggregation of my experiences in the mountains that helped me build the confidence to face my own biggest fear in risking financial insecurity to follow my passion.  I’m now running Call of the Wild Adventures full time and working hard to make it a sustainable business.  Many well meaning folks will state that I need to run co-ed trips in order to increase my profitability.  But answering the question of “Why women?” also tells the story of the decision to focus on all female trips and provide a presentation that’s targeted solely toward women.


The author attempting to impart wisdom from the mountains to urban professionals

The author attempting to impart wisdom from the mountains to urban professionals


There are TONS of co-ed adventure travel outfitters out there competing on price in a low margin business.  It’s a sexy product, but the reality of running such a business and trying to live off of it is in stark contrast to the glamorous impression.  If prices are low or suppressed by competition, then you must run a high volume of trips in order to generate sufficient gross margins to cover overhead.  In the case of the Call of the Wild, it has been a one woman show for 35 years.  I  aim to change that and increase our client base enough to support a higher volume of trips, but until then, it’s not feasible in terms of either my personal bandwidth to successfully manage a higher volume.  Additionally, I could be spreading the same client base across a higher number of trips.

Instead, I’m choosing to continue to run a set number of high quality trips while working hard to increase the client base through marketing and relationship building.  Further, there are so few women-only outfitters i n the market that I can use this aspect as a clear competitive differentiator.  Anecdotally, women’s adventure travel is supposed to be on the rise.  Hopefully, that is true, though hard data is not readily available.
Women ranging from 37-74 years old on a trek through the Everest region of Nepal

Women ranging from 37-74 years old on a Call of the Wild trek through the Everest region of Nepal

Every trip amazes me how women from diverse backgrounds – age, fitness, income, race, sexuality, marital/child status – can come together and bond so quickly.  Many of these women have experienced a major life change – empty nest, divorced or widowed, retired – and are seeking the camaraderie of other women during a time of transition.  Last year,  one woman on a backpacking trip had been recently widowed, and she and her husband used to backpack together in this particular region.  We held the space for her to chose to talk about the experience or not, but one thing is for sure, if she had broken down and cried, she would have been in a supportive environment within a circle of women.  Imagine if she was the only woman on a co-ed trip and broke down…surely the experience would be radically different!  She held it together and had a relaxing, enjoyable trip, partly, I believe, because she had the opportunity to express herself freely if she needed to.
Two women having a quiet moment on Pfieffer Beach in Big Sur

Two women having a quiet moment on Pfeiffer Beach in Big Sur, CA

Adventure travel often includes stretching yourself.  Why else would you want the safety and comfort of guides?  Handling intimidating logistics, managing safety of a risk activity, going higher/further/harder/more remote…
When I first started mountaineering, I went on a lot of guided trips and was nearly always the only female in a group of 8-12 males.  Fortunately, I don’t find this situation intimidating and I was able to disarm the men enough that they didn’t feel like they had to be on their best behavior around me.  However, not all women feel the same way when they are vastly outnumbered in an environment that is physically challenging, and they may self-select out of those situations all together.

I was also very conscientious about the fact that I was a woman – if I had a bad day or lagged behind, was it because I was the woman in the group or was I just another climber having a bad day?  As a result, I trained my ass off before every climb just to make sure I could at least keep up (sometimes a difficult proposition for someone who is 5’1″ climbing with people who are 6’4″, regardless of gender) partly out of paranoia.  

It was similar when I was working in the male-dominated investment world – I felt I had to be that much more prepared/knowledgeable/certified/thorough.  If I ever made a mistake, it could be perceived that it was because I’m a woman.  This pressure can be instantly alleviated in an all female environment.
Gals who made it to Dewey Point, a 7 mile round trip snowshoe above 8,000ft with rewarding views of Yosemite in winter glory

Gals who made it to Dewey Point, a 7 mile round trip snowshoe above 8,000ft with rewarding views of Yosemite in winter glory

Guys get the need for a guys night out, golf weekend, trip to Laguna Seca, whatever.  It’s nice to hang out with your gender, let your guard down, and maybe even bitch about the opposite sex.  Gals need the same thing!  

I bristle when people joke that I “discriminate against men” by offering female only trips.  I believe that discrimination is a situation where you hold someone back from achieving their personal or professional goals and satisfaction based on something they can’t help, like their gender.  Men have plenty of other options for adventure travel, and more chances than not, they will show up and find mostly male participants and male guides.  It’s a wonderful thing for women to show up to a trip and find all female participants AND female guides.  It reinforces the concept that women can be competent leaders in environments that require physical strength, solid decision making, and survival skills.


By the way, I run custom trips, gentlemen.  So any trip you see that you like, I can run it for you as well!  AND we can provide female guides so that you can feel what it’s like to be led by them.  I’d be curious to see what you think is similar and different about female leadership in the backcountry.
Instructors for the GirlVentures Transitions Course feeling right at home on the summit of Mt Shinn

Instructors for the GirlVentures Transitions Course feeling right at home on the summit of Mt Shinn, John Muir Wilderness, CA

Finally, and most importantly, when I left the corporate world last year, I thought long and hard about what I wanted to do that would have a positive impact on the world.  When I was leading trips for the Sierra Club Snowcamping section, I would observe the progression of all the participants.  Many men would come in with a high degree of confidence despite an awareness that they lacked the technical skills.  Generally speaking, the women would come in wondering if they could hack it at all – could they handle the cold, carry the heavy pack, keep up with the group, and avoid becoming a burden?


At the end of each annual training series, it seemed that the men had acquired the skills and increased their confidence to handle similar situations in the future, while the women had been TRANSFORMED!  They would be surprised at what they could do physically and how much mental strength they had to get through some of the uncomfortable aspects of snowcamping and backpacking in the winter environment.  

As one gal on a ziplining adventure I organized last month stated so well, “Man, nothing I face in the office is going to seem scary any more after facing my fears here.”
Jessica says nothing will be scary at the office after facing her fear of ziplining

Jessica says nothing will be scary at the office after facing her fear of ziplining

At the end of the snowcamping training series, we would discuss all the participants and see who we wanted to invite back as assistant leaders based on their technical competence, risk management, and most importantly, leadership and communication skills.  We often leaned toward asking female participants back due to excellent leadership potential and ability to empathize with the participants.

The guys would nearly always say, “That’s awesome!  I totally want to be an assistant leader!”, and the women would usually say something like, “Really? Me?  What do you see in me?  I’m not sure if I really have the skills to accept the responsibility.”  It was eerily similar to my experience in Corporate America where, for a variety of reasons including corporate culture and societal norms, women would doubt themselves and hold back asking for a new job or promotion until they are 110% sure they can do the job.

The author cramming outdoor leadership concepts before a trip...

The author cramming outdoor leadership concepts before a trip…

My goal is to impact just one woman on each trip to go back to their daily lives and feel more empowered to face the challenges that come her way and take more risk that can lead to great reward.  🙂  That’s why I have chosen to focus on women.  How am I doing so far, ladies?