Leadership Bones

I used to think I didn’t have a leadership bone in my body.

I was always a great student, worked hard, got top grades, but I was painfully shy and terrified of authority. My hard work helped me graduate first in my class from American University and then get into UC Berkeley’s business school, one of the best in the country.

But my fear of the limelight, fear of responsibility, and belief that I was not a leader persisted. Berkeley, and many graduate level programs, has a strong emphasis on leadership. If you are being groomed for management, leadership kind of goes hand in hand with having strong analytical skills. What good are good decision making skills if you can’t execute those decisions and create buy-in from your stakeholders, whether clients, employees, management, or investors?

I slipped into a high pressure and highly quantitative role after business school structuring esoteric collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). Never you mind what exactly those are (they are less scary than they sound but evade a one sentence explanation), but suffice it to say, the work was very detail oriented and analytical. I enjoyed it and excelled at it.

Outside of work, I had been introduced to the world of mountaineering and was pursuing it with gusto. That’s a whole other story about how I got into climbing, but I discovered that I loved the sense of accomplishment that comes from selecting a difficult but achievable objective, researching it, preparing the logistics, training adequately for that particular climb, facing the obstacles that the mountain chooses to throw at you, and seemingly against all odds, making it to the top of a mountain and then back down safely.

Success on Kilimanjaro

Success on Kilimanjaro

I also had never been very athletic but found that some of my physical weaknesses became competitive advantages in the mountains. I’ve always been prone to easily overheat and become overexerted in warmer climates, but it turns out I have an above average tolerance for cold temperatures. I’ve always been very slow and steady, but it also turns out that slow and steady can translate into superior endurance and is the right way to help your body acclimatize at altitude.

 

FIRST ECUADOR EXPEDITION

After hiking Kilimanjaro (19.3 k ft) with success and completing a glacier travel and crevasse rescue course with Alpine Ascents, I decided to try my hand at the Ecuadorian volcanoes. Cayambe, Cotopaxi, and Chimborazo range from 18.3k ft to 20.5k ft…amazing that such high glaciated peaks can be found near the Equator! I went with Alpine Ascents again, one of the best mountaineering guiding outfits around. As usual, I was the only woman – 1 out of 9 men (6 clients, 3 guides/staff) for two weeks.

It was great. I don’t mind that environment as it’s only a matter of time before I offend the guys who are on their best behavior in my presence. 🙂   However, our second acclimatization hike was really too tough for me physically. It was Imbabura, a tough hike with 5,500ft gain up to 15.2k ft. Most of the day was sunny, hot, and humid, but when we reached the summit by a section of exposed scrambling, all of the sudden the clouds closed in on the mountain top and we were all shook by a terrifying clap of thunder. Our helmets buzzed with the electricity in the air. The guides yelled, “Down! Down! Down!” and we practically ran down what we had delicately climbed up.

Scrambling to the top of Imbabura

Scrambling to the top of Imbabura

The sky opened up and let loose a torrent of hail which transitioned to rain as we descended. The volcanic ash soil turned to black, slick silt and we jogged down the mountain, bracing and falling and tumbling. I was absolutely wrecked from the hike and my quads were unreasonably sore. Bruce, one of the other clients, felt the same way, so we agreed to be on the same rope team for the first mountain, Cayambe. We attempted the climb but turned around early together to save ourselves for the gem, Cotopaxi.

Long story short, the only mountain I summited on that expedition was Imbabura and I learned a valuable lesson – no harm comes from conserving energy, but if you expend it all and overdo it, you may not be able to recover in time.

 

FINDING A NEW WAY IN MEXICO

I continued climbing peaks in California and Washington when I received an invitation to climb with my guide buddy Eric on an independent guided expedition to climb the highest peak in Mexico, Orizaba at 18.8k ft.

Although Eric is 6’2″ and freakishly strong, he has one of the slowest paces of any guide I know. He does it because he has the clients’ success and safety in mind. Typically, a Mexico volcanoes expedition would include both Orizaba and another high, glaciated peak called Iztacchihuatl, or “Izta” for short.  It was 17.2k ft high and Eric found that clients would be too burned out after trying Izta to be successful at the main objective, Orizaba.

Eric designed a more humane acclimitization schedule with Orizaba as the main prize.  Instead of pushing our limits on Izta, we would do two mellower mountains that would still incite the acclimatization process.  We hiked to the top of both La Malinche (14.6k ft) and Nevado de Toluca (15.4k ft) which were tough, good workouts, but did not destroy any of us.  All three of us clients, another woman from California and a French Canadian man, were successful reaching the summit of Orizaba.

Another team on the summit ridge of Orizaba

Another team on the summit ridge of Orizaba

I learned a valuable lesson about what works for me.  A much gentler acclimatization program with emphasis on not burning out before the primary objective helped ensure that the primary objective was met.

 

BACK TO ECUADOR WITH A NEW VISION

I hadn’t stopped thinking about Cotopaxi and wanted to go back. I mentioned the idea flippantly to my two climbing buddies, Jeff and John, who both jumped at the idea. I had never planned an international expedition before, especially not where I was the leader.

The three musketeers after hiking Pasochoa

The three musketeers after hiking Pasochoa

Jeff and John were great, they just said, “Tell us what to bring and we’ll bring it. Tell us where to show up and we’ll be there.” I leveraged my contacts, my new vision of what the itinerary should be, and my Spanish language skills. I developed a different itinerary where we would do 2 brand new hikes I had never done before (Pasochoa & Ruminahui) that weren’t as difficult but would provide exposure to high altitude. We would spend one night at the hut and practice on the glacier the next day before heading up to give ourselves yet another night at altitude without too much exertion.  Everything would be done with an eye toward maximizing acclimatization while minimizing exertion before attempting Cotopaxi.

I kept chuckling when the locals would start talking to Jeff and John in Spanish, assuming that the men would be in charge, of course. They would receive blank stares in return (Jeff and John knew how to order cerveza, but not much else) and then I would answer in my halfway decent Spanish, much to the locals’ surprise to see a small woman speaking for these two tall guys. While this was unusual, the locals also seemed to feel respected by a gringa speaking their language fairly well and out of mutual respect and interest.

At the climbing hut on Cotopaxi, the local guides also seemed surprised that I was “in charge” but I received nothing but respect there as well. Although the Latin culture has a reputation for being patriarchal, there are many men who respond positively to a woman who exudes confidence and demonstrates credibility.

I still remember cresting a final bump near the summit of Cotopaxi only to look down and see this frighteningly yawning crevasse below me. I yelled back to John, “Watch me!”, crossed it by gently placing each step on the snow-bridge spanning the crevasse, and began ascending the other side of the dip, passing a team waiting to go back down. As I passed by, one of the local guides said out-loud, “Un verdadero alpinista.” [Note that “alpinista” is a masculine noun despite ending in an “a” and being applied to a woman.]  That translates to “a true alpinist.” That remains the highest compliment I have ever received.

Cresting the Cotopaxi crater (photo credit: John Gray)

Cresting the Cotopaxi crater with me in the lead and Jeff in the middle (photo credit: John Gray)

What does this all have to do with leadership? Well, I discovered that in the right situation:

  1. I had the skills required to guide a group to making decisions that were appropriate for all of us and for the conditions.

  2. I had a vision! I had done this Ecuador expedition before, learned from it as well as the Mexican expedition to come back and do it another way that worked better for me and my team!

  3. I created a solid team. John and Jeff had the appropriate skill, gear, and demeanor. They both also respected my decision making and experience while providing their valuable input where they felt inspired to do so.

  4. I accepted help from my team. When I was suffering up the last 500 ft to the summit, John walked up to me and took a few things off my harness and pack to lighten my load. Even though I was the leader, the lighter load helped me feel stronger and our collective strength grew with John’s actions. Leaders do not have to be able to do it all!

  5. Even in environments like mountaineering in a developing Latin country (talk about a male dominated environment!), it is possible as a female to demand respect and credibility.

I began to believe that if I could successfully manage a leadership role in a high risk endeavor in a developing country with male teammates, there was no reason I couldn’t handle leadership roles in Corporate America…how might YOU be holding yourself back???

Plan B on the Clear Creek Route

This is the story I shared at the Armchair storytelling event in April 2014 at the Tin Pan Theater in Bend, OR.  The theme was “Plan B.”  Listen below or read on…

 

It was 2005 and only my second full season of climbing. And by climbing, I mean mountaineering – multi-day ascents of snow covered or glaciated peaks ideally at least 14,000ft high. One such mountain was Mt Shasta, one of the southern most Cascade volcanoes in Northern California standing at 14,162ft high. I had successfully summited the summer prior via the Avalanche Gulch route, the normal route, with a guide service. I returned with Gregg*, a leader of the Sierra Club, and a man I greatly admired for our second attempt of the Clear Creak Route. (*name changed)

The Clear Creek route is an unpopular route due to it’s long approach, both on unmarked logging roads and then hiking from around 5,800ft up to around 8,000ft where we would make camp in the protection of the last clump of trees. It creates a tough and long summit day with over 6,000ft gain up to 14,162ft.

Shasta Clear Creek Route

Shasta Clear Creek Route

Gregg was a the trip leader who organized this trip after we aborted our 2004 attempt due to rain at “main camp.” We were back with an even smaller team, just Gregg, my friend, Nora, and myself. It was nice to have a small team with fewer variables in terms of team dynamics.

Already been hiking a while before reaching the summer TH sign

Already been hiking a while before reaching the summer TH sign

Gregg was an experienced trip leader, long distance ultra-thru-hiker, and mountaineer. I knew he had climbed Denali and even though he didn’t summit, simply the fact that he had set foot on that mountain and made it to 17k camp made me worship him as someone I aspired to be like. Denali is a very serious mountain where they drop you off by ski plane and you try to get to the top in around 3 weeks. Gregg was extremely knowledgeable about all things mountain-related…he knew all about Leave No Trace wilderness ethics, dehydrated all his own food, and yes, had lived on the flanks of Denali.

My friend, Nora, was tall, gorgeous Italian woman who was really intrigued by the physical challenge and drama of mountaineering. She was ambitious but really cautious. After we made it to “main camp” with considerable effort, she stated that this was as far as she would go. She was too beat from the approach hike and was happy as a clam to sleep in and serve as our “base camp manager” maintaining radio contact.

I was bummed that she wasn’t going to try to go higher, but in reality, if she really had serious doubts about her ability and desire to go on, it would likely mean we would all have to turn around. With a small team of three, it’s just not wise to send someone back down to find camp alone.

Gregg and I decided to stick with our plan to get up at 1am and be hiking by 3am. When that alarm comes in the middle of the night, I ALWAYS snooze at least once and think to myself “Why the hell do I do this shit?”, but then I find some kernel of willpower deep within and get my butt out of my sleeping bag to get ready in the freezing cold and a state of brain fog.

Climbing after sunrise

Climbing after sunrise

Climbing in the middle of the night is a difficult thing to describe. It sounds quite miserable, but it’s actually quite magical. Even if there is the sound of wind, the silence is absolutely deafening and you tune into the sound of your own breath, the soft sounds your clothes make while moving, the crunching of your crampons in the firm snow, and the creaking of your ice axe when it shifts so lightly with each placement. You can’t really see where you are going and fall into a trance like moving meditation where you have never been more disconnected yet more aware at the same time.

Incredible hoar frost

Incredible hoar frost

We had gained over 5,000 feet with less than 1,000ft to go when we came around a ridge to the north. We were completely blasted by a steady stream of wind that felt like what I imagined the Jet Stream to feel like. We had to head directly into the wind on a slope of jumbled rocks and rime ice, ice that’s growing into the direction of the wind, which really slowed us down and sapped our energy.

We could look up now and see the summit in the distance. It was at least an hour or two away but now was within our grasp. Gregg started to say something to me with a desperate look on his face, but I couldn’t understand him. “What???”, I shouted over the wind. He was practically slurring his words, “I’m so cold, so cold and so hungry. So sorry. I must eat now!” He tossed his pack down and started digging around for food.

I watched him in a bit of disbelief. Here was my mentor acting like a starving madman, and he was violating a cardinal rule. If you stop for a break, the first thing you do is throw on your down jacket to conserve body heat before you do anything else. I felt weird giving Gregg any kind of direction, but I said, “Hey Gregg, Why don’t you put your down jacket on first? Then we can stop and have a break.” He said, “No! Too hungry! Must eat first!” as he was visibly shaking now trying to tear open his protein bar wrapper.

The final traverse up and left to the summit

The final traverse up and left to the summit

Then he began to explain that he was too tired and didn’t feel like he could make it the rest of the way. He said, “You are doing great and are strong enough to finish this climb. Take my GPS. I have all of the waypoints that you can follow to the summit.”

I was surprised. Why would he want me to go on? Clearly he wasn’t doing well and there is safety in numbers. It would be a huge deal for me to go on alone with my low level of experience at this point to summit by myself. I was looking up at how close we were to the summit and thinking about the fact that this was our second attempt and all the physical effort we had put in to getting to this point. But maybe I could do this and it would be a huge coup for a beginner!

Then Gregg broke through my thought processing and said, “Really! You should go! I will make myself a little fort from the wind and sit here and wait for you!”   Sitting without moving in the middle of a freezing jet stream for several hours when you are already too cold just didn’t make any sense to me. I literally looked at Gregg, looked toward the summit, looked at Gregg, and looked toward the summit again, calculating how long it would take me to get there and back to him. No way around it, it be at least 2-3 hours.

An image suddenly came to mind of Gregg’s wife, who I had never met in person, asking me why I left her husband on the side of the mountain. She was asking me this because in one scenario in my mind, Gregg was nowhere to be found when I came back down to regroup. I realized I didn’t have any good answer, that the allure of the summit was not great enough to explain to a loved one why I had chosen to go on.

I knew Gregg might continue to fight me if he felt I was turning around because of him so I said, “You know, I’m actually pretty tired, too! I’m ready to call it a day. Why don’t we head down together and we can take another break when we get out of the wind?” Gregg reluctantly agreed. I knew from my previous guided climbs that guides like to put the weakest person out front…partly so that they can better observe how that person is doing and pace the group for that person’s speed, and partly to avoid having the person fall on top of them. Not explaining my thought process out loud, I told Gregg he should go first. He looked at me for a minute, as if he was processing my words in slow motion, and said, “I don’t think I can do it. My brain feels like I’m in a fog and I can’t see the way down.” I thought to myself, “Holy crap! This guy is my leader. This isn’t good!”

About 4,000ft left to descend to camp

About 4,000ft left to descend to camp

“OK, Craig, follow me then.” Gregg and I began to work our way down the loose bouldery and icy section slowly but surely until we rounded the ridge. The wind suddenly fell silent and the temperature spiked with the solar radiation bouncing back up off the snow onto us. We stopped again for another break and ate some more. Gregg seemed like he was rapidly reawakening from his fog. I explained how I had been really concerned up higher and that he hadn’t seemed to be making much sense.

Gregg looked at me with some humility and said, “I think you made the right call. I don’t know what I was thinking. I must have been sliding into hypothermia.” We continued down the thousands of feet left to retrace back to main camp. On one of the steeper slopes, Gregg and I were heading down side by side when my feet slipped out from under me in the slushy snow of the early afternoon. I started to slide but my reflexes were fast. I flipped

Standing "tall" under a towering cornice

Standing “tall” under a towering cornice

over so quickly and arrested my fall with just one hand on the head. Gregg was standing above me looking down at me and said, “Wow, you really have learned some things in the last year!”

I beamed as if Gregg was my sensei and I was the young grasshopper who had just graduated from training! The mountains are a fantastic training ground with lessons to bring back to our every day lives. I realized that on this climb, the obscure Clear Creek Route on Mt Shasta, I learned to respect authority, but not to be afraid to ask questions or even take charge, especially if your life or that of others depend on it!

Serious Self-Care

The mountains have taught me many critical lessons that have enabled me to live life more fully and feel more confident to take risk.  I began climbing around 10 years ago and was formerly someone who always considered herself to be unathletic.  In school, I was truly the kid who was always picked last for dodge ball!  However, over time as I slowly built my experience, trained and ventured into bigger and bigger mountains, the most serious of which was the 5th highest mountain in the world, Makalu, in Nepal.

One of these lessons has been the importance of self-care.  First, the concept of self-care assumes that you have a certain level of self-awareness.  If you are out of touch with your body, or with your needs, it will be difficult to focus on self-care.  Mountaineering forces you to become very self-aware.  We preach eating before we get hungry, drinking before we get thirsty, and layering or delayering to regulate our body temperature.  Getting any one of these simple things wrong can cost you a summit or in the worst case in extreme environments, it can cost you your life.  Failing to regulate your blood sugar through food can cause you to “bonk” and not have the energy to make it to your destination.  Dehydration can accelerate or exacerbate Acute Mountain Sickness symptoms.  Either getting cold or getting sweaty can be a precursor to hypothermia as water pulls heat away from the body.

Even on mountains where supplemental oxygen is not required, we joke about “putting your own oxygen mask on first before helping others.”  So much in mountaineering and in life is about team work. And women especially often fret about being a burden and will sacrifice their own needs for the sake of the group to avoid feeling like or being seen as a burden.

A 13 year old reminds me about the importance of self-care…

One such example occurred on a GirlVentures course I was guiding this summer.  GirlVentures is a inspirational non-profit that focuses on providing transformative experiences for adolescent girls through leadership, communication, and technical skill development in the outdoors.  This particular course was a 14-day backpack that included an ascent of an 11,000ft mountain called Mt Shinn, a technical canyoneering descent, rock climbing and rappelling.  Each girl gets the chance to try out a different role each day (leader of the day, cook, gear goddess, navigator) and on the day that we were ascending Mt Shinn, “Cindy” was the navigator.

Instructor team admiring Mt Shinn

Instructor team admiring Mt Shinn

Mt Shinn’s approach is a difficult cross-country approach and the climbing, while easy second and third class, needed a great deal of attention.  To lessen Cindy’s stress of being navigator for the day, I gave her the instructions of being very aware of her surroundings during the approach.  We repeatedly turned around and looked behind us to see how we would figure out how to retrace our steps back to camp.  She seemed anxious but was taking it all in.

The climb was very challenging for Cindy who, like several of the girls, has a healthy fear of heights.  Cindy worked through each of the scrambling sections and areas with a sense of exposure with the help of the instructors and her fellow participants.  It’s a stressful thing to face your fear of heights at that stage, but Cindy seemed to be coping well.

Climbing Mt Shinn

Climbing Mt Shinn

On the way back down, we turned the leadership over to the two “leaders of the day” and to Cindy as navigator.  We hike towards the back to provide a controlled environment where the girls have a chance to experience decision making in the wilderness, communicate with each other, and start the long process of finding their leadership styles.

Cindy did seemed stressed that she felt getting the entire tired and hungry group back to camp was on her shoulders.  I began hiking closer to her and giving her tips along the way when we would see landmarks we noted on the way up.  She was very focused and seemed to be doing a great job.  We got back to camp with little delay and everyone began to focus on self-care – hydrating, resting, changing into fresh layers.

Soon one of the instructors ran over to me to ask for help with Cindy.  Something was wrong and she wasn’t sure what.  Cindy was cold, shivering, and was breathing rapidly.  We performed a full assessment, helped Cindy find her dry layers to change into, and continued to encourage her to eat and drink to recover from the day.  Her respiration and pulse were high, but her oxygen saturation was also high.  Hypothermia is typically indicated with a low pulse rate, and altitude sickness would usually be indicated by a low oxygen saturation rate.  We were perplexed, especially as Cindy’s respiration would get back in control when we would doing relaxing guided imagery or controlled breathing with her.  I began to suspect that Cindy was actually experiencing anxiety likely caused by initially getting cold, having low blood sugar, and being overwhelmed by this new uncomfortable physical experience.

One of the instructors and I stayed with Cindy through the night, calming her down when she woke up in a panic.  All of her vitals began to return to normal as she realized she was going to be all right.  I told Cindy what my theory was and she confided that she had felt so much stress and pressure from the challenge of navigating the group back to camp, that she hiked much faster than she had energy for and didn’t stop to eat, drink, or change her layers.  She arrived into camp physically and mentally exhausted and never uttered a peep until her anxiety was well on its way.

Put on your own oxygen mask first!

Cindy’s primary concern was that I would tell someone about the trouble she caused that night and that it might make her ineligible for the next level of leadership training.  Cindy and I had a long talk about what it means to be a leader and be in a position with responsibility to others.

First, you must take care of yourself and communicate your needs. Just because you are in charge of leading a group does not mean you are a superwoman and no longer have basic needs.  Stop the group, stop what you are doing, and tell them what you need and then do it without apology.

Second, you are serving as a role model for others to take care of themselves.  How many mothers do you know that run themselves ragged taking care of others but then tell their daughters how important it is to take care of themselves?

Third, Cindy DID become a burden on the group that night.  Two out of four instructors had to provide their undivided attention on one person, taking them away from the other ten girls.  It likely would have taken less than 15 minutes to take a break during the descent to eat some more food, drink some water, throw on a warmer layer and admit that she wanted more help with the return navigation.

Cindy seemed to digest all of this feedback, but we also encouraged her to share her experience with the rest of the group and ask for help learning this life skill.  The group was AWESOME.  Instead of being annoyed with Cindy for having shown vulnerability and having a tough time, they rallied around her and over the coming days when we did difficult things like the Helms Creek descent, they kept asking her how she was doing, when was the last time she ate, etc etc.  She would giggle each time but seemed to appreciate the well meaning reminders.

Awesome, supportive group of young women!

Awesome, supportive group of young women!

Moms, don’t forget you are a role model for self-care!

I mentioned that mothers are often some of the worst culprits when it comes to self-care.  Just a couple of months ago, I ran a custom backpack for a girlfriend of mine from business school.  “Kristy” is your typical overachiever and right after getting her MBA she completed an Iron Man – she’s a tough cookie!!!  Fast forward 10 years and Kristy is now the mother of two kids who returned to work two years ago and is killing herself to prove she is still a competitive professional.  She’s gained weight, doesn’t have time to train, and wanted a goal that would inspire her…hence, the idea for a backpacking trip that would culminate in the non-technical ascent of one of California’s “14ers”, Mt Langley.  [A “14er” is a mountain above 14,000ft in elevation.]

It’s a beautiful area, but Kristy had not been able to make time to train, and she suffered on the way up to our camping spot at 11,000ft under the weight of a full backpack for the first time.  We went slowly and she struggled to control her competitive self which said “Go faster!” but then her fitness would say “Go slower!”  We worked hard on finding a comfortable pace, but it seemed like she had a lot of trouble with self-awareness and kept apologizing, illuminating the fear of being a burden.

Hiking up Old Army Pass slowly but surely

Hiking up Old Army Pass slowly but surely

I convinced her we should go as far as she could could go – no pressure!  We set off Saturday morning to the flanks of Mt Langley and a very slow and measured pace.  Slow and steady wins the race!  I would say, listening to her breath to try to gauge the pace right.  If she was ever in front of me, she would keep pushing a bit faster and faster until she had to stop to catch her breath.  I shared with her my theory that after being a mother for so many years and putting others’ needs before her own, she may have lost the art of self-awareness.  Surely she had needed to hone her self-awareness when training for and completing an Iron Man, but that was years ago.  Could she remember how to tap back into her own needs?  She cocked her head, thought about it, and agreed there could be some basis to that theory.

I decided to take over the pacing and keep encouraging her up to the top of Mt Langley at a super slow pace.  I would point out when we would get passed by someone (usually a guy) going faster but then we’d pass him as he had to stop and catch his breath.  One of those guys turned around because he was feeling altitude sickness.  Kristy and I continued on at our nearly agonizingly slow pace, but we made it to the top!

Happiness is summitting a mountain!

Happiness is summitting a mountain!

Kristy since then has made comments about how I can get anyone to the top of a mountain, but it really comes from years of experience in self-awareness and how the body reacts to physical activity at altitude.  Kristy was mentally tough and really listened – she had faith that if she kept putting one foot in front of the other, she would get there and she did it.  It was really hard for her, but listening to her body and finding a pace that would not burn her out or bring on altitude sickness was the key to achieve this major milestone.

The next time you are racing toward some goal, whatever it may be – personal, professional, physical, intellectually, don’t forget to take a moment to think about what you need to nourish and care for yourself.  You’ll be more likely to reach your final destination and feel good about it!

Descending Mt Langley feeling successful

Descending Mt Langley feeling successful

If you are interested in seeing the live version of this talk presented in Bend, OR at the SeriousSuccess Motivational Series for Women, check out the YouTube video below:

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

 

THE FEMALE MARKET
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

COMMUNITY
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

STRETCHING YOURSELF
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 NIGHT OUT
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

IMPACT
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?