Beginner Blues

For many outdoor activities, the prerequisites are daunting. How do I tie an anchor and which type of rope do I need? How do I know what type of bike I need? How do I learn to steer a large raft through a class five rapid? You could buy skins, but if you don’t know anything about snow science or slides, the backcountry isn’t accessible.

Where do you go? How do you do it safely? What gear do you need?

Starting from scratch can be tough, especially when you’re the only one in your friend group. As a beginner, learning can be dangerous and even deadly without the right knowledge or partner. With many of the outdoor sports, half the game is in the unspoken etiquette, the expected “know-how” that few books are listing but can get you a solid lecture at the crag.

Then there’s the gear – buying is an expensive endeavor, especially if you have no idea if you’ll enjoy the sport or don’t know what you need. Simultaneously, renting is expensive if you stick with a sport throughout the season. You could pay for a guide or instructor to get you started but you’re still left without a partner. Perhaps, you were going to have a significant other show you the ropes but, the relationship ended, and they carted off their lead rope and trad gear off with them. Or maybe you don’t want your significant other to be your only belay partner and want other community in your outdoor sports.

So you want to learn, you’ve gotten the gear, and, then, you attempt to get out there. You find you need someone to belay you and check your knots. Or someone to hike a bowl and help you spot out a line. If you live in an outdoor-heavy area, you’re much more likely to find a fellow female enthusiast via online forums with more know-how than yourself, but sometimes we live in areas where the outdoor community is sparse. Some of us women may feel comfortable enough starting a conversation with a fellow female in a lift line or at the climbing gym, but that’s not always the easiest thing to do.

Female Mentors

One solution: female mentors. While it may seem like there is a gap between those who want to learn and those who want to teach, there are plenty of women excited at the thought of teaching women the complexities of their sport. The problem is finding them and connecting them with beginners. As a ski instructor, some of my favorite lessons are when I am able to teach women close to my age, encourage their progress, sprinkle in some graciousness, and watch them succeed.

Sometimes all it takes a woman who’s been in a similar situation. Heather Balogh Rochfort recounts her process towards mentorship:

“I got my start in college in 2000, and I was the gal in the group of guys. My first technical shell was a North Face Men’s XS because I couldn’t find one in female sizing. I didn’t know any women to learn from, which is partially why I try to get novice female beginners out there as often as possible. It doesn’t have to be so intimidating.”

The benefits of a mentor, physically and psychologically, are numerous and seemingly on the mind of the outdoor community. Chris Noble, in an article on Climbing Magazine’s website called “The Mentorship Gap” argues that mentorship is crucial in helping new climbers understand how to protect and care for outdoor climbing areas, while learning the rules of engagement and not hurting themselves or others.

A mentor can make sure that a beginner is provided with the expertise needed to have a safe space to grow and learn. A mentor can provide the backup that allows new learners to fail safely. Simultaneously, learning one-on-one and face-to-face can be personalized and go deeper than most guidebooks.

Julia E. Hubbel describes her “expert” mentor, Meg Hansson: “We were friends for 33 years, and she inspired me to get and stay in shape. Her influence on my athletic career, my eating habits, and my habits of mind were very powerful… Now that I’m the one going grey, I find it important now to continue to set the example, to push boundaries, and to do things my mother/grandmother couldn’t dream of.”  Sometimes, a fellow female mentor can help us to achieve goals we didn’t think possible.

Another benefit of female mentors is the encouragement, growth, and community that stems from these relationships.

Elly Bingaman comments, “I have found a few awesome female mentors for the outdoors. They are so encouraging, and it is great to know that I have someone to go to when I have questions or need new gear.”

Developing these female mentorships between seasoned enthusiasts and beginners creates a stronger bond and community within the outdoor industry and provides a space of graciousness to grow. While it may be intimidating to prove oneself amongst the boys, female mentors understand the struggles of beginning, of being “in progress.” We make our community of women stronger when we support each other and provide encouragement and beta, not when we withhold from those who are learning. We all were beginners once and needed that extra push.

Sometimes, it’s as simple as being taken out to someone’s favorite trail or crag when you know they could be climbing/skiing/riding something much more difficult. It’s a small act that shows that, in the end, people matter more than our projects.

Outdoor Women’s Alliance

But the questions remain of how to find these women and how to comment?

At Outdoor Women’s Alliance, one of the biggest frustrations found amongst outdoor women was a lack of female mentors. In discussion groups led by OWA volunteers, many beginners and mentors asked for a formal system to get connected – ideally some sort of designation where beginners can identify and contact more expert women.

Currently, OWA has seven regional Grassroots Teams serving over 8,000 members across North America. These teams offer skills clinics, social events, backcountry outings (and more). However, within our larger community of over 230,000 women, many people fall outside our team regions. We regularly receive requests for team expansions into new areas and want to provide these services to all.

Our solution is to provide an online platform that women everywhere can use to connect, grow skills, and build in-person communities right where they are. This new platform will bring the offerings OWA has at the team level to those who wouldn’t otherwise have access. It will also continue our mission of instilling confidence and leadership skills in each participating member. Once members sign up, women can denote themselves as mentors so that other women can search for those willing to help them get into a new sport. These women don’t necessarily need to be certified, simply willing to lend a hand to other women.

This demand and the ability to provide these services, requires additional resources and help from all the women who support the outdoors. Outdoor Women’s Alliance’s crowdfunding campaign is an attempt to reach women across the country who want to get outside and empower them to do so. The goal is to raise at least $25,000 to grow and empower the Grassroots Program, and get more women outside in 2017.  

From beginner to expert, women are searching for genuine connection with each other in the outdoors and finding ways to facilitate that community may be one of the most necessary goals for the future.  

Guest Contributor

Outdoor-Womens-Alliance-Team-Editorial-HaleyHaley Littleton is a writer, skier instructor, and trail runner based out of Dillon, Colorado. She’s also an avid art-viewing, story-telling, mountain-climbing, and traveling fiend.