5 Lessons Learned the Hard Way as an Outdoorsy Woman

I’m sharing these five lessons that I have learned in my 20+ years working as an outdoor guide, educator, risk manger, search and rescue team member, park ranger and wilderness medicine course provider.  Suffice it to say that I’ve been around the block.  Working the desirable and undesirable jobs.  Always along side men, rarely with any others. I always wished I could have had a female mentor. I’ve learned a lot, the hard way.  Let me spare you some challenges with these key lessons:







And while these lessons were learned outdoors, I think they apply pretty well to life in general! I hope you enjoy.


It’s so easy when we’re first venturing out to follow others.  This is certainly what I did as a young child with my parents. But there comes a time where we must take the helm. Otherwise, we will never get the growth and learning it takes to plan and implement a trip. It also put us at risk when something does go wrong and we really haven’t wrapped our head around logistics, terrain, bailing options, etc. 


PERSONAL STORY: The moment I decided that I wanted to get into Alpine climbing

I made plans with an acquaintance who said he had been doing a lot of alpine climbing and had the perfect route. I never asked any other questions or did any personal research – I was in the back seat. 


Not only was the route way too big of a step up for me, but it turned out that he had overrepresented his skills. His 10 years of climbing and ‘alpine skills’ boiled down to 10 years of gym climbing and one short alpine climb with a much stronger friend.


So ensued a saga that led to the scariest moment of my life (at that time). He subluxed his shoulder 2 pitches in, meaning it dislocated and went back in place. He sent me into terrain that I was totally unprepared to navigate or lead (take the rope up). At sunset, we were only ½ way and nearly out of food and water. We reached the summit at midnight navigating by headlamp. While I had rationed my water and food, my partner had been out for hours and was now delirious. He literally was talking gibberish and insisted we descend the opposite side of the mountain than our camp. 


It was at this moment that I realized I had to take control. The problem was: I had no idea what the descent route was or any bail options. I had been totally disengaged from the planning process. We spent a very cold night huddled and lost in exposed terrain halfway down the mountain. Ultimately it was my call to stop and wait till morning. I remember vividly wishing I could call my parents and tell them I loved them. When daylight hit, we found camp within 30 minutes. If I had listened to him, we would have rappelled into 1000+ ft into sheer cliffs – at best stranded and at worse sliding off the rope into thin air.


While I did eventually take the helm and get us safely down, I should never have been left so stranded. Take the time to wrap your head around what you are headed out to do. You don’t want to ever be in the position I ended up with. 

Many years later alpine climbing has become my ABSOLUTE favorite. This is on a traverse of Temple Galey Sill. Grade IV


Brain scans of risky behavior show men’s and women’s brains light up in totally different patterns. Essentially a woman’s brain lights up in more various regions and more strongly. This suggests that we spend more time analyzing the situation. It also hints at the idea that we have a more varied and diffused assessment strategy. I like to think of this as our innate ability to see not just one step down the line but many steps and options. This actually makes us better at seeing the full picture of risk and consequence. Our brains have even been labeled as being better in touch with intuition


PERSONAL STORY: Back to that saga on the mountain

You might have noticed I clearly stated it was MY call to stop and wait. If it had been up to my partner, he would have had us marching on blindly in the dark until we found camp or died trying. His brain was latched onto the outcome we both desired. But my perception was taking in the full picture. We were facing unbalanced odds. We had been on the move for 24 hours, exhausted, dehydrated, and lost. We literally and figuratively could only see the small yellow light from our headlamps 5 feet in front of us.  


Something deep in me knew that we were on the brink of a real disaster, that pushing on was more likely to result in injury or death than success. When I called a halt, it wasn’t easy. I didn’t feel like stopping at 13,000 feet with temps in the 30s, but I knew it wouldn’t kill us to sit for 4 hours. I couldn’t say the same for stumbling around 4TH class terrain in the dark. From 2 to 6am we sat on the rope for insulation and huddled together. My instincts told me that as soon as we had light, a way down would illuminate itself – and it did.  


Please be willing to consider that your fear and your instincts could be right. Don’t ever be afraid to step up and talk things over with your partners. 


We are all in the process of engaging with fear in our lives. It isn’t about being unafraid, it’s about analyzing the fear and figuring out what it tells us. 

What is the fear telling you? Is it accurately informing you of a very real risk with a significant potential for a bad outcome? Or is the fear misplaced, exaggerated, or out of proportion? Exaggerated fear is being haunted by shadows.  Listening to real fear is part of how you hone your instinct. So how do you know the difference between the two? You must actually assess each situation for risk. Risk = probability x consequence. When you have only 1 step between a legitimate risk (serious bodily injury, death, liquidation of all your assets) then that information should inform you to mitigate the risk. Real fear is your guardian angel.   


PERSONAL STORY:  Fighting off Shadow Risk

I still remember my first day of rock climbing. Everything was going well at the start of the route, but 80 feet up I froze. Suddenly the movements I had made 10ft off the ground were just too terrifying. I was perfectly safe on the rope but paralyzed.

I was so disappointed in myself. Once I was safely on the ground I could see that the fear wasn’t based on any actual risk. So, I tried again. Then again, the following weekend. When panic would seize me, I would stop to slow my breathing and talk to myself (in my head). You are safe Natalie, the rope will catch you. 


Over the years I worked out of these fears and onto others. There will always be new things that push our comfort zone and induce fear of the unknown.


PERSONAL STORY: Ending the drama

I listen to myself when I am scared. I’ve had to learn to hear the difference between the voice of shadow and real fear. They sound like this:


Real Fear/Instinct: Calm, quiet, almost like a separate entity in myself. This inner voice speaks decisively: no, you will not go down that side of the mountain,  the weather is changing; something will blow in, this client will not be a good fit for you. This voice speaks its mind but adds no emotion.


Shadow fear: Sort of like a hysterical aunt endlessly ranting. The voice is right at the surface waiting to pounce and emphasize every potential bad outcome. It’s ready to berate me. It’s the same voice that nags me with negative self-talk: what are you doing? you can’t do that, it’s too far, big, scary, you are too short, etc. It is FULL of drama and emotion. 


PERSONAL STORY: Managing fear beyond the outdoors

Years ago, I got an opportunity to work at the South Pole! Yes, the freaking South Pole. But it would require me to quit my cushy full-time job, experience the coldest temperatures of my life, and work a job wholly unfamiliar to me (a diesel mechanic assistant). Yikes! I didn’t know what to do. There were so many reasons the choice was risky for me – or so I thought.  


I sat. I thought about the job and what it would mean. When thoughts about how hard the transition would be or what if’s started up, I pushed them aside. Those were shadow fears. My instinct told me I would regret not taking this chance for the rest of my life. I should take it. Everything else can be sorted out.  


And I did. Thus started 10 seasons working in the most hostile place on earth. 


I think this one might be pretty obvious. Certainly, if you are taking the time to read this, you likely have already decided to take this step. 

Don’t put your dreams and goals on someone else. Take your power back. Show up with your mentors hungry for knowledge. Put in the hard work reading the books, studying the maps, etc. It’s also important to recognize the limitations of mentorships. Even the best mentorships are still biased relationships. Meaning: friends and mentors aren’t able to have an honest perception of your skills or their own. It’s important periodically to seek completely external sources of knowledge. Such as a skills clinic or course. When you take a course, you get less biased feedback. Ideally, you also get exposed to updated equipment and techniques. Because those of us who teach are also constantly learning and taking courses.  


PERSONAL STORY:  Desensitization of Risk

I’ll never forget the day rock climbing when a stranger called me on risky behavior, I wasn’t even aware of. I had surrounded myself with other risk-takers, just like me. We normalized our behavior and because nothing bad happened, we continued cutting corners. That was the moment I decided I had to take another climbing course. Not because I expected to expand my technical knowledge but because I needed to have an external audit. I needed to reframe and make sure that I was progressing with the best and safest practices.


One of the most typical patterns I have seen in rock climbing is an increase in risky behavior as people gain more skill. There are likely a lot of reasons for this including a glorification of risky behavior. But equally as insidious is the fact that as humans we grow accustomed to what we expose ourselves to. I used to be afraid of heights. Clearly, I have become accustomed to it. So have lots of climbers. The problem is they also went from double-checking their harnesses and putting knots at the end of their ropes to skipping these steps. I love my climbing partners but most of them have NEVER taken an official course on climbing. Some of them learned to climb 40 years ago and are still using the same equipment and techniques. Within my climbing network, I am the one to challenge the status quo, request the extra safety step, or show a better and safer way of doing something.   


Own your knowledge.



I hope after reading all the above you are primed to internalize this particular piece of feedback. I also don’t mean you should do things like a woman either. You should do things like YOU!


Outdoor culture has been predominantly shaped by men. White men, to be specific. It’s time we add diversity to the voices participating in outdoor pursuits. It’s time to show that there are many paths to the same eventual outcome. It’s not about one being better than another. We don’t all fit into neat and tidy boxes. Our genders and our behaviors will be on a spectrum. I do firmly believe in differences, and science supports that. But we can’t neatly categorize those differences to a gender. Every time we go forward and succeed without fitting the stereotype, we expand what is possible in others’ minds.  


PERSONAL STORY: My place as a woman

One time I was on a road trip and things went a little south. It was a lot of the usual curve balls: navigation challenges, bad weather, and tension among my co-pilots. Except, it was nothing like a typical road trip. We were driving Hagglunds (an adorable articulating tractor). We didn’t have a road or route because we were on 1st-year sea ice. Every year it forms up afresh in unpredictable ways. Cracks split the surface big enough to sink the tractor, ice smashes together creating impenetrable walls. To top it off, everything can float away if the storms are big enough. This is in Antarctica at the end of winter when it’s the coldest and most volatile. 


Oh and I’m in charge.


I’m directing a heavy equipment operator and diesel mechanic (men). We reach another impossible wall of ice. We have been trapped in this ice maze for over a day. It’s day 4 of this traverse. Everything is taking way longer than expected. I’m being pressured to enter the twisting field of ice. People are impatient. But I know that the broken ridges of ice hide voids and holes. It will likely tip a tractor over and wreck equipment. 


‘No’ I say.  No, we find another option. We are sitting across from each other-I behind the wheel. I can see a frustration crease on his face. But he acquiesces. He respects my opinion and knowledge.  

I did find us a way. 


I am barely over 5 feet tall. My long hair reaches my low back, and is entirely annoying for expeditions. I like to wear spandex whenever possible because it fits better and doesn’t restrict movement. So, I prance around in spandex before putting heavy layers on in the morning. I decided that in the afternoons I will play dance music and have a dance party in the cab. It seems to be a good way to lighten the mood.  


I used to worry about sticking out or being different. I used to feel the need to prove I could lift just as heavy of stuff, wear baggy clothes, and swear. All it gave me was added stress and backache. I was never going to be like the boys. I can only be me, and that turns out to be enough. 

Half way across my trans antarctic traverse to the South Pole. This was the year after the sea ice traverse.

Winter Fuels Crew. Three ladies, the tallest being 5’4″. Bet you hardly recognize me 🙂








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