The first Women's Winter Week ushered in a momentous start to March, which saw mountains of fun with positive, inspirational women and support from male and female supporters alike. So what went down during these five days of skills, thrills, and chills? BMC ambassador Mary-Ann Ochota reports.
March started with a dash of snow and a gathering of incredibly psyched women, all looking to make the most of the inaugral Women's Winter Week. This new venture involved two national centres, Plas y Brenin and Glenmore Lodge, joining forces to put on a series of mountain training courses for women, taught by women.
Spearheaded by Sam Leary MIC, and with the support of AMI, Mountain Training, Mountaineering Scotland and the BMC, there were five-day courses on Winter Hillwalking Skills and Intro to Mountaineering, and two-day options covering hillwalking, mountaineering and winter climbing. Our very own Mary-Ann Ochota was to get involved and give us the full scoop on what went down:
Why have a Women's Winter Week?
I’ve been lucky enough to have been taught by excellent instructors, and spent most of my mountain days with supportive and fun people – both male and female. I’ve had enough positive experiences to encourage me to sign up for a course or an event on the assumption that there’ll be people like me.
The challenge we all face as people who love the mountains and want to share that passion, is how to make them accessible to everyone. Regardless of how gender-blind your instructor may be, or your fellow course participants, being in the minority does have an impact. I only realised this when I was, for the first time, in the majority. Being surrounded by positive, fun, inspirational women on a winter mountain course is a joy, and one that I hope will soon become the new ‘normal’ rather than a novelty.
Women’s participation rates in mountaineering and climbing are on the rise – but as a girl, you can still expect to be outnumbered on a course. The likelihood of being taught by a female instructor is slim. There are still only 33 female MICs – is that because so few women want to instruct in the winter? Because they’re not as good? Or simply because we still haven’t levelled the playing field, to make sure women feel welcome, valued and supported – and that talented women are encouraged up the rungs of leadership and instruction?
WATCH: Women's Winter Week 2017 on BMC TV
The time two blokes talked over my head about the route ‘we’ were doing made me think less of them, not less of myself. But if they’d been ever so slightly more male chauvinist, it would have ruined the day. If that experience happened more than once, then perhaps I’d start to think this mountain stuff wasn’t for me. I might hesitate to recommend it to a less confident female friend. If it’s all testosterone and showing off and ‘don’t worry dear, we’ll look after you,’ or worse, ‘God, we’re waiting for that woman again, she’s so weak and slow,’ then frankly, I can find better things to do with my weekends.
Sam Leary has 30 years’ experience as an instructor and coach. She acknowledges the bottom line is that perception, and experiences, come into play. And that’s why there’s a demand – a need – for women’s courses.
“I think a lot of women feel intimidated by a perceived macho persona that winter has – that you have to be a big, burly bloke. A lot of women’s experience is that they’ve only gone out with men, who may be bigger, take bigger steps, and they end up getting dragged around by the blokes.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way. “The key to having a really good day out, particularly in winter, is to make sure that you’re sharing that day with people you can be really honest and open with, work as a partnership and make good decisions. It’s irrelevant if they’re male or female.”
The team enjoys a well-earned tea break. Photo: Mary-Ann Ochota
The need to break down negative perceptions and enthuse women in their own capabilities is clear. “I want to increase participation and show women that they’re better than they think they are, and are more capable than they think they are,” Sam tells me.
If you don’t think it’s for you, think again, she insists. “Whoever you are, come, get involved and enjoy the outdoors at the level that you want to. There’s so much positive energy and passion for the mountains. That’s what these courses are about.”
I was surprised at how inspiring it was to learn alongside other women. Lou Reynolds, Libby Peter, Nancy Chambers and Sam, our course leaders, had total command of the environment, the conditions, instructing, guiding and encouraging in equal measure. Lou helped me triumph on routes I didn’t know I could achieve.
Role models, even when you’re a grown up, are key. And every time there’s a thoroughly qualified and totally awesome woman in charge, the seeds are being planted for women and girls who could be the next generation of instructors.
Changing perceptions, exchanging criticisms
Women Only courses can be divisive for some – criticism levelled includes creating a sense of us-vs-them, or cementing binary male/female gender identities, which exclude people who don’t identify with either. And, of course, there are plenty of men who don’t like a macho, man-up, competitive atmosphere either. And there are women who seek that out as a preference.
But the sooner we can change perceptions of mountaineering and climbing as a stereotypically male-dominated arena, where brute strength, competition and fearlessness are de rigueur, the better. Yes, it’s a place you can go to challenge yourself, find your limits, be brave. It’s also a place where asking questions, expressing concerns and supporting each other should be the norm. Those aren’t inherently male or female traits, they’re inherently human traits. So let’s address the perceptions, break down the barriers, get equal numbers of women involved – and then we can be gender-blind.
I’m proud to think that people out there might see pictures of us on this course and change their perception of what a mountaineer looks like. And perhaps they’ll realise that if we can do it, they can too.
Want to join in?
Glenmore Lodge and Plas y Brenin are running more women’s winter courses. For further course information as it’s released, and to join the inspired, and inspiring, group of women behind the campaign, head to their Facebook group, Mountain Inspired.
4-8 March 2018: Plas y Brenin Women’s Winter Week (at Alltshellach, West Highlands) five-day courses
Intro to Winter Mountaineering
10-11 March 2018: Glenmore Lodge Women’s Winter Weekend two-day courses
Intro to Winter Mountaineering
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