Mount Vernon, WA – When I travel alone, I stay in KOA Campgrounds. With anyone else I camp in the woods. My own degrees of safety hold that alone is for established campgrounds close to major byways with a nice couple in yellow shirts escorting me in a golf cart to my campsite for the night. But if I’m with someone, I allow myself the luxury of sleeping unworried anywhere I can pull off the road.
The forest service ranger in Fairplay, CO, told my friend and I that we could camp anywhere as long as we were one car-length away from the road, so we did. Just east of the Continental Divide and west of Buena Vista, CO, we pulled off the road and set up camp on a bare patch of red dirt along the Cottonwood Canyon. The bats darted over a lazy patch of river, catching mosquitoes while we sat on rocks and drank tea. We walked back to camp past our only neighbors. By the light in their tent, we could see their silhouettes drinking beer.
Thinking how nice it would be to have a picnic table, my friend and I settled ourselves onto a chair-height rock close in our camp. I planned to sleep in the car and my friend would sleep in the tent.
“So what should we talk about?” I asked. We sat in the dark with long-sleeves to protect us from the bugs.
“First can we talk about our worries?” she said. Then she asked me if I felt safe at the site. I knew we were close to the highway, at the end of a short road, two lone women.
“What if they’re getting drunk?” she asked, staring through the dark at the neighbors. “What if they have a gun?” she asked. “Do you ever worry about these things?”
I told her I did and if she was worried, we should throw the tent in the back of the car and go to a campground. So we did. At 11 o’clock, we drove up the dark highway to the forest service campground. We both knew how hard it was for her to trust her gut and speak her concerns. She apologized but we both slept soundly, surrounded by numbered sites and the convenience of pit toilets.
Years ago, I was 12 miles from the trailhead on a backpacking trip down the west coast of Vancouver Island. Kelp littered the beach and barnacles clicked as we lumbered under heavy packs just above the tideline. I had driven out from Michigan with an outdoorsy-climber fellow who spearheaded our group of seven. Everything we needed for the 40-mile hike rested on our backs. The trail ran like ribbon along the beach, winding inland where orange buoys hung from trees to mark our path.
Recent heavy rains made the trail mud. Our outdoorsy leader determined from his topographical map that we should skip the orange buoy hanging in the Douglas fir nearby and take a shortcut down the beach instead. We could catch the inland trail at the next creek draw. I noticed that the tide was coming in and our modified route would send us on a scramble along the base of the cliff. The tide might trap us against the rocks. I said something but the group complained about sore feet and wanted to take the shortcut. This was my terrain but I went along with the group. I grew up here; our outdoorsy leader was from Chicago.
A few hundred yards down the beach, a surfer yelled at us from the ocean.
“Go back, the tide is coming in! You will get stuck on the rocks!” My friend turned the group around and we doubled-back to the interior trail. Walking along the top of the cliff, I mentally kicked myself as the group said, “Good thing that surfer was there!” I chastised myself because I said something but not loud enough, and because I do have experience.
That night, the group wanted to camp on a tent pad next to the ocean. I mentioned camping higher in the woods where it would be warmer. I know the waves heard me. We spent the night soaked by ocean spray and cold from the settling katabatic air, cold air which sinks to the lowest point of the terrain in the evenings. We abandoned our trip the next morning, hiking out to the road and hitchhiking back to the car. The group sent the two women – we knew we’d be more likely to be picked up than the guys. A surfer picked us up and told us how rad the waves were yesterday.
Being female, I sometimes speak too quietly. In backcountry situations, I fear being questioned and challenged when I have a concern that I feel in my gut. My worst fear, if I am wrong, is that I will I undermine my trust in future assertions. What if I discredit myself and the group will not listen to me in a real survival situation when I really need to be assertive?
A friend recently told me that one of the best things you can do to ensure your survival in the backcountry is to take a woman. This makes sense. Bring the 10 Essentials and someone wearing a sports bra. He said that women sense things and, when machisimo takes over, women often make decisions that walk the line of life when death is on the other side. It is popular right now to write about survival but what about bringing someone who listens to trusts their gut? We know that most humans have lost touch with instinct and suffer from the depravity of instant connection to information that will supposedly keep us safe. We depend on GPS and skim books on natural navigation but, when it comes down to it, we opt to take extra batteries instead of trusting ourselves. The problem is, when we need to think, we question ourselves.
Seven years ago, I drove to eastern Washington to fish an alpine lake with an acquaintance. Twenty miles up the Twisp River Road, we encountered an accident. A dog ran to the door the car and bleated, “Maaaa!” The collision involved a trailer with a herd of goats and I realized how the chemicals in my blood were affecting my perception. Then a woman rushed to the driver’s side door and said, “You’ve got to help him! He can’t move his body! He’s paralyzed!”
Several miles up the canyon was the real accident. This woman had collided with the man pulling the goat trailer on her way to get help. The woman explained that her brother had taken a shortcut to the parking lot that led him across a slippery log. He’d fallen, hit his head on a stone in the creek and suddenly found himself paralyzed and lying face-down in the water. She’d left him and the rest of her party to drive for help. I had just completed a Wilderness First Responder course and offered to do what I could to stabilize the situation. Her teenage daughter knew where her uncle was and hopped in our car to show us the way.
By the time we arrived, they’d rolled the man over onto his back but he was in shock and half in the creek. Somehow the fall had injured his spine and he couldn’t move anything below his neck. He said he hurt bad and was obviously frightened, still half in the icy water. I introduced myself and asked permission to have someone hold his head in event of a spinal injury. We placed a sleeping pad on the rocky shoal next to him and I explained how we would move his body. We ran into the next unfortunate event: some kind of nerve damage had made any touch to his body below his neck radiate excruciating pain to his shoulders. He yelled as I directed the group, asked if anyone was not ready, and moved him a foot to the right, out of the water.
For an hour and a half, we held his head. I monitored his vitals and took a personal history. He was out of the cold creek but shivering even though it was hot. Hypothermia. Because any touch hurt him badly, the most we could do was cover him with a space blanket. He wouldn’t let us take off his clothing. His wife told us that she was a nurse but didn’t remember anything about first aid. All we could do was wait and hope the ambulance would arrive soon.
The ambulance showed up an hour later. An EMT waded across the creek with a backboard and asked who was in charge. I told him my training, ready to give a report as I’d been trained to do but the EMT cut me off after I said the man was in his sixties and a Type II diabetic. I said that the man had been shivering the whole time but before I could say that we couldn’t touch him because any contact radiated pain to his shoulders, the EMT snapped that that was probably because the man was hypothermic. It was obvious he blamed me as we bivied our patient onto a backboard. The wife thanked me and that was the last I saw of them.
Driving slowly to try and find a place to fish, I found that my confidence was shaken. I rehashed the event over and over in my head, especially the cold comment from the EMT. I miscast, impaled a fly in the back of my head and caught nothing that evening.
I did all I could in that but the EMT’s dismissal of my work shook me. My friend tried to assure me we’d done all we could. For a long time, I wondered if there was any more I could’ve done. I questioned my actions and felt the dirty quilt of low self-esteem wrap around me.
It wasn’t until I began teaching that I realized how confidence plays into our skills. I taught backpacking and survival classes for Washington Outdoor Women, and Rural & Farm First Aid classes for the Winter Cattleman’s School. I taught classes on how to raise a backyard flock of hens and also how to dig razor clams. Over and over someone in the class thought they were more of an expert than I was and spoke up with inaccurate facts like how diarrhea was a symptom of dehydration or how a hen would turn into a rooster if you only had a flock of female chickens. In front of the class, I first found myself flustered but then at the end, students would tell me how much they learned. The evaluations reflected thanks for shutting down unconstructive and inaccurate comments. Students stayed afterward to clarify finer points and tell me they were empowered to go try these new skills on their own. My perspective shifted. I came to see that there would always be “experts” who saw my classes as a chance to strut their stuff but they did not have the confidence to plan a syllabus and stand in front of a group teaching. They did not have a wide range of expertise in these various areas. As an instructor, it was my job to maintain confidence and sift out truth from fact. Mistruths, if left, have consequences and speaking up for myself could keep the rest of the class or their flock alive.
The same friend who told me that taking a woman on any expedition was a wise decision reminded me about a story in “The Motion of the Ocean” by Janna Cawrse Esarey. Janna’s husband takes over docking the sailboat while his wife does the physical work of jumping ashore and tying up under his direction. The husband is perfectly able to do the physical work and she is capable of steering the boat but he wants control and, as it turns out, wants critique rights should she mess up. Until he admits that a partnership where they both can equally do either job differently yet competently, she is the underdog. After this conversation, both partners feel increased confidence in their abilities as a team, which is stronger than any one person’s skills.
Our confidence lies in doing things we deem estimable (read “esteem-able”) whether it’s teaching or climbing mountains or both. It grows when we have the camaraderie and safety of being able to share hopes and concerns freely. Being able to talk about our fears before we are in a survival situation lights up points that just one person in the group may miss. It keeps us safe. As an instructor, having fellow instructors to teach or debrief with gives us as much perspective as the feedback from the group.
Last year, a friend of mine who is a woman taught a Women’s Chainsaw 101 class. She made the decision to let the only man in the room offer his opinions freely. She watched her expertise wane as he talked on and soon they were out of time for practicing skills. We talked later and she was unsatisfied with the outcome, feeling railroaded by the man in the room.
Sometimes you need to speak out. It was my mother who told me, if someone is directly affecting the learning of the class, it might be that only a direct comment will stop them from dominating. I’ve told students who were taking over my time, “Thank you for your input. I need to keep going or I won’t get through my material. It’d be great if you could hold your comments until the end.” It’s group socialism in which the instructor stands up for the needs of the students, understanding what the group needs in order to learn. Confidence means saying, “I need to know if you heard what I said about the tides,” when you’re headed down the beach against a cliff. It means holding the belief that, if the person interrupting you really was an expert and they will be willing to teach the class next time – and holding this in the center of your very being. Your job as a group member, as a teacher, is to keep everyone moving in the right direction. And as a leader, it is listening the concerns of the group and making an educated decision as to whether to continue. If no one listens, be like a beaver – have a third exit and use it.
I went spelunking one time, in southern Washington. Three climbs into a wild (un-manicured) lava cave, at the end of a rope (literally), cold and exhausted, I vouched to sit on a pile of rocks in the dark instead of free-climbing an unexplored cave 30-feet above with my two partners. I’d heard more than once, “I thought you were a climber”. I knew that I was 1) not strong enough to carry either of them out if they got hurt and 2) not confident that the group waiting in the campground would call Search & Rescue on time if I fell.
I sat on a pile of lava rubble, in the dark, in a 40-degree cave for over 45 minutes. I listened to the water drip, some of it on me, and plotted how I would get out if they never returned. Behind me, another unexplored cavern fell one mile to the bottom. I watched as the men I was with used the rope from our last climb to scale the wall to the unexplored cave. I looked at my watch and wondered how long it would take for someone to miss us. Our “call-out time” was 7:00 o’clock that evening. I had three sources of light and enough food, water and warm clothes to survive a very long time. I was confident that I was safe. I told myself that I’d chosen what to me was life and, in spite of their jabs, knew that I’d be found alive in an emergency. The wait tried my self-confidence and the climb out was exhausting. I found my choice validated, however, when we arrived back at camp – fifteen minutes after someone should’ve called Search & Rescue – and our emergency contacts were drunk.
Back home, I experienced delayed shock in the shower, shaking when I realized how close we’d been to disaster. My reflections, though, included pride. I’d missed out on being the first explorer to a new cave over a mile below the earth’s crust but I was alive. I rested in the knowledge that I’d chosen life for me, whether those whom I was with approved or not.
Confidence is choosing what’s best for you in spite of the nagging voice that tells you to do more, go farther, to put more at risk than you feel is comfortable. As much as I would like to say it is innate for us to learn to advocate for ourselves, I believe (in our society) it is only learned when we pursue goals that stretch us and surround ourselves with those who build us up when we say, “no”. Confidence is this: the ability to choose consciously to trust ourselves; to make an assessment of a situation and still decide our own path. It is the art of adjusting to each situation and letting go of minutia enough to listen to “my-nutia”, the details that matter to me, and trusting what will be best for myself in the long-haul. No one else might be looking after you but you have those skills already. Hear yourself and clearly weigh whether you want to walk the shore or take the buoy-marked trail. If you take the long route, the blisters will still be there but can you walk tall, knowing you reached the end with you still intact.
Dedicated to all the women who teach, explore and are learning to trust themselves. Here’s to champs, like us.