Think you need to be macho to get out in winter? Think again. Mary-Ann Ochota profiles
a week of winter training for female walkers, mountaineers and climbers, led by the
country’s top female instructors.
In the next few weeks, outdoor magazines, glossy adverts in shops and thousands of Instagram feeds will transform. No more warm sunsets over epic summery landscapes. No more topless climbers dangling on deep-water soloing routes. It’ll be ice, snow, crampons and axes. Many of us look at those images with a mix of awe and envy. It looks exciting, challenging, requires a set of new skills and kit…but how do I build those skills, or get started safely? How strong do I have to be? How fit? How brave? And…if I sign up for a winter skills or climbing course, what will the people be like?
Women’s participation rates in mountaineering and climbing are on the rise – but only 26% of BMC members are female, and ladies can expect to be outnumbered on a winter skills course. That in itself shouldn’t be a problem. The mountains don’t care. And many excellent instructors don’t care either. Both men and women thrive in supportive learning environments where questions are welcomed and fears can be expressed and addressed. But the perception that male-dominated skills courses can turn into testosterone-fuelled competitive showdowns is common. And if you’re not sure you’re going to have a good time, why would you spend hundreds of pounds and waste a week of annual leave?
Sam Leary MIC has 30 years’ experience as an instructor and coach. “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…they end up getting dragged around by the men.”
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 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, and more capable, than they think they are,” she tells me.
To address this need, Sam, along with a team of top female instructors and the two national centres, Plas y Brenin and Glenmore Lodge, came together to offer the first Women’s Winter Week in March 2017. Supported by the BMC and Mountaineering Scotland, this was taught at Plas y Brenin’s Scottish winter base in the West Highlands and at Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms, five- and two-day courses covered winter walking, mountaineering and climbing.
The response was overwhelmingly positive.
I joined the Intro to Mountaineering course, and over five days I learned new skills, grew my confidence and took on my first winter mountaineering routes. It scared and delighted me in equal measure. My fellow course participants were fun, supportive and inspiring. There was no racing up the mountain to be the fastest or strongest. There was no pretending we weren’t nervous. If we were set map reading or planning challenges, doing well felt like a team triumph rather than a competition. It was an amazing week.
Sam agrees. “The confidence, competence and enjoyment levels were sky-high at the end of the courses. And now we’re set for this winter – the 2018 Women’s Winter Week is going to be an event not to be missed!”
The instructor team will include Libby Peter, Nancy Chambers, Lou Reynolds and Sam herself. The opportunity to be coached by some of the top instructors in the country – whether it’s to take your first teetering steps in crampons or to push your ice climbing performance – shouldn’t be missed.
So, if you’re a lady who would like to get out more in winter, but aren’t sure that a winter course will be accommodating, this is for you; if you don’t want to get dragged around by your climbing or walking partners this winter, this is for you. If you know a lady who you suspect would love to get her hands on an ice axe, but may not know how to get started, this is for her.
Sam sums it up: “Whoever you are, come, get involved and enjoy the outdoors with a group of like-minded ladies at the level that you want to. Be part of something vibrant, inspiring and above all fun. That’s really what these courses are about.”
Spread the word: Winter is Coming, and it’s not just for the boys.
Women's winter courses 2018
Plas y Brenin at Alltshellach, West Highlands
Intro to Winter Mountaineering
Intro to Winter Climbing
Glenmore Lodge, Cairngorms
Intro to Winter Mountaineering
Intro to Winter Climbing
Q Aren’t women-only courses divisive? Men aren’t the problem!
A Women’s courses are about making sure that everyone has the opportunity to learn in a setting they’re comfortable with. This isn’t a battle of the sexes, or about cementing stereotypes. But the sooner we change perceptions of mountaineering and climbing as arenas where brute strength, competition and fearlessness are standard, the better. Yes, it’s a place you can go to challenge yourself. It’s also a place where asking questions, expressing concerns and supporting each other should be the norm. Women’s courses can change the perceptions, break down the barriers, and help get equal numbers of women involved.
Q I’m a woman and I don’t need a women’s-only course to feel comfortable
A I feel the same myself. In fact, if I’m honest I might previously have actively avoided a femaleonly course! But there’s something pretty awesome about not being in the minority for once, and having a whole team of inspiring female instructors as your role models. Rest assured, this isn’t a group of embittered militants – they’re top instructors and like-minded mountain lovers, who just happen to be female.
Q How do I prepare for a winter course?
A Winter days can be physically demanding – you’re going to be carrying more equipment, and conditions can be challenging. Stay active through the autumn – you don’t need to be an Olympian, but the more hill fitness you have, the more you’ll enjoy a multi-day course. Think about the course you might like to sign up for – and have a look at the prerequisites. For example, if you want to progress to winter mountaineering, try some summer scrambling and brush up on your winter walking skills. The national mountain centres have impressive kit stores and will lend you top-quality equipment (winter boots, ice axes, crampons, harness etc) as part of your course fee. What you will need are goggles, winter gloves, and suitable base and mid-layers. If you need advice, call and ask.
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