Opportunities: See You Out There!

As with so many of our friends here at PEMBA, we first met Lisa Nelson online. She is active in the social media circles where we spend some of our time and attention, and she’s been a regular presence in our online life for quite a while now. Several weeks ago, we entered into a long conversation about women outdoors, and Lisa was one of the primary voices in that discussion. We wanted to spend some more time with her voice and thoughts, so we asked her to write a guest post for us. Man, we’re glad we did. Check this out… And, See You Out There, Lisa!

This January marked the 16th year of the Ouray Ice Festival. I’ve enjoyed being a part of the Festival for the last seven years.

I especially love the competition.  Watching and cheering for the the ridiculously strong and talented men and women as they make their way up the route usually leaves me hoarse the next day.  While the number of men in the competition has always been higher than the number of women, this year there were fifteen men and only four women competing.

The night before the competition, a friend of mine sent me an e-mail. She was one of the many women who were wondering where all the women were. Rumors were circulating that two qualified women were turned away from competing.

I was curious about this as well, so I emailed my friend and board president Bill Whitt about it.  He responded that the board turned away the same percentage of women as men. So even if all the women that applied were qualified, some would still be turned away, even if there were significantly fewer women. So why wouldn’t the board take ALL the qualified women?  And more importantly, why weren’t there more women applying?

After the Festival, I read the post here on PEMBA on this heated topic. This post generated a lot of activity, and it seemed that everybody had their opinions.  Where did I fall on this one? I’m the mother of a 15-year-old son and also a climber. I make significant effort to connect with other women and especially moms that still enjoy adventure. I also make it a priority to get out and climb regularly. But honestly, there just don’t seem to be very many of us out here.

The majority of women seem to vanish from the climbing scene after having kids. Their husbands seem to still manage to get out regularly, take trips and maintain a high level of climbing. This frustrates me and makes me sad.  After reading the comments on PEMBA, I was ready to point the finger at every man around. But the conclusion I came to is that really, I should point that finger right back at my own self.  Let me explain….

Generally, when couples choose to have children the woman takes on the role of primary care giver, at least for the first few years. I know this has been true for me. Many times women also continue to work full time, while still playing the role of domestic goddess. They do all the cooking, shopping and keeping the house up.  This scenario leaves little time for mom to get out and play, much less pursue a time-consuming sport like climbing.

What’s the solution? Women in that role need demand and receive more support. Families need to work together in a different way. While women, by nature, usually are more nurturing and giving and are therefore better qualified to be the primary care-giver – at least for the first few years – they need help and they need to make sure their needs are still being met.  Mothers that are successful in maintaining a high level of climbing, and even competing are getting that support.

Mothers also need to relinquish some control when it comes to parenting.  They need to be OK with a messy house, an empty fridge and occasionally hand over the crying child to dad. Women need to be more selfish to make sure their needs are getting met.  Let the other parent occasionally leave the crag first to watch the kiddo and get dinner started. Also, we need to change the social stigmas both at home and in the world of adventure sports.

Woman are judged very differently than men when it comes to adventures and expeditions in the mountains. When Allison Hargreaves was killed on K2 she was criticized by the media for taking risks as a mother.  Why?  Men – and yes, even fathers – frequently take the exact same risks. But, when men die in the mountains, it’s almost respected. Why should mothers be held to a different standard than fathers?

As for competitions such as the Ouray Ice Comp: Yes, perhaps we need to put a thumb on the scale for a time until the scale balances itself.  Why turn away qualified women, just to be fair?  To quote Jill Millas from her comments:

“I think that it is SO IMPORTANT for women to see more women competing. Seeing only a few, time and time again, just reinforces and reinforces and reinforces the idea that these sports are only for men and for just a few special women.”

It’s super-important for even newbies to see that there are lots of strong, capable, confident women in this sport. But how can we take this one step further?  We can foster and encourage women in the industry with female oriented programs and events.  We can mentor young women in climbing through local gyms. We can organize mom’s climbing groups to help mothers connect and continue to get out. We can support and encourage more grants for all female expeditions. We can celebrate and support women’s achievements in the world of climbing.

And me? Well, being a mom has been a priority in my life for the last sixteen years and I wouldn’t trade that role for anything. I feel honored to have been able to raise my son. In fact, I tear up when I think that my job is nearly done. And although I have climbed regularly through out my sons life,  its taken lots of work and coordination with my husband to maintain a balance between parenting and climbing.  This year, my son started high school and I am now establishing my career after not working full time for nearly sixteen years.  I’m changing my priorities and putting housework and cooking at the bottom of that list. I’m taking more trips with out my family and it’s been great for both myself and the family.  I even have a trip to Greece planned, without the husband or kiddo…something that has never happened.

My family is taking care of themselves and I’m taking care of me.

See you out there!


Lisa Nelson currently lives in Flagstaff AZ with her 15 year old son Zane and her husband Jason.   Being self employed and home schooling their son for the last three years has made it possible for the family to travel both in the US and abroad.  The family feels very much at home in their dark blue Sportmobile which can often be seen at Indian Creek and other areas in southwest. For more about Lisa’s adventures, read her blog VisualAdventures.

8 responses to “Opportunities: See You Out There!

  1. I truly hope some day, if and when I get married and have kids, remember this advice. It’s what scares me to death about finding someone and settling down – I’ll fall into the stereotypical Mid-West pattern that I grew up in, which didn’t include the wonderful things that are camping, hiking and climbing. And having more and more women getting out there and supporting each other is even more motivating! Thanks for the great column!

  2. You’re welcome Tiffany. And yes, I see the pattern a lot…mothers that completely give up their passions and lose themselves to motherhood. You CAN do both, it just takes some work and support. I was inspired by the video clip of the mother of 4 from Salt Lake City that climbed 5.14….holy moley, talk about determination.

  3. What a great post Lisa! I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that we need to make sure women in this sport are more visible and also create a strong sense of community amongst women climbers. As a not-so-seasoned women climber it isn’t exactly confidence building to see so few mothers continuing to climb after they have kids. Great to hear from one of them that it is possible! Speaking for personal experience, it’s really validating to hear that other women share my passions and go through some of the same things I do.

  4. I’m with Tiffany…I certainly hope to never forget this advice! I have to say, one of the things that factors in to whether or not I decide to have children is and will be whether I’m still able to maintain my freedom and chase my passions.

    I don’t want to hear that women consciously choose to give up their dreams and take a back seat to children and husbands. Even more, I don’t want to hear that we’re pressured to do so by societal expectations. It seems we’re expected to make so many sacrifices, and I need to continue to hear that it’s not true. I need to hear that it IS possible to have children and still live an active, adventurous climbing life. I think this applies to men in a way as well…I’ve heard men say kids aren’t an option because it means you’ll have to give up your life.

    Part of me wants to have children just so I can play outside with them – take them to the crag to climb before they can walk, take them on backpacking trips, everything – just because I think it’s so important to raise a generation of environmental stewards.

    Thanks for your advice, Lisa, and for getting me thinking!

  5. Yes ! Play with your kiddos!

    We took our kiddo on his first overseas trip when he was 6…spent 5 months in Thailand and Australia. Since then he has been to Spain, Peru, Mexico (lived there for a school year) and we have traveled extensively through out the states. There were times when I wondered what the hell I was doing (like when we got dropped off on the highway somewhere in Thailand at 2:00 am with no communication or town in sight. I was holding him in my arms asleep going, OK now what?) and it was always more complicated but it’s been an amazing ride. Now, as he is getting older I can see how our travel has played a part in the person he is now.

    One bit of advice…lower you expectations both at the crag and in life. Be gentle on yourself and enjoy the journey.

  6. Lisa is someone I never met while I lived in Flagstaff, but was always 1 degree of separation from. I wish we’d had the chance to climb together as I’d always heard what an awesome trad climber she is. I also never knew she had a son! That is so great that he is into doing the homeschooling thing and traveling around. If you guys want to come up to Bend, let me know!

    In regard to her post, I am one of those few (I guess) women who is still climbing hard and often after having a baby. I am fortunate enough to have a husband who is super supportive (he prefers me to belay him, so I guess he had to do whatever it took to get me back into shape). He cooks and we clean together. We cajole our parents into visiting us wherever we can and babysitting while we go out climbing, but we also try to take our daughter out climbing too.

    I’m not sure how to be more “visible” to other female climbers. I can’t always take my kid out climbing with me, but I will always be a mom. I often mention to other climbers that I have a child. What is amazing to me is that I climbed stronger after I had her than before!

    Seriously, if my husband was “still getting out regularly, taking trips and maintaining a high level of climbing” and I was expected to cook, grocery shop and take care of the house cleaning we’d be talking divorce! But fortunately my husband realized that for us both to be happy he’d have to help out and he has become an excellent cook. We both are able to climb a bunch and climb together and travel and climb. We’ve figured out how to make it work.

  7. Katie, I posted my reply before I read your post! No, having kids does not mean you have to give up an active adventurous climbing life! Our daughter has been to Europe 3 times in her short life of 3 years. We lived in Spain for 4 months last spring and she attended ballet and Flamenco classes taught entirely in Spanish and loved it! She went out climbing with us and had her first crush on a Spanish climber named Roberto. I know our traveling has shaped her life- she is unafraid of new situations, makes friends easily and even speaks a bit of Spanish and she’s not even 4 yet! She’s been to Mexico, Spain, Monaco, Italy, Germany, Norway, England, France and Canada. And she loved them all. She’ll be 4 in March and just tonight she was telling me how she wants to go to India! She loves to travel and it’s so fun to travel with her.

  8. Aimee – Just checked out your FB profile…we have totally met! At Maple Canyon shortly after your kiddo was born, I think. We chatted about web stuff and such. Maybe I’m not so memorable when it comes to sport climbing..ha ha.

    Anyway, we have been in Flag for about 8 months…so sorry we missed you guys. Hope you’re enjoying Bend!

    Glad to hear you’re still getting out!