A Woman’s Place is On Top

Cathy O'Dowd 1

Written by: Cathy O’Dowd

I’ve spent much of my adult life attempting activities that were seen as profoundly masculine, where women were scarce or absent, and I’ve discovered that there is a lot we can do to fight past the ‘man’s world’ myth.

“Well, George, we knocked the bastard off.”

These were the first words Edmund Hillary said on meeting teammate George Lowe, after he and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to reach the top of Everest, the world’s highest mountain. It’s such a ‘boy’ thing to say. It was just one more brick in the wall that built up the ‘conquering’ of Everest as the manliest of all manly activities (definitely no women on those early Everest expeditions).

By the time I embarked on my first Everest expedition those roles and attitudes were beginning to break down but the assumptions that underlay them were still going strong. The way I got onto that expedition confirmed all the stereotypes. The (male) leader had invited South Africa’s ‘best’ – i.e. most well-known – mountaineers (all men) to join him. One of the sponsors – a large Sunday newspaper (run by men) – decided that the first South African expedition to Everest wasn’t sufficiently interesting. How about running a ‘competition’ to find a ‘girl’ to join the team?

One of the headlines read: Have you got the balls to be our woman on the summit?

The events that followed were tumultuous, traumatic, complicated and controversial. By the time we reached the top, some of the best of the male climbers had walked out and I was the first South African (female or male) to climb Everest. The first question I was asked on my return – a question so urgent they had it faxed to our hotel in Kathmandu – was not how it felt to stand on the summit, or what caused the tragic death of one of our team on the descent. It was whether I was having sex with the team leader. I’m not sure how that would help with the climbing of Everest but that seemed to be the underlying idea.

There are far too many aspects in modern life that we subconsciously think of as belonging to men, which we women can only enter if we have great courage and exceptional qualities. Men and women alike, we are often profoundly mistaken in how we judge these things.

Everest is a symbol of strength, a super-human physical challenge where only the strongest will succeed. But what does it mean to be ‘strong’? It’s true that the ‘average’ man is stronger than the ‘average’ women. It’s an irrelevant piece of information. None of us are that average woman. We are all stronger than some men and some women and weaker than others.

Then we need to examine the details. Very few of us – Edmund Hillary included – are strong enough to climb Everest alone. The vast majority of climbers, men and women, turn to the same solutions. One is to train to get stronger. The other is to make adaptions – take less kit, take lighter kit, do more load carries, share the load, employ Sherpas. There are many ways to compensate for our weaknesses.

The first person to reach the top of Everest alone and unaided (no Sherpas, no oxygen, no team support) was Reinhold Messner. The second? A British woman – the superb mountaineer Alison Hargreaves.

Everest, like many endurance challenges, is also a profoundly emotional undertaking. Most climbers fail mentally long before the mountain becomes literally too difficult. Their motivation and resolve crumble in the face of the day-to-day grind.

Women do well in such environments. We are built to endure. In ultra-distance races, where men and women compete in the same field, we are beginning to see women emerging as outright winners. We do even better mentally. From what I’ve seen on expeditions, we are more likely to ask for help when needed, we more likely to value a collaborative – and so more effective – approach within the team, and we are better attuned to reading and managing emotion, our own and others.

In the world of avalanche avoidance training, something that matters to me as a passionate off-piste skier and ski-mountaineer, the number 1 piece of advice is – ski with women. Most skiers who are caught in avalanches inadvertently triggered them themselves. Almost none of those skiers are female.

The father of an expedition partner of mine was dubious about the value of women in the wilderness. It apparently distracts from crucial manly bonding activities. But I’ve had men tell me they like mixed teams. In addition to reducing risky behaviours, it stops the pressure within all-male groups to engage in “locker-room talk.”

Nevertheless it can be hard to find the confidence to step up to something if you don’t see anyone who looks like yourself doing these things already. Knowing it intellectually is one thing but you also need to believe it on an emotional level.

I stepped up to apply for the 1st South African Everest Expedition, despite all the sexist undertones of the selection process, partly because a few years earlier I’d read American climber Arlene Blum’s book Annapurna: A Woman’s Place. It is the story of the first all-woman expedition to an 8000-metre peak in the Himalaya. In my mind there was a path to the Himalaya that a woman could walk.

What does this all mean in the wider world? I’d love to say we should just ignore ‘man’s world’ thinking, but that would be naive. A lot of people we will meet still carry those kind of expectations and we need to recognise and manage it when we meet it. And we can find these ideas lurking deeply rooted in our own sub-conscious, warping and limiting the choices we make.

We need to take the idea out of OUR vocabulary. This doesn’t only apply to women, although that is the area where I have the strongest personal experience. It’s not a world reserved for men. It’s not reserved for whites, or for the wealthy, or for non-immigrants, or for people born with first-world citizenship.

It’s a world shared by all of us.

If we find ourselves shying away from something because it seems ‘better suited’ to someone other, we need look beyond that initial impression and interrogate the idea – as with Everest.

– Is mountain climbing really just about physical strength?

– How can we become stronger ourselves or find tools to aid our strength?

– What else is needed to climb a mountain?

– Are those talents we do or can come to possess?

– What role models can we find who are like us and have done this already?

– How did they manage it?

By taking this approach, you are not just doing yourself a favour. You’re doing the men a favour. Management research shows with increasing authority that mixed teams perform better.

My journey to Everest began years before when I read Arlene Blum’s book. I will give the last word to her wonderful expedition slogan:

A Woman’s Place Is On Top.

Cathy O'Dowd 2

Cathy O’Dowd is the first South African to climb Everest and the first woman in the world to climb it from both sides. She is an internationally known motivational speaker, an author and an active adventurer, devoting her free time to ski mountaineering and rock and alpine climbing. Her book Just For The Love Of It tells the full story of her Everest expeditions. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram (Cathy_ODowd) and Twitter (@CathyODowd), or visit her website for more information. Her new project The Business of Adventure is designed to help would-be adventurers answer the killer question: how are you going to pay for it? Find out more at The Business of Adventure, twitter @bizofaventure.

Originally posted on LinkedIn in November 2016.