Packrafting in the Grand Canyon

How to Crash a Women’s Adventure

Dear John,

I’m sprawled in the bed of my converted cargo van reflecting on your stellar expeditionary behavior while crashing our annual women’s adventure. The rear doors are open toward the Colorado River and through the sound of tourists walking out onto the Navajo Bridge, I can hear the wind whipping around the water 476 feet below. When I close my eyes I’m back in the canyon with the walls looming above us, the cold water splashing into our tiny packrafts, and the sun-shade line coaxing us down river. I’m not ready to go back to a world where I have to worry about brushing my hair, getting mud on my pants, and trying to be assertive enough to be heard, but not so assertive that men colleagues respond with, “I’m aware,” with a look that says get back in your corner. Thank you for reminding me what inclusive leadership can look like!

First dinner of the adventure!
Burritos for dinner above the Grand Canyon. A day’s hike from Toroweap Lookout.

You see, I spent my early 20s on college field semesters as the only woman and careened through the rest of that decade working mountaineering courses for Outward Bound with mostly male co-instructors. All of these men knew how to talk about treating women in the outdoors as equal, but they often struggled with practicing it in everyday interactions. It takes two to tango, though, and my low self-esteem often set them up for the role the patriarchy said they should play in technical terrain. I expected their opinions to trump mine, and I buried myself in shame when I made mistakes.

Tip #1: Jump in without questioning the women’s trip itinerary.

Julia is the reason you came on our annual women-only canyoneering and packrafting adventure. I trusted her judgment inviting you on our historically women’s trip in the same way I trust her when she spots me on sketchy downclimbs: with momentary hesitation giving way to the reminder we’re both in this together.

With Julia, woman-dominated backcountry navigation is always at it’s best. We met as co-instructors on a three-week mountaineering course in the North Cascades during one of the coldest, wettest springs on record. We survived the cold, the high maintenance students, and our share of navigational mistakes with a kind of deep belly laughter that kept us glowing right in and through the next challenge.

Tip #2: Embrace good expedition mentality and thoughtful decision making.

Julia and John enjoying the view above Cove Canyon in Grand Canyon National Park on the first day of our adventure.
Julia and John enjoying the view above Cove Canyon.

Remember stretching our legs over the slickrock while Julia and I compared gray hairs and the sun set above the Grand Canyon? At that moment I knew the dynamic between the three of us was going to be okay. Before the gray hair counting, you listened to us explore all the options about where to camp. Then, you embraced our decision to climb back up to the rim so we could roam under the full moon in the open desert landscape—and also dig cat holes in the morning instead of pooping into wag bags.

Tip #3: Never act like a hero or assert that you just saved the day.

Julia rappelling on our trip down Cove Canyon.
Julia on a wet rappel in Cove Canyon.

You trusted us right away in technical terrain. When our rope got stuck on a rappel, you climbed up onto a decomposing ledge below a mini-waterfall and teased it back down with a paddle. I momentarily forgot this was our annual women’s adventure and said, “I’m so glad we brought you with us!” to which you quickly responded, “you would have figured it out without me.” The perfect response. Especially considering Julia excels at climbing in steep, loose terrain.

Tip #4: Trust the technical outdoor skills of the women on the adventure.

My favorite moments were on the third day, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, in our overloaded packrafts. You followed me down the Class 2 riffles without hesitation. It was your first time in a packraft, and I explained a bit about eddy lines and wave trains, but most of my river running experience was ten years ago, and I was navigating almost entirely on old instincts. You trusted me nonetheless.

Julia and John floating in an eddy in the Grand Canyon on our historically women-only adventure.
Julia and John floating in an eddy in the Grand Canyon above Lava Falls.

Tip #5: Get metaphorical about the landscape.

Historically, canyons represent women’s bodies: holes or crevices for men to explore, conquer, fill, tame, own. This was the backdrop for your interactions with Julia and me, and it placed your communication into a heightened need for equality. You were a man navigating a landscape representing the area between a woman’s legs—a landscape, in terms of technical canyoneering, largely traveled by men. The women in the group needed to be the leaders, and not the bystanders, in this terrain. On some level—whether you were aware of this context or not—I believe you understood.

If this canyon metaphor seems too liberal arts education, I can head to the Grand Teton for an example about boobs. Julia and I climbed the “large nipple” or “big breast” together in 2010. Other women climbed the Grand that day, but we were the only team of two women. This has always seemed wrong to me, that more men than women are conquering the summit of a feature named after a woman’s body part.

Julia and I climbing on to the Guiness van for our victory photoshoot on our annual women's adventure.
Julia and I climbing on to the Guinness van for our victory photoshoot.

Tip #6: Remember you are being judged by the outdoor matriarchy.

Toward the end of our canyon adventure, Julia and I sat on a ledge near the Toroweap Overlook debriefing your presence on our women’s adventure. She listed several men we knew who also would be able to keep up with us in the canyons. I told her I respected those men but worried I would butt heads with them on a trip like this. “Oh, I know I would butt heads with them,” she responded. As recent as five years ago, I would have found the head butting a little thrilling, perhaps even flirtatious. The thought of it just makes me tired now. Partly because it’s too closely related to the gender inequality lingering in my everyday life, and partly because I believe our interactions in the outdoors represent more than we often realize at the moment.

In the end, John, you provided me with an example of what gender equality in the backcountry can look like. Age might have something to do with it. You are seven or eight years younger than Julia and me. Perhaps, at 34 and 35, we are finally maturing into the wise old broads we set out to be years ago. Or maybe your actions are speaking to a greater shift in outdoor recreation. In our twenties, gender equality in the outdoors was a hot topic. Maybe it’s taken the last decade for it to finally shift into a social norm.

John did a great job joining forces with Julia and me on our women's only adventure.
Celebrating our successful adventure above the rim of the Grand Canyon.

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