Girls climb mountains of their own choosing

Girls climb mountains of their own choosing

Story and photos by Abby Butterfield, Rocky Mountain Program Marketing Intern

In 1961, the first recruitment announcements for Outward Bound were open to “Young men, 15 ½ – 22, [from] all backgrounds, races, nationalities, religious beliefs.” Though diversity and inclusion were founding values, it was not until 1967 that females were allowed on course.

We recently welcomed back our first Super Youth (ages 12-13) all-female patrol. While we have had all-female patrols of Youth Venture (ages 14-16) courses before, this was the first for this age group. What we do at Colorado Outward Bound School — sending groups of strangers into the mountains for weeks — is drastically different from most teen lives and is cause for most students to feel a least a little apprehensive. This single-gender environment allowed students to have a layer of comfort that made the leap to sign up for course easier to make, noted one of the three instructors of the patrol.

The single-gender environment created an opportunity to form a special culture of fun and support. From the beginning, the girls were comfortable being playful and goofy with one another. One example of this was how the students enjoyed pretending to be whales and making their best impressions while hiking and dubbed themselves “Trail Whales.” Christina, one of the three instructors, commented, “When would a girl feel comfortable calling herself a whale? Never, because it would be about her weight.” It was exciting to see that the students’ group culture enabled them to have fun with something that would traditionally be stigmatized.

Another result of the supportive culture was students who were more reserved at first came to step up to take risks and try leadership roles. Once while navigating, a student made a drastic mistake but was not afraid to ask questions or own up to her error. Asking for help and taking accountability is something that people of all ages struggle with and is not always seen on course. The fact that these students were able to be so comfortable and supportive of one another in vulnerable times is a signal of success.

On all courses, developing a positive group culture is a part of the experience as students go through “forming/storming/norming/ performing” phases of group development. On traditional, co-ed courses, staff makes intentional efforts to break up the effects of gender roles that have been instilled by traditional social expectations. For example, the first day or two of course, the students will naturally form groups by gender, and the instructors may avoid that by making group assignments. Instructor Ella has seen the effects of gender stereotyping play out in leadership situations, where a female student Leader of the Day requires a male to convey information to the males of the group in order to be taken seriously. In the case of the all-girls course, the group transitioned smoothly through this progression on their own and were able to investigate their own leadership styles more deeply, having one less obstacle to push through.

If gender plays such a dynamic role on courses, especially in establishing a group culture, why not segregate all courses? Christina says, “As you get older, it’s more important to integrate to find where you fit in with mixed gender.” On our upcoming all-female Youth Venture course, the staff members will be one male and one female. Ella, the female instructor for this course, looks at it as an opportunity “to model a solid, non-gender based relationship between a man and a woman.”

Ella has a personal passion for getting women outside and raised $9,000 for the Gruffie Scholarship in the last year. The Gruffie Scholarship is an Outward Bound Scholarship whose purpose is to make it financially easier to get young women on course. Ella was drawn to fundraising for the scholarship, “Not because I believe that girls need to be out here more than boys, but because they are not and they need more encouragement.” This need for more encouragement, she believes, comes from a long history of cultural rites of passage for young men going into the wilderness. “Wilderness rites-of-passage” is seen by many cultures as part of a young man’s life, but not a young woman’s,” says Ella. “In those scenarios, it is incredibly valuable to have a female space. It becomes less about the physical ability and more about the ability to focus on the other elements of being out in the wilderness.”

This personal growth that Ella speaks of is part of what we call “teaching through the mountains, not for the mountains.” While the lessons the mountains can teach us about ourselves, such as vulnerability and compassion, are necessary for everyone, they are seldom easy to learn. These lessons can be made even more challenging to learn by the nature of the pursuit. It is exciting to have opportunities that make it easier for populations, such as the young Trail Whales, to feel comfortable making the step to get on course.
Ella and Christina both joined COBS in 2014 as Interns and are celebrating their third and second years, respectively, as Instructors this summer.