The author
The author
The author (Photo: Maggie Shipstead)

Five Women. One Wilderness. Zero Mansplaining.

When Maggie Shipstead set out to report on women-only expedition travel, she was driven by a desire to learn new skills in a low-bro-factor environment. But six days exploring Alaska with the state’s first woman-owned adventure outfitter turned out to be regenerative in ways she didn’t expect.

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When I flew to Alaska in July for an all-women backpacking trip, I wasn’t feeling my most confident, centered, or fit. I wasn’t entirely sure I still liked hiking. Or going places, or doing things, or meeting people. Sixteen months of a global pandemic can do that to you. But I had gotten on the plane, and now I’d either reconnect with my dormant adventurous self or have a terrible time trying.

I arrived in Anchorage early in the morning on the Fourth of July, a day before my group and I would be shuttled up to Talkeetna by van and then deposited in the backcountry by floatplane. That night, I had dinner at a downtown brewpub. All I wanted was to eat some halibut at the bar and read a book on my phone, but the guy one stool over was determined to chat me up, no matter how many times I pointedly turned back to my reading. After I paid and said goodbye, he jumped up to follow. “Let’s go get ice cream,” he said.

“I can’t,” I said, because that was easier than telling the truth: I don’t want to. I went back to my hotel room and glumly ate some gummy bears, staring out over the placid Cook Inlet. But because it wouldn’t get even a little dark until the wee hours, there were no fireworks.

This trip had been on my docket since the fall of 2019. Back then I’d been looking to do a story on the growing popularity of all-female adventure travel—for example, more than twice as many women signed up for REI’s women’s trips in 2019 as in 2018. Through Instagram, I stumbled upon Backpack Alaska, a fledgling guiding company. It stood out, especially in Alaska, because its founder and owner is a woman: Kathryn Walsh, then 30. Born in Nome to a gold-mining, bush-flying father and a Californian mother, Kathryn was raised between her parents’ home states and returned north for good in her mid-twenties after the stability of a finance job failed to drown out the call of adventure. I was intrigued by a small-group trip she ran called “Wild Women: Expedition Basics 101.” It’s five days in the backcountry, building the skills and confidence needed to venture into the wilderness on one’s own—something that, hypothetically, would cancel out the need for exactly what Backpack Alaska was selling.

“I’d love to cannibalize my entire company—for people not to need guides,” Kathryn told me. She pointed out that women haven’t always been welcome on trips like hers or encouraged to engage with the backcountry at all. “There wasn’t that lineage and network to draw you in,” she said. “And when you did get into it, you were always the odd man out—odd woman out, whatever—and that gets tiresome.” She wanted to create a ripple effect of self-sufficient ­badassery.

The point of all-female travel isn’t to exclude men, but sometimes a break from the dudes feels right. Years before, I attended a women’s ski camp in Aspen, Colorado, and I liked how the women in my group encouraged one another without razzing or one-upping or throwing down gauntlets. Sure, lots of women are terrible, and men contain multitudes, but I don’t think it’s out of line to say that women, left to their own devices, tend to be more cooperative and supportive than all-male or mixed groups.

I pitched the idea to Outside and by early 2020 was set to go in July, after which I planned to put my newfound skills and ­confidence to work on a three-week hike in the Swedish Arctic. You know what happened instead.

So there I was, a year later than planned, buckled into a teensy Cessna 185 floatplane for a half-hour flight next to a hip-wadered, mustached pilot who looked like he’d been grown in an Alaskan bush-pilot lab. We took off from Talkeetna under an ominous sky and passed over forests that quickly vanished as the foothills rose up, turning to tundra. At this latitude, 62 degrees north, the tree line was well under 3,000 feet. Our landing zone was an alpine lake encircled by barren, snow-streaked mountains, the highest of which was a steep, malevolent-looking 5,800-foot tooth of black rock known as Sheep Back Mountain. Whoever named it that had clearly never seen a sheep.

Jessica hiking over slick boulders
Jessica hiking over slick boulders (Kathryn Walsh)
The group of Wild Women
The group of Wild Women (Maggie Shipstead)
Kathryn Walsh and pilot David Hicks at Sheep Back Lake
Kathryn Walsh and pilot David Hicks at Sheep Back Lake (Maggie Shipstead)
The trekkers took turns navigating
The trekkers took turns navigating (Kathryn Walsh)

There were five in our group: Kathryn was fresh off guiding two back-to-back Denali expeditions. Jennifer was a self-possessed and quietly game doctor from Denver. Jessica, a forester from California, exuded both nonchalant competence and puppyish eagerness. And Jess, with huge eyes and delicate features below a buzz cut, had just graduated with a degree in Arabic and gender studies and was feeling the weight of the future. At 37, I was the oldest. Each of us was traveling alone.

Sitting on the lakeshore as Kathryn started her bear safety talk, I felt anxious, alienated from my stated purpose. When I pitched this story, I’d been curious whether being in an all-female group would make the backcountry less daunting to me. Now everything seemed daunting. My pack, last carried on a solo trek in Iceland in 2019, felt dauntingly heavy. The van from Anchorage, after we Wild Women exhausted basic small talk, had seemed dauntingly quiet. The vast, inhospitable landscape around us—well, it’s only reasonable to be daunted by Alaska.

“Don’t be nervous,” Kathryn said, referring to the bears. “Just be aware.” The advice seemed relevant far beyond wildlife. Kathryn was soft-spoken and her vibe relaxed. She seemed ready to listen, was quick to crack up, and had a guru’s way of dropping wisdom bombs. “Awareness is a ritual,” she explained. “Our regular lives are so busy, and the stimuli are off the charts. You’ve been accustomed to putting your blinders on. Sometimes we don’t even see the animals running around right in front of us—yes, they’re built to blend in, but we’re also not attuned to these micro-movements. One of the biggest pieces in comfortably and safely enjoying these remote places is just being aware. That’s the ritual. That’s the practice.”

Sure, lots of women are terrible, and men contain multitudes, but I don’t think it’s out of line to say that women, left to their own devices, tend to be more cooperative and supportive than all-male or mixed groups.

As drizzle fell and Sheep Back Mountain disappeared into the clouds, Kathryn said she would set aside time for us every morning before we left camp to meditate or ­journal—or, her recommendation, just sit outside and stare at something, maybe only a patch of ground, noticing. “That can start to give you more familiarity and understanding of your environment,” she said, “and then you’re more comfortable, you’re more confident, and you can do bigger and bigger things—if you want. That doesn’t have to be your goal. But if you want to go to more remote areas and maybe stay a little longer, go a bit farther, then you’ll be able to, just because you’re seeing.”

I felt a little green tendril unfurl inside me. I used to want to see like that, to do bigger things. Maybe I still did. One by one, we talked about what we thought our strengths and weaknesses were and what we hoped to get out of this trip. We all thought we brought some version of stamina or toughness to the table. Weaknesses included inexperience, lack of confidence, and distractibility. We wanted to develop self-assurance and ­become better navigators. I said I wanted to work on risk assessment and reconnect with my atrophied intrepidness. Jessica the forester and Jennifer the doctor wanted to not think about work. Jess wanted to be present and learn to trust herself more.

We shouldered our packs and set off around the lake, aiming for a saddle on Sheep Back’s flank. Half an hour later, we stopped to put on rain gear. This was Monday. Until Friday, just before the plane came to get us, not an hour would pass without rain or snow. The temperature would hover in the low to mid-thirties. The conditions were suboptimal for sure, but my anxiety had abated almost as soon as we started walking. I remembered how hiking emptied out my brain, how satisfying it was to fill days with the completion of necessary tasks and achievable goals. At our first campsite, just over the saddle, we pitched our tents and set up the kitchen, fashioned from a tarp laid over hiking poles, while the wind flung sheets of rain at us. The three Js and I huddled on our bear barrels while Kathryn cooked pad thai.

The next day, Kathryn suggested we take turns navigating in pairs, using both a paper topographical map and one that had been downloaded to the Gaia GPS app for offline use. Jessica and I led off, tasked with steering the group around the rear of Sheep Back to the edge of a glacier, where Jennifer and Jess would take over. From camp, a ridge ­obscured two lakes we wanted to skirt before entering a region of, according to the map, innocuous-seeming contour lines that ended at a white blotch of ice. The ridge ­appeared to be the most direct route, though it meant climbing a jumble of boulders, or we could try detouring blindly downhill around a spur of rock. Jessica and I looked at Kathryn. She shrugged. It was up to us. We started to climb.

Sheep Back Mountain in the distance
Sheep Back Mountain in the distance (Maggie Shipstead)

At the start of the trip, Kathryn had ­presented two possible routes for the remaining four days. The choice would be ours to make as a group. One route was a loose loop around Sheep Back Mountain, ending where we started and totaling about 15 miles. The other, which Kathryn had never done, was longer, well over 20 miles, and would mean getting picked up from a different lake. Although the mileage didn’t sound crazy, she stressed that the trek would be a significant physical challenge, with full days of lengthy slogs through boggy terrain, and would involve crossing a series of peaks. But regardless of where we ended up, today’s trek would be the same, so we had until the next morning to decide.

The rest of the day was brutal. In nine hours, we covered only five miles. I’ve backpacked 20 miles in a day and been less smoked. Those nice fat contour lines disguised an undulating hellscape of heaped-up, rain-slick boulders. Elsewhere, we kicked footholds to climb slopes of brittle snow, sometimes crashing through into knee-deep slush or running meltwater. The valleys and ridges were disorienting. At one point, I led everyone triumphantly to a spot I thought would be just uphill from our ­objective, the glacier, but dissolved into ­dismay when I realized we were actually overlooking the same cirque we’d just climbed out of. I’d engineered a pointless detour on an already grueling day.

I can’t say the group was delighted with my mistake, but they didn’t say anything to make me feel worse and brushed off my apologies. “No one gets it right all the time,” Kathryn said.

The rain and snow were relentless. When I made fists, water poured from my gloves. In terms of scenery, we mostly saw what appeared to be the inside of a cloud. Crossing the glacier, the other three non-Kathryns fell repeatedly, a fate I was spared by grippy boots. (Shout-out to La Sportiva!) Jessica sliced her hand on the ice. Jess’s rain gear became saturated early on, and she stayed soaked and shivering the rest of the trip. Our granola bars froze. Everyone struggled to stay hydrated because no one wanted to pee in sleet. “Do the things you don’t want to do,” Kathryn advised. “Dig the extra layer out of your pack. Go pee.” Wryly, I remembered how I’d said one of my strengths was toughness. Was I tough? How could you tell? I was miserable, but at least I was still moving.

Back before I’d gotten myself into this, I thought about how the language we use for interacting with the wilderness has traditionally been aggressive, masculine. Conquering. Slaying. Bagging. Of course, that is all hubristic nonsense. You can’t conquer a mountain or a river or any wild place. A ­landform has no capacity to yield, to admit surrender, to be anything but indifferent to our little footprints. It takes a deeply silly species to frame its relationship to its ­environment in terms of combat. The best we can hope for is to go safely into the ­wilderness and come out again—just to be there and pass through.

Eventually, at 8:30 P.M., we found ourselves at the top of a steep and hugely ­unappealing slope of wet boulders, a few hundred feet above the lake that was supposed to be our campsite. Jennifer peered hesitantly at the map, looking for another way down. “Something to think about in situations like this,” Kathryn said, “is how to rip off the Band-Aid, but safely.” Given the hour and our exhaustion, the most important thing was finding the fastest way down. “Look for a ramp,” she said, “then look for another ramp.”

Bit by bit, we climbed and slid lower. It was exactly zero fun, but then it was over.

In the morning, everyone (but Kathryn) felt like we’d been run over by a train. Also with the exception of Kathryn, we’d all torn the butts of our rain pants and wound up with matching patches of pink duct tape patterned with rainbows and unicorns.

The time had come to commit to our route. Jessica and I said we liked the idea of having a destination, of going for the lower lake ­despite the extra mileage and sketchy terrain. Jennifer was neutral. Jess, who was having knee pain and could not keep warm since she had only damp layers to wear, ­worried that she would move so slowly she’d be a burden.

Decision made. We’d do the shorter route, circling down through rolling tundra to our initial landing zone. There was no grumbling, no cajoling, no hemming and hawing, only appreciation that Jess had given us the information needed to make a choice that served the group. “Women are programmed to be agreeable, in both overt ways and subtle ways,” Kathryn said. “But if you don’t speak up, then you don’t get a say.”

Girls and women have rituals of awareness, whether they want them or not, and long practice at assessing risk and identifying exit strategies.

When I’d first talked to Kathryn, she said that she always had the best conversations on the Wild Women trips. During the quiet van ride up from Anchorage, I’d been skeptical, but as it happened, we were all just low-key people who needed time to open up. Spending unhurried hours huddled in the cook tent every day, we had that.

We talked about whether we were introverts or extroverts, about how introversion and shyness were different but often confused. We talked about birth control and egg freezing, about college, about karaoke, about mental health and the quest for the right ­antidepressant, about past trips to other places, about being underestimated. We got into our families, our jobs, our significant others. Jessica told us about her ­undergraduate thesis on ground squirrels and her master’s thesis on jellyfish, and about her indomitable mother, who’d emigrated from Taiwan while pregnant and raised her alone. She told a story from her training as a firefighter, when the instructor had presented her cohort with a closed door and asked how they’d get through. The men all talked about breaking it down, crashing through. Jessica had suggested trying the knob.

Inevitably, we talked about men: the men in our lives, but also Men, the concept. I mentioned the guy at the bar in Anchorage who’d pushed at my politeness until he boxed me into rejecting him, and Jess said that on that same night, a group of men had followed her back to her hotel, heckling her about her close-cropped hair. “We’re gonna stalk you, sweetheart!” one yelled. Both girls and women have rituals of awareness, whether they want them or not, and long practice at assessing risk and identifying exit strategies. Some of that translates naturally to the wilderness—bear spray is not so different from the pepper spray I carry at home in Los Angeles—but some of us are also burdened with the baggage of fear.

When I asked why everyone had been drawn to an all-women trip, no one said anything having much to do with women right away. The dates worked for Jennifer; Jess’s dad had picked it out for her. But when I said I felt more comfortable doing things that intimidated me with women than with men, no one pretended not to know exactly what I meant. Jennifer said she’d worried a little that people would assume a women’s backpacking trip was easier, like hitting off the red tees on a golf course. I wondered if a squeamishness came along with trying to mitigate the intimidation factor; if we felt, deep down, like preferring the company of other women was some kind of cop-out.

Someone asked Kathryn if she ever got mansplained while guiding, and she just laughed. But, she pointed out, sometimes women could be skeptical of her as well. When they booked her trips, they often expected a mountain man, not someone who looked like them.

“I love the way Jess phrased it the other day,” Kathryn said, “how ‘everyone has a complicated relationship with their femininity.’ I have had, and I still have, a hard time with the messaging or packaging of this trip. Being a woman means something different to everybody, and working out what this trip is offering within the realm of femininity and being a woman makes my head want to explode. I’ve always wanted to do this trip—exclusively with women—but I’m still trying to figure out what this trip is.”

What was this trip? It ended up being both much harder and much less daunting than I’d expected. I felt more awake in my body than I had in a long time; aware of the internal furnace that kept me warm and moving and the calories that fueled it; aware of my vulnerability to outside forces, to chance, to the self. I liked that backcountry feeling of being cut off, of my normal life suddenly feeling irrelevant—dreamlike—even just for five days. My boyfriend’s nightly proof-of-life check-in on my InReach satellite communicator felt like a transmission from the moon. I liked that I could count a day as a success even if it consisted of no more than putting one foot in front of the other.

On Friday, the Platonic ideal of bush pilots returned to pull us out. This time, the wind was all wrong, and he had to take us one by one. Our little band dwindled on the lakeshore. The rain finally gave it a rest. I was the last to leave before Kathryn, and we hung out under fleeting patches of blue sky, mulling things over.

I said that day two had been brutal, but it would also be the day I remembered most, the one that meant the most.

She pointed out that because we hadn’t been trying to bag a peak or see a feature, we had been free to take meaning where we found it. To find significance, to be changed and move forward—that was the victory, that was the conquest.

The plane’s engine buzzed in the distance. Soon we’d be in Talkeetna, posting the trip on Instagram, doing shots to celebrate Jennifer’s birthday.

“It goes back to the ritual of awareness,” Kathryn said. “Like maybe someone will go on this trip and be in an environment that ­allows for enough introspection that they realize the path they’re on isn’t the right one. That would be such a wonderful outcome. Turn your life upside down.”

Or maybe, once your life has already been turned upside down, if you get out there, into the quiet and the rawness and the never-ending piles of rocks, you can start to turn it right side up again.

Backpack Alaska’s “Wild Women: Expedition Basics 101” includes backcountry flights and meals, one night of hotel accommodation, and transportation between Anchorage and Talkeetna. From $2,950