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Bridging the Gap - Women and Mountain Storytelling

Thursday, 26 January 2017

In our latest blog, Jo Croston, the programming director at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, talks about bridging the gender gap in outdoor adventure.

In 1995 I took a three-month-long mountain skills semester course in the Canadian Rockies. I was one of four women out of thirty-six at the time. In my first excursions into the true outdoors following the course – climbing, backcountry skiing and the like – I was often the only woman among a bunch of highly spirited men. I enjoyed their company and never felt left out and they always treated me as an equal, as true friends would. I did often wonder though where the other women were. I looked for explanations. I couldn't quite get my head around the fact that they might not be about because they wouldn't enjoy it. That didn't seem right because I’d always had a great time. Nor did the notion that they weren't physically capable of these activities make sense either, because here I was, all five feet of me, making out just fine. I must have been missing something.

Then an odd thing happened. Once I had firmly placed myself in the Canadian Rockies full time and had committed to making it my home, I noticed that, in fact, there were some other very active women in the outdoors. And not only that, they had achieved many great feats in a global arena not to mention in the hills of home. So where were their stories? Why weren't they being celebrated, much less their stories being told in the first place?

When I began work at a local museum and archive, I dove in more deeply and found there was a small but rich history of women in exploration and mountaineering and I had missed all of it. I was delighted to discover the stories of Mary Schäffer Warren, a Rockies explorer in the early twentieth century, and Lizzie Rummel, a true mountain woman who lived most months of the year in a rustic remote cabin with a view of Mount Assiniboine out her front door. And there were others too like Mary Vaux, Georgia Engelhard and Fanny Bullock Workman. Ever since I’d begun climbing I’d always had heroes, women like Lynn Hill and Catherine Destivelle (not to mention climbers like Jeff Lowe and Barry Blanchard). I think I admired Hill’s and Destivelle’s feats just as much as I admired their willingness to hang in there and represent. These were all strong women, in more ways than one.    

So, more importantly, where were the endless stories that should have accompanied these strong women? The ones mentioned above did of course have some publicity and perhaps a published work, otherwise I would never have found them, but I think it's fair to say they didn't have the same recognition as perhaps their male contemporaries might have. I have a hunch they were modest, probably didn't like being in the limelight much and perhaps they thought that others might not be interested in what they had to say. Maybe they felt they would be judged or criticised for their achievements through a male lens? Who can say but the women themselves.    

But in storytelling today, in the world of mountain film and literature specifically, I'm delighted that women's voices are finally rising to the surface. We are now unafraid to put ourselves and our stories out there. There is both acceptance and indeed even encouragement to do so from our peers, both men and women. While there is still a tremendous way to go to completely bridge the gender gap, there are certainly modern-day mentors like Ines Papert, Pat Deavoll, Mayan Smith-Gobat and Silvia Vidal who are paving the way for a whole generation that follows. Perhaps what is most refreshing in this recent revelation is that the voice is truly theirs. These women are not afraid to admit vulnerability or weakness or self-doubt. Their stories are rich with insight and self-awareness and humanity. Their stories speak to the inner adventurer in us all and I’m grateful for it.

About Jo
Joanna grew up and went to university in Eastern Canada but it wasn’t until she moved to the Canadian Rockies permanently in 1998 that she really got schooled. In 2007, after a few years working as a gearhead in some local climbing shops, she finally found a dream job that merged mountain culture with her love of outdoor pursuits when she began working for the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival. Joanna has been the programming director of the Festival since 2014, and she reads more than seventy mountain literature books and watches 350 mountain films annually. In addition to being a voracious reader and film enthusiast, she is an avid backcountry skier and has skied throughout North America, the Alps, Kashmir and the Indian Himalaya. As a climber she has summited many of the classic 11,000 feet peaks in her own backyard of the Rockies. Her writing has appeared in Highline Magazine, The Canadian Alpine Journal and Alpinist. She also serves on the Mountain Culture Committee of the Alpine Club of Canada and is a representative for the International Alliance for Mountain Film.

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