"I am an expedition by myself, complete with rations, a weapon, and a book to read..."
The outdoor endeavors that I find myself most drawn to—rock climbing, scuba diving, white-water paddling, and mountaineering—are, and always have been, dominated by men. It's 2017, and there are more badass ladies in these scenes than ever before. But still, the vast majority of books on these topics are written by male authors. Even books about women crushing, like Lynn Hill's Climbing Free or Stacy Allison's Beyond the Limits, are co-authored by men.
Before I go on—I want to clarify that this post is not a diatribe against men or male authors. I've read everything that Jon Krakauer and John Steinbeck have ever written. Gregory David Roberts wrote my all-time favorite book. And my most reliable, go-to adventure buddy happens to be a man. But I think he, and lots of other men, would agree that we need more female voices in this realm. Without going down the rabbit hole of the current state of feminism, let's just say our world, in general, could use more feminine energy and perspective.
So here are my top five female-authored adventure books. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
Learning to Fly by Steph Davis
It seemed logical that if I never relied or depended on anyone else, I would never risk being as weak or hopeless as I had been in those awful months... though I'd always been independent in most ways, this sense of absolute unattachment and self-reliance was a new distinction. It gave me a powerful feeling of peace and strength. It made things so clean, so easy. Liberation was as simple as just letting go.
Of all the books I've read over the past year, I keep coming back to this one—the life story (thus far) of professional rock climber and extraordinary badass Steph Davis. When her sponsorships and her marriage started deteriorating, Davis coped with her losses by trying out skydiving. Not Ben & Jerry's. Not red wine. Skydiving. When jumping out of planes became routine, she started base jumping. And the rest is history.
Some might claim Davis is one of those people that runs from her problems—that she offsets the pain of heartbreak with sheer adrenaline. This book does include death-defying climbs and jumps, but Davis knows those acts of mental and physical fortitude are not what heal a shattered heart. We only heal through time and our own resolve to go on.
Davis's resiliency is contagious. The details of her recoveries—from debilitating injuries to the devastating death of her partner—act as both a depressant and a stimulant. Reading her words fills me with compassion, and elevates my heart rate. With her calm, clear voice, Davis's stories coalesce to form a kind of mantra:
I got hurt. I will heal.
Davis is fearless, obviously—yet keenly aware of her own mortality. She reminds me of the part of myself that I want to have around more often—the part of me that constantly yearns to charge into unfamiliar territory.
Continuously pushing myself to break through and enter this new style was teaching me how to go into the unknown and manage things as they happened. It gave me a new type of confidence, seeing that I could handle the unexpected.
Terra Incognita by Sara Wheeler
On one side of the ship, serrated mountain ranges sliced through the water, the sheerest faces, ablated of snow, shading the landscape with patches of charcoal engraved with a fine white lattice. The clouds massed into dark purply tornadoes that stormed through the fuzzy peach light of the sky, or sometimes they remained expressionless for days, hanging down to the narrow band of light on one side of the horizon. Icebergs came to seem as normal to us as trees on the side of the road.
What impresses me most about Sara Wheeler is her commitment to this place. Unless you are a prominent scientist, most people would consider a trip to Antarctica a once-in-a-lifetime event. But one trip was simply not enough for Wheeler. She found a way to return to the most remote place on earth three times.
While so many people claim Antarctica to be indescribable, Wheeler captures the spirit of the place through the animals, landscape, and most of all, the people.
"Well, relationships here are especially close," he said eventually. "It's obvious, isn't it—you can't share it with anyone else. I hardly ever talk about Antarctica at home. No one would understand. There's no place like this, and because of that it becomes emotional."
The idea that travel "changes" us has become a bit of a cliché, yet throughout the book, Wheeler finds a way to speak to this truth without banality.
The geographical questions may have been answered, but the metaphysical ones remain, and the most foreign territory will always lie within.
Women on High by Rebecca Brown
The question "why do you climb?" is still posed endlessly to climbers. But imagine the incredulity with which this question was asked - and with which the answers to it were received - in an era where the "proper" role of a woman was thought to include little beyond bearing children and deferring to a husband. So what were the motivations of these women swaddled in long skirts and bound in corsets? What was it that caused them to defy convention?
As much as I loved Jon Krakauer's Eiger Dreams and Into Thin Air and Joe Simpson's Touching the Void, this book is without a doubt my favorite mountaineering read. In it, Brown illustrates how and why mountaineering came into existence in the late 1700's, and shines a much needed light on the unsung women who made great contributions to its formative years.
Among the mountaineering community, George Mallory, Edmund Hillary, and Tenzing Norgay are household names. Henriette d'Angeville, Lucy Walker, Elizabeth Le Blond, Dora Keen, and Miriam Underhill were names I had never seen or heard before I read this book—and that is exactly why it is so important.
These women overcame everything—from snide comments and family disapproval, to the innate dangers that accompany any alpine endeavor, to outfits that would make the modern day mountaineer cringe.
In one description, Brown details the 21 pounds of clothing, including six layers of wool, that Henriette d'Angeville wore during her Mont Blanc expedition. To put that in perspective, a fully geared-up climber approaching a mountain today may wear around seven to eight pounds of clothing, including boots.
In addition to celebrating the women who helped pave the way for mountaineering, Women on High provides an excellent historical account of the men who built the foundations of mountaineering, and the evolution of mountains in the human psyche.
For example, to stand on the summit of the Matterhorn—the iconic mountain straddling the border of Italy and Switzerland, and reaching a height of 14,692 feet—consumed the minds of many precocious mountaineers throughout the 19th century. But it remained unclimbed until the summer of 1865.
On July 14, six well-known English climbers and a Chamonix guide finally made the top. But the mountain did not yield easily. On the descent a rope snapped, and four of the party, including the guide, plunged to their deaths.
W.A.B. Coolidge, the Alpine historian wrote "the cause of mountaineering seemed lost forever, so deep and lasting was the impression made by this terrible event."
The deadly descent on the Matterhorn that summer obviously did not end the sport of mountaineering—if anything, the tragedy may well have added to its lure. Today, one could argue that a direct correlation exists for climbers on dangerous mountains (think Annapurna, the Eiger, Everest, K2, Denali) The more people a mountain has killed, the more people want to climb it.
So mountaineering persevered, as did the machismo associated with it. But a few women poked at the patriarchal nature of the sport, trading their corsets for pants, and upending the traditional gender norms of the time.
At the very end of her climbing career, she (Elizabeth Le Blond) contributed another chapter in climbing history by making what is regarded as the first "manless" climb. Without men or guides in their party, in 1900 she and her friend Lady Evelyn McDonnell completed a winter traverse of the beautiful, snow- and ice-capped Piz Palü, a 12,800-foot peak on the Swiss-Italian border. This feat was hushed up and regarded as "somewhat improper". At that time, two women "alone", facing and beating the odds on a tough winter ascent, seemed a bit more than the still-male-dominated climbing establishment could handle.
West with the Night by Beryl Markham
We began at the first hour of the morning. We began when the sky was clean and ready for the sun and you could see your breath and smell traces of the night.
Markham's writing is so vivid it feels like you're standing right next to her, watching your breath form ephemeral shapes in the dark and then dissipate. Detailing her experiences as a bush pilot in Africa in the early 20th century, Markham embodies an old-school calm, cool confidence. Much of her existence is solitary—a trait she embraces.
Before such a flight it was this anticipation of aloneness more than any thought of physical danger that used to haunt me a little and make me wonder sometimes if mine was the most wonderful job in the world after all. I always concluded that lonely or not it was still free from the curse of boredom.
Markham wrangles language with the same tenacity she used to fly plans over remote jungles.
Silence is never so impenetrable as when the whisper of steel on paper strives to pierce it. I sit in a labyrinth of solitude jabbing at its bulwarks with the point of a pen—jabbing, jabbing.
Like any good pilot (or writer, or anyone really) Markham always strives to fly better and to travel farther. I love this character trait. Even if you have "the most wonderful job in the world" you must never lose the ability, or the desire, to dream for more. It's not a "grass is always greener" mentality—it's a non-stop approach to life. It is constant evolution.
I am an expedition by myself, complete with rations, a weapon, and a book to read... all this, and discontent too! Otherwise why am I sitting here dreaming? Why am I gazing at this campfire like a lost soul seeking a hope when all that I love is at my wingtips? Because I am curious. Because I am incorrigibly now, a wanderer.
It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario
It was a way to tell a story. It was the marriage of travel and foreign cultures and curiosity and photography. It was photojournalism.
This book swallowed me whole from the moment I opened it. I made the mistake of bringing it on a beach trip, and while everyone else was playing card games and drinking beer and swimming, I was completely immersed in Addario's world.
I suspected that the soldiers rarely took us seriously and were entirely confused by why two women would voluntarily subject themselves to the hardship and the dangers of the Korengal Valley. I preempted their suspicion that we, the chicks, might hold them up in the field by being overly prepared, physically and mentally. I trained religiously for assignments, I made sure I had all the gadgets I'd need in my kit to be as self-sufficient as possible, and I tried not to show fear. As on any other assignment, I wanted to blend in here and be as inconspicuous as possible.
Commitment. Addario's unwavering commitment to her work—her life calling—rises above everything else. When we discuss that kind of commitment in modern American society, the conversation typically includes words like "sacrifice" and "relationships". We somehow disregard the fact that, for some women, marriage and children are not the magic keys to a meaningful life. Some things—like documenting the atrocities of war—are simply more important.
I love each of these books because of the profound strength displayed by each of these women—not just in their physical and mental toughness, but their capacity for vulnerability in sharing so many details from their lives.
As women, especially tenacious women with a knack for taking the road that is higher and harder, we need to generate more stories like this. I make it a point to read books like the ones listed above because I want to be this kind of author one day. I don't necessarily want to write about my own life—perhaps one day I can help the next Lynn Hill or the next Stacy Allison write her story.
If you, or someone you know, is a tough woman with a good story, get in touch with me.
Want more lists of books to read by female authors?