In honor of International Women’s Day, I want to share stories of women who have been (and continue to be) massive sources of inspiration and motivation for me. They are mountaineers, marathon swimmers, scuba divers, and polar explorers. They are leaders. They are survivors. And they are brilliant authors.
This list below includes works of non-fiction written in first-person by women who seek adventure, discovery, and scientific endeavors in domains many consider “traditionally male-dominated.” Scrolling through the titles, you may notice recurring themes and subjects — pursuits in the alpine world, epic endeavors in the ocean, and expeditions around the world, from Antarctica to the Himalayas to the outback of Australia.
I read these books for two specific reasons:
1.) As a young, single woman working in similar environments, they help me to make sense of my own experiences.
2.) At some point in my life, I hope to write a book that emboldens other young women, in much the same way these stories have captivated me.
The question everyone asks mountain climbers is “Why?” And when they learn about the lengthy and difficult preparation involved, they ask it even more insistently. For us the answer was much more than “because it is there.” We had all experienced the exhilaration, the joy, and the warm camaraderie of the heights, and now we were on our way to an ultimate objective for a climber — the world’s tenth highest peak.
Many people in the alpine world associate Annapurna (the 10th highest mountain in the Himalayas and the world) with Maurice Herzog, who led a French expedition to the summit in 1950.
But any time a fellow climber mentions Annapurna, I think of the American women who climbed that immense peak in 1978. Led by Arlene Blum, the expedition was successful: two women stood on the summit. But two women also lost their lives.
I love so many things about this story — the details of planning and preparing for a huge expedition, the descriptions of fierce alpine conditions, and the quirky personalities of these bold, brave women. But perhaps the most gripping points in the book highlight the “drama” of an all-female team attempting such an “extreme” endeavor over four decades ago.
As women, we faced a challenge even greater than the mountain. We had to believe in ourselves enough to make the attempt in spite of social convention and two hundred years of climbing history in which women were usually relegated to the sidelines.
From navigating the cultural blockades of Nepal where the porters “could not believe it was possible for women over twenty not to have children” to mitigating the fierce attitudes and perspectives of 12 strong women, Blum had her work cut out for her. A humble leader, she owned up to her mistakes, and recognized the strength of her team.
On many expeditions, after months of hard work at high altitude, some climbers are too tired physically or psychologically to try for the top. But there had been little attrition on this climb. Indeed, most of the members were growing stronger and more determined by the day.
Physiology may have been a factor in this. Joan Ullyot in her book Women’s Running notes, “among the survivors of shipwrecks, mountaineering, and similar disasters, women generally outnumber men… endurance rather than power seems to be their natural strength.”
The book includes so many intimate details — not just from Blum’s perspective, but from each individual team member. As Blum worked on the book, many team members offered their own personal accounts.
As a videographer, I especially enjoyed reading about the film crew’s experience. From Dyanna Taylor’s diary:
I was exhausted and weak and afraid. But when you must you must. Learn not to resist the inevitable, not to bitch and moan, just to start the works rolling. We got all our gear ready, and by 3:30 in the afternoon the brave but humble film crew made it to its goal—19,000 feet.
I have to wonder, now, if this guy thought I was incompetent because I’m a woman, or if I’m just being overly sensitive — like a woman. All I know for sure is that I will get along better in this world if I can come off sounding less like a volunteer, less like a woman, less like a mom, too. I need to sound more competent to the average observer. And yet, I care about being able to help people for free; care about doing it like a woman, like a mother. It’s crazy how much I want to hold onto who I am, even though I know these labels are hurting me.
Some of my books become more like bibles — I reference them often, and I look to them for guidance. This book is one of those.
Bree Loewen’s collection of search-and-rescue stories in the Cascades helps me grasp the the mysterious allure of the alpine world, which is not always in the mountains themselves, but in shared experiences with other people.
I love the cold. I love the struggle, the realness, the ridiculousness, and the tenderness of it. Rescue missions are not actually work, not a career; money, power, and prestige mean nothing out here. It’s not a vocation, it’s an avocation. I don’t know why it took me so long to find the words to hold it up against. This is just what I do for love, just taking the time to be with someone who needs someone to be with them.
Maybe it’s as simple as, if you have to keep moving, even when you’re exhausted, at least you don’t have to stop.
Yet, at some point, we have to stop. Rest. Process. Reset.
Just as she describes the harrowing details of enduring extreme situations in the alpine world, Loewen illustrates the other end of her experience spectrum: simply existing in a comfortable, familiar space.
When the morning sun comes through the window into my daughter’s yellow room, it hits the wall and glows crinkly and gold…I climbed into her bed and spooned her three-foot tall stuffed penguin. I couldn’t sleep, but I spent a long time staring at the wall, just thinking how beautiful the sunlight was.
My toes and fingers, sensitive ever since Denali ached in the bitter cold. But we had come so far and the top was tantalizingly close. Each step took me higher than I’d ever been and I longed to explore the unknown physical and psychological terrain that lay above. But I knew that in this high, hostile place, living creatures had a tenuous existence and the line between life and death was narrow.
While she may be most famous for leading the all-female expedition on Annapurna, Arlene Blum dedicated decades of her life to adventures on high mountains. Breaking Trail is a eloquent, comprehensive account of Blum’s life in which she layers memories from her troubled childhood with lessons from alpine endeavors.
Decades later, listening to lengthy tape recordings of conversations during which we negotiated summit teams, I hear myself patiently trying to find consensus amidst a morass of emotions. Hearing my calm voice, I realize my early training with my mother and grandparents had been excellent preparation. Indeed, the emotional content was similar to that of my childhood: intense love, anger, and frustration all crammed into a very small space.
After completing expeditions on famous peaks like Annapurna, Everest and Denali, Blum and her comrades got creative, coming up with original adventures like the Endless Winter and the Great Himalayan Traverse.
Similar to her account of the Annapurna expedition, Blum does not shy away from the vulnerability that comes with being a woman in the world of extreme climbing.
Looking back on it, I fail to understand it. Even Gerry got sick and it was accepted as normal… the conclusion can only be that a woman has to be stronger better, and more experienced, just to be accepted as equal.
Even before reading her book, Diana Nyad was perhaps the most hardcore person (man or woman) that I had ever heard of. In 2013, at age 64, she became the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without the aid of a shark cage.
After listening to an interview with her on the Outside Magazine XX Factor podcast, I became a bit obsessed with her tenacious approach to everything. Anyone who will listen has heard me discuss her fitness routine, which includes doing 1,000 burpees. She completes this insane workout in her garage, while staring at a sign with one word in bold, red letters: PERSIST.
From reading her book, I discovered Nyad has always been like this. Here is her childhood fitness routine:
I thrived on the superior feeling of being awake when most of the world was still sleeping. The progression to fanatic was swift. Even as a ten-year-old, I was getting up at 4:30 every morning, 365 days a year, no alarm clock needed. A thousand sit-ups and fifty chin-ups every day. Never 999, never 49.
My friend had enticed me by saying, “these swims mean long hours, often cold waters, usually also quite rough seas. There’s a touch of masochism required, and that’s why, Diana, I believe the sport is going to appeal to you.”
Nyad’s book includes a myriad of intense experiences. From surviving sexual abuse as a teenager to surviving thousands of stings from deadly box jellyfish, her mind, body and spirit remain impenetrable. And yet, she is still human. She recalls being asleep in her apartment when the phone rang in the middle of the night. When she reached for the receiver, a tendon in her neck snapped. “For the next two weeks my neck could barely support the weight of my head.”
Nyad comes from the Greek work naiad. According to Greek mythology, naiad referred to nymphs that swam in the lakes, oceans, rivers and fountains to protect waters for the gods. In modern colloquial terms, it means a girl or woman champion swimmer.
Read her book, but in the meantime, check out her incredible TED talk.
The commonest of sea creatures are miracles. Take the jellyfish. Many are born here; from eggs and sperm, they begin life as plankton, then turn into brown blobs and settle on rocks or docks, as polyps. They start out looking like something you’d scrape off the bottom of your shoe, then grow into something more beautiful than an angel.
This beautiful book belongs on many lists—books written by enterprising women, books that feature excellent science writing, books about the intricate mysteries of the ocean. The Soul of an Octopus includes years of research and personal stories, woven together in Montgomery’s lyrical prose that shifts in tone just as an octopus changes colors with its mood.
Standing in front of the octopus tank at the Seattle Aquarium, Montgomery recalls a conversation with a troubled teenager who had suffered with depression and suicidal thoughts.
“I wasn’t involved with this place then,” Anna says. “I wish I had known then that only five percent of the ocean has been explored…”
Her voice trails off, but I know what she is thinking. If only she could have conveyed the importance of this fact to her friend, perhaps everything would be different. For who would want to leave this vast, teeming blue world? Surely its waters could wash away all sorrows, heal all brokenness, restore all souls.
And in a way, for Anna, it has.
Anna’s story is just one of the many moments in the book that highlights the need to restore the lost bond between the sea and modern humans. Developing a better understanding of our oceans should is not simply a matter of environmental conservation or scientific inquiry. It is also a matter of consciousness and connection.
Despite the impressive truth that sharks are so old they predate trees, great whites have remained among the most mysterious of creatures. Even now, after the human genome has been reduced to an alphabet set ad spaceships are trolling around on Mars, scientists are still missing some basic information about the species.
A few years ago, a colleague gave me a pin with this a catchy saying: Live every week like it’s shark week. In writing this captivating book, I think it’s safe to say Susan Casey did exactly that.
From a detailed history of the Farallon Islands (the “spookiest, wildest place on Earth”) to shark tourism, to shark science, to human psychology of fear and perception, The Devil’s Teeth presents fascinating questions I may never have thought to ask.
Just as Casey gives intricate details about the individual personalities and mannerisms of sharks, she describes the eccentricities of the scientists studying them.
They’d made a career choice that had nothing to do with money and everything to do with the fact that they’d never lost the child’s sense of amazement about nature. It was as though the “career goal” on their resumes read: “to stay as far away from an office cubicle as possible.”
Not everyone is suited to life on an isolated set of rocks in the Pacific. In order to make it on this island, a researcher had to be hearty, adaptable, and emotionally together, with a deep sense of respect.
These passages remind me of all the devoted scientists I have worked with over the years, in particular my friends and colleagues who have spent large chunks of time living and working in the Galápagos (another set of isolated rocks in the Pacific).
I also think that if Susan Casey and I were to ever meet, we might become friends — not necessarily because we share an affinity for all things related to the ocean and science and adventure — but because we are both rebels at heart.
I’d always hated rules. All too often they were stupid and floutable, and begged to be defied. While I wasn’t a complete outlaw, throughout my life I had questioned most rules I’d come up against, and ignored my share of them.
Walker’s book presents all kinds of fascinating facts about Antarctica: less than one percent of the continent is free of ice, emperor penguins have a shit existence, and in the 1950’s, when major scientific endeavors began to take root in Antarctica, “it was strictly men only.”
For all the geological and biological mysteries of Antarctica, the most fascinating details Walker describes, in my opinion, are the human relationships:
It is only when you are forced to rely overtly on the people around you — and people in far-off bases who you’ll never meet — that you remember how fully we rely on each other back in the real world. It can take being in pure emptiness to remind you to let go of your hubris; and it can take being blocked by the power of nature to remind you how precarious our existence is and how tenuous and temporary our mastery.
In an honest and unapologetic tone, Walker illustrates some of the red tape associated with all things Antarctica, and her persistence to grasp a true understanding of this bizarre place.
I’d been smothered and banned and protected everywhere I’d gone in Antarctica, in many cases probably for my own good, but here they understood that sometimes you just wanted to be out there, alone.
Again and again, she highlights the transition from the extremes of life at the bottom of the world to the mundane existence of “life back home”:
You get back and the world is different. Things have changed, of course they have. Watching the sun rise and set in a twenty-four hour period. Not treating everybody like your best friend, as you would here. Getting used to the idea that you’re not living on top of everyone any more. Sitting in your room, listening to your clock tick and thinking: what do I do now?
Don’t ever beat yourself up for feeling scared or intimidated. Fear is a natural human emotion, and it’s a strong survival instinct that keeps us alert and aware of our surroundings. But fear doesn’t have to keep us from pursuing a challenge.
Alison Levine is a polar explorer, mountaineer, keynote speaker, and NY Times best-selling author. In both her book and her speaking gigs, Levine draws from lessons learned in extreme environments. Instead of vague go-getter phrases, she outlines specific pieces of real-world, tangible advice.
I’m not saying it’s good for you to not sleep. I am just saying that in extreme situations you will need to function when sleep deprived. So don’t let the fact that you haven’t slept before a tough day on the trail (or in the office) create unnecessary anxiety. Just push through it. It’s a short-term thing. It’s temporary.
You can either be stressed and sleep deprived, or just sleep deprived. Take your pick.
Levine gives pointed reminders that our actions affect others.
I have heard people say that your performance on summit day is the only thing that matters. Not true. What you do every day matters. Including the way you treat others — which is something you can absolutely control, regardless of what environment you happen to be in. Never discount the value of courtesy and compassion when it comes to achieving a goal, especially when the going gets rough.
The two important things that I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.
In 1977, Robyn Davidson set off from Alice Springs (a small town in the Australian Outback) with four camels and her dog. She and her small herd proceeded to walk to the western coast of Australia — a journey of 1,700 miles.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Robyn Davidson’s tale is the immense difficulty of beginning. Once you’re in the midst of an experience, no matter how trying, you simply put one foot in front of the other. But waiting to begin is often the worst part. From planning out logistics, to ignoring naysayers, to coping with anxiety, the overwhelming tasks associated with starting a big endeavor often prevent us from ever doing it.
Before beginning her epic trek across the Outback, Davidson spent two years tediously training camels and constantly rebutting comments (mostly from older men) who openly criticized her dream. Through sheer grit and her impervious sense of self, she never deterred.
And there are new kinds of nomads, not people who are at home everywhere, but who are at home nowhere. I was one of them.
Davidson did not set out on this journey in search of fame. In fact it was with some reluctance she allowed a National Geographic photographer to join for short stints of the trip. Davidson apparently never intended to write about the trek and it wasn’t until the National Geographic article received international attention that she was pressed to write a book. As a writer, I appreciate the perspective she shares about recounting her experiences years later:
As I look back on the trip now, as I try to sort out fact from fiction, try to remember how I felt at that particular time, or during that particular incident, try to relive those memories that have been buried so deep, and distorted so ruthlessly, there is one clear fact that emerges from the quagmire. The trip was easy. It was no more dangerous than crossing the street, or driving to the beach, or eating peanuts. The two important things that I did learn were that you are as powerful and strong as you allow yourself to be, and that the most difficult part of any endeavor is taking the first step, making the first decision.
What does the Silk Road have to do with Mars, except everything? Perhaps the great task of modern explorers is not to conquer but to connect, to reveal how any given thing leads to another: the red planet to the Silk Road, bicycles to the moon, a modern Georgian highway back in time to the Ujarma Fortress.
In 2011, Kate Harris and her best adventure buddy rode journeyed across 10,000 kilometers of the fabled Silk Road. They traveled across 10 countries in 10 months—and they did it all on their bikes.
Harris’s story includes the standard elements of good travel writing: vivid descriptions, grimy details, introspection, reflection, and humility. But consummate curiosity and a rich knowledge of explorers spanning across cultures and time periods, gives an immeasurable depth to her writing. From Marco Polo to the Wright Brothers to the Explorer space program, Harris seamlessly weaves history, science, and politics into her own personal narrative.
The Latin root of the word explorer is ex-plorare, with ex meaning “go out” and plorare meaning “to utter a cry.” Venturing into the unknown, in other words, is only half the job. The other half, and maybe the most crucial half for exploration to matter beyond the narrow margins of the self, is coming home to share the tale.
The fact that I’m charmed by the shifting sands of the Taklamakan Desert and the breathtaking expanse of the Tibetan Plateau doesn’t mean I’m more enlightened than Polo, more capable of wonder. It means I hail from a day and age—and a country and culture—so privileged, so assiduously comfortable, that risk and hardship hold rapturous appeal.
You really should read the book because it’s incredible. But in the meantime, watch this video to see some stunning visuals from the trip.
Need more badass female authors in your life? Of course you do. Check out a similar post I wrote a few years back: Women on High