On a sunny September afternoon in Vedauwoo, Wyo., Mary Jackson stands addressing a group of six women, drawing three circles in the sand with the toe of her shoe. The circle in the center represents your comfort zone — things you know how to do, do often and maybe even do well. The outermost circle likely means a fatality, or at least failure. But that ring in the middle is what she’ll call the “learning zone.” It’s the place just far enough from comfort to be reached for without killing yourself. It’s also the place these women are going to be spending the next three days. They’ve come to Vedauwoo, many with little or no previous experience on rock, to rock climb for three days with a trip run by The Women’s Wilderness Institute. They’ll scuff their shins on the rock, learn to safely tie-in and belay, laugh at their own struggles and cheer one another in those moments of success. The phrase “I can’t” will evaporate not because it’s banished but because it’s slowly chipped away.
And what Jackson, one of their trip leaders, has outlined in the dirt at the center of their campsite is the guiding principle that will lead everything that happens over those three days: It’s the “conscious choice curriculum” developed by licensed counselor and wilderness therapy researcher Laura Tyson, who founded The Women’s Wilderness Institute in 1997. Tyson decided that women might need a model for learning on wilderness programs that differed from the “challenge by choice” model that has shaped so many other outdoors programs.
The history of many of those other programs starts in 1941 with Kurt Hahn and the creation of Outward Bound — which began with the original mission of training soldiers to increase their chances of survival. The skills Hahn focused on nurturing in these young men were listening and collaboration. Paul Petzoldt, the founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), brought it to teaching leadership.
“Laura [Tyson] stopped and she said, ‘I wonder if 13-year-old girls need to learn something really different from young men who are headed into the military?’” says Shari Leach, executive director of The Women’s Wilderness Institute. “When I think about that young male age group, it’s a lot about how to sit down, wait a little while, listen to other people, figure out how to compromise, not always have your opinion be the one that’s heard or the dominant one. In contrast, girls tend to be very good at all of those things and they need support finding their voice, learning to speak up, engaging in conflict in a healthy way and creating relationships that allow for that healthy conflict to occur, and so it’s entirely different skills that need to be learned.”
What that looks like in practice is a small difference in some ways — it’s just the choice to participate, or sit it out.
“Our belief is if we give people true choices and empower them and support them in those decisions, they gain experience making the choices that feel right for them,” Leach says. “For a girl on our program one of those might be making a decision about what she does or doesn’t try on a rock climbing day. At the end of the day when we talk about, ‘did you feel like you did a good job respecting your choices and did other people do a good job of supporting you,’ sometimes girls will say, ‘Well you know, I wish I’d taken more risks. I think actually I didn’t believe in myself as much as I could have.’ And there’s value. And there’s value in that experience as long as you have a chance to process it.”
At the end of the day, whether those women are talking over their dinner, whispering to one another in their tents or simply sitting quietly at the campfire, they’ll be turning over the questions, the gentle prompt to check in with body, mind and spirit, contemplating where they’ll go next and reflecting on where they’ve been that day. The time spent outdoors, exploring activities that are unfamiliar, in new social settings that quickly develop into communities and in living conditions that are far from the suburban standard, and the decision to get to the top of a rock climb or climb a mountain — they’re all small choices that can serve as a metaphor for much more daunting obstacles in real life that would also mean temporary discomfort and unfamiliar settings.
“For someone like me, it’s like, rock on, rock climbing — that was amazing,” says Jackson, who has been a climber since completing a semester with the National Outdoor Leadership School nine years ago. “But for someone who doesn’t really climb, they’re just doing it a few times, it’s like, how could that be similar to something in their real life? … I just went up that rock climb, what does that mean? … It’s helping people to develop that ability to make decisions about their life. It’s like an awareness of personal needs, whether it be something physical or emotional or an action to take, recognizing your capacity to do so and make a good decision for yourself.”
The women’s programs that catch, or specifically cater to, women in stages of transition, like Next Steps, which is offered in alternating years, has a greater chance of creating some change than some of the other programs, which can have as narrow a focus as offering a daylong introduction to rock climbing.
“I think even adults, adults can get stuck in a rut and not recognize maybe they need a change, or know they need a change, and be like, ‘I don’t know what to do, I don’t know if I have the confidence or capacity to make that change in my life,’” Jackson says. “It can be circumstantial, contextual.”
But it’s the girls programs — and the chance to catch adolescent girls when they’re in a state of constant flux anyway — that really form the heart of the operation. A lot of the rest of the programs the Women’s Wilderness Institute runs, including their upcoming Gear & Cheer fundraiser, come back to supporting the Girls’ Wilderness Program and the scholarships they offer to 40 girls, ages 8 to 18, each year. Ninety-four percent of the 2012 scholarship recipients were girls who lived in Colorado but had never camped or hiked before. In the 16 years since the program was started, it has never turned away a girl because of financial need.
The program offers a chance to change a life before it gets so tied up in habits that change becomes difficult.
“When we think about things that have changed our lives substantially as adults, a lot of them happened when we were between the ages of 8 and 18 years old,” Leach says. “Having been a 16-year-old who went on a long backpacking trip and I’d never been backpacking before in my life, it truly changed my entire life because I believe that it had the potential to do that, because it changed me, and that changed how I related to other people, my confidence level, my willingness to say, well, I don’t agree with everybody else in the room and have that be OK.”
After a month-long backpacking trip with a small summer camp in Colorado, she says, she returned to Boulder High and found herself unwilling to do what other girls were doing just because someone said she should.
“I came back and I just was comfortable thinking for myself, and I knew that I was strong and capable and competent, and I could figure things out because I’d had to figure things out, whether it was reading a map or how to get the stove started,” Leach says. “I’m not sure that I would expect the same thing if I went on a two- or three-week trip right now as an adult, because to some extent I think I’m more mired in my belief systems and I have more behavior patterns that are harder to break the longer you do them. A part of being an adolescent is it’s about constant change and getting to try on new aspects of yourself every day.”
In other words, it’s goth one day, and valley girl the next.
While the programs only last a week or so, the feedback received at the end of those programs, as well as studies and later follow-ups with girls who participated in their programs, shows that the girls report doing better in school, having more self confidence and feeling better about their bodies over the year following their program.
Some of the responses from feedback forms and thank you letters every girl is asked to write to the sponsors have included: “I changed because of a quote, ‘If you feel like you are too small to make things happen, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito’”; “I felt courageous when I took a chance and pushed myself up on the rock wall. It makes me feel happier about myself and my future”; “It feels like a world of new possibilities has opened to me! And that makes me have hope in a bright future.”
In 2011, Sedona Franks-Hankins also went to Vedauwoo to rock climb and camp overnight. Instead, it snowed, and they sledded and practiced snow travel instead, while still covering how to stay safe and minimize impact as backpackers. Sedona, now 15, can list those skills and says she’s come home with a greater desire to keep hiking, biking and camping, but she also talks about becoming more familiar with pushing herself to get out of her comfort zones, both physically and socially.
“It really started to help me with realizing that I really do, I do better as a leader, I found, in that group during that time,” Sedona says. “Because I helped a lot with people who weren’t very sure about themselves and weren’t comfortable doing it. It was not fun for the most part, just because I’m not used to working with so many girls. I’m used to working with guys just because that’s my preferred friend group.”
At one point, the girls were asked to talk about their past experiences and how they felt.
“I wasn’t very open with, at that comfort- time, opening up but as I sort of worked through that time, I started to really feel OK with talking about my body and who I am as a person, and I started to really open up from that, and though I didn’t really step up and talk about myself much during that time, I found myself afterwards really opening up and talking about my personality and what I like to do with my time.”
Her mother, Carrie Hankins, says she’s seen Sedona step up at school in ways like taking a performing role in school productions, and stepping up, even as she’s moved into high school now, to take on more leadership.
“I feel like I really found a place in which I was OK with voicing my opinions and telling other people what I want to do, through these other girls [the trip leaders] showing me all these other things that I could do with myself, and that I don’t need help from other people,” Sedona says.
“I think for Sedona — I think for any young woman it’s good to do things that are hard or uncomfortable, and I think it was challenging for her, and because of that I think it was good,” Hankins says. “She came back exhausted and worn out and proud. And snowy. … I think programs like that are so important because girls are not really given good examples of how strong we are. … Strength in young girls is not really fostered. They get a really clear image from the media that they’re not supposed to be super strong, and I feel like the girls wilderness programs at The Women’s Wilderness Institute are phenomenal because they really do take them out of their element and support them and let them see their own strength.”
The Women’s Wilderness Institute will host its 11th annual Gear and Cheer fundraiser for the Girls’ Wilderness Program at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 21, at HUB Boulder, 1877 Broadway, Suite 100, Boulder, to raise money for scholarships. Additional information and tickets can be found at www.womenswilderness.org.