A Taste of Expedition: Two Women in the Wind River Range

Words by Sara Aranda, Photos by Eliza Earle

I brainstormed all my guiltiest pleasures when it came to food. The salty, crunchy, high-calorie, high-saturated-fat junk I never let myself buy anymore. And when it came time to visit the grocery store, to manifest the not-so-heart-friendly menu I had created, I opted for the multi-grain Goldfish as a tribute to my more sensible self. Dinner would be ramen noodles with real bacon bits. Oatmeal, for breakfast, with ghee and a scoop of vanilla protein powder. Summer sausage, Snickers bars, Peanut M&M’s, high-protein granola bars, in a variety of combination, would constitute lunches and snacks. Eliza’s menu was hilariously on the same page. The last time I drafted such a diet was for the Pacific Crest Trail three years ago, but this trip, honestly, would be a different kind of mystical beast.

Eliza and I concluded that fear associated with the greatest unknowns in our lives is built from a conditioned imposter syndrome. How women are raised to critique themselves in every fashion, subpar to the feats of men, only chasing the dreams we have permission to chase. It’s no surprise to see such backlash from women today. More and more, we are self-enabled. More and more, we are proof of ourselves. Yet “climbing expedition” is a daunting term. They are only done by professional, sponsored athletes, right? By elite groups, formed largely of men? Still, one small step at a time, one small idea to the next, Eliza and I wrote out our plans over a period of a month, from the gear we’d share to our own expectations of one another. Of the trip. What did we want to get out of this, anyway?

In the grand scheme of things, a trip to the Wind River Range is fairly rudimentary. For Eliza and myself, it would be something we’d never done before. For long stays, some hire horses to carry in all their camping and climbing gear. Eliza and I were stubborn; we wanted the full experience of proving ourselves capable; we would hike in our own gear. It was part forgetfulness and part we-didn’t-want-to-know, but we never weighed our packs. They were easily 50 pounds (if not more). My 40-liter climbing pack was horrid looking, bulging asymmetrically and with cams and rope spilling from outer straps. I practiced putting it on in the living room, my husband spotting as if I were bouldering.

Eliza and I are relatively small women. I’m 5’4” and 115 pounds. My pack was like lifting half of myself—which when climbing, doesn’t sound bad, does it? I can do pull ups! But how about hiking 12 miles with half a small person on my back? Pepper in some anxiety over old foot and knee injuries, some good ol’ self-doubt, and the building dread over the day actually arriving. When it did, I rolled the backpack into my Jeep and off I drove, nauseous to the core, waving to my husband as he stood in the dirt driveway, legitimately trying not to cry. Can we do this on our own? Obviously we can. It’ll just be that much more uncomfortable at first.

The only reasons for not being capable were of course the ones we were giving ourselves. Outside of self-deprecation, there was only wind and trees, late August wildflowers, and the endlessness of granite domes. The trails were woven hard into the slopes and we gave ourselves permission to pass into such alpine country, as women, as supple body in challenge to arduous space. We were not explorers seeking new discovery, intentioned at establishing some new proverbial bar. We were merely observers of the talus and the spiders that lived between them, passing with care into the rocky meadows beneath the Cirque of the Towers. And, as with any new wildflower, we would inevitably redefine what it meant to be us in the backcountry.

We were not alone. It was the Saturday before the due eclipse. Yet, the only women we ever came across were hikers and backpackers. Actually we did cross paths with another female climbing team, but they were on their way out. During the rest of the week, however, we would remain the only female team there. This fact only fueled our motivation, the ecstatic pleasure in reeling time across granite walls as daughters of the world from which we were now playing. We were more than capable, we were as authentic and as ephemeral as the mountains themselves.

The first climb we did was the South Buttress of Pingora. Hoping to avoid dawn patrol crowds we slept in and casually did the approach mid-morning. We arrived at the top of the southern shoulder to find three parties, one currently leading the first pitch, the other two waiting. Initial intimidation was already of being on Wind-River-granite for the first time, but now lingered our impulse assumptions that all men you came across in the backcountry are experts, are efficient and fast—that women are undoubtedly the least experienced, because we haven’t historically dominated these spaces. I’m sure if you asked any of those men, they, too, would have impulsively assumed themselves to be more proficient climbers than us ladies. But it was all bullshit, because we ended up climbing faster than all of them. When I was leading the left K-crack, the leader on the right K-crack was surprisingly insecure. Not that his experience and feelings weren’t warranted and relative—this isn’t about grades or establishing a hierarchy—it was equanimity for Eliza and myself, solidifying our validity to be out there. Proof to ourselves, that is. That our intimidation under these circumstances were self-affliction.

“So why aren’t more women doing things like this?” we thought that night. I truly believe that women are more likely to be conditioned as perfectionists; and as perfectionists, we aren’t naturally as inclined to attempt or pursue something if we don’t feel 100% ready, or if the foreseeable odds are stacked against us. This invariably echoes how methodical I am with my climbing technique and movement. You’ll never see me dyno into the abyss. So these types of adventures, the ones that hollow out our lungs and require audacity, built off of one daunting unknown to another—this is where women have been traditionally taught to be risk averse.

~~~

There was not one drop of rain the entire six days we were out there. “Don’t expect to ever experience that again,” Mason had expressed to Eliza after the trip. Maybe it was the eclipse. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe it was us, and the reward, for having followed through. In retrospect, if we had to list what ultimately made our trip successful, for those women who seek a taste of expedition or a sense of freedom from imposter-ship, we would thusly advise:

1. Know your partner. Know them well. Express hesitations as matter of fact. Be honest with yourself and your abilities. Your expectations. Eliza and I made it very clear that we were not going into the Wind River Range to climb at our limits. We wanted it to be as casual as possible. This leads me to the fact that:

2. Expeditions don’t have to equal sufferfests, establishing first ascents, or pushing your limits so much so the boundary between the control of yourself and risk mitigation in the environment blur heavily with a desperate means to survive. We chose routes for the pure experience of climbing them: South Buttress of Pingora and Wolf’s Head East Ridge Traverse, the hardest moves for the whole trip being 5.8. Granted, we were far from help if a freak accident were to take place.

3. What would your emergency equipment include? Eliza borrowed a Satellite phone. This was our ultimate security blanket. We were also able to check the weather every morning because of it. If there was any chance of rain, we would assess the risk of climbing anyway. In addition, close family and friends knew exactly where and what our plans were. Consider your escape route, what lifeline you have at hand.

4. Thus, it is important to understand the severity of any jaunt into the backcountry, regardless of your intentions, itinerary, or ability. Meditate on the risks you are taking. Brainstorm worst case scenarios and their possible solutions. Always. Be as morbid as you can be, honestly. Then prepare yourself mentally for these things actually taking place without scaring yourself out of precision and a well-handled performance in the end. This is a balance that comes with practice. Realism and self-confidence. I have known too many women that suffer from ill self-confidence and I am no stranger to this illusion. Yet, my advice is to honestly leave the self-deprecation at home. Trust that your partner sees you as an equal, not as a burden (and if this is the case, then you are in the wrong partnership). Being honest with yourself and your partner about your comforts and abilities relieves so much pressure and allows you to focus on the positive aspects of who you are and what you are bringing to the team.

5. Leave your ego behind. Be flexible. Eliza and I were free-soloing ledges up to the start of the Wolf’s Head ridgeline when Eliza turned to me and said she didn’t feel comfortable anymore. Yes! Even if I didn’t fully mirror her sentiments, she spoke up. I valued her opinions, respected any and all communication, which only nurtured the dynamics of us as a team. We roped up for the last fifty feet or so and we continued on our merry way.

6. Of course important facets to any successful trip is the appropriate gear. Do your research, ask friends or even strangers about their experiences and gear lists. Water treatment, weather, food you’ll actually crave and consume, bugs, clothes that’ll keep you happy and dry. And sometimes, instead of only thinking about weight, let yourself indulge. What experience do you ultimately want to have? I always ask myself this question. Eliza hiked in cans of salmon, because she wanted them. As long as it’s not compromising others, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

7. And lastly, show up. Anxiety and fear aside, the greatest thing you can do for yourself is show up. You’ve done all you can to prepare, to plan, to practice. Like an artist who creates a masterpiece, you’ve given it your all and the only thing left to do is to let things appear and fall as they may. Do you; do your best with the understanding that your best is constantly changing. Acknowledge the change; acknowledge your emotions; adapt accordingly. Laze around at camp if you have to, take naps.

~~~

Eliza and I had a phenomenal trip. We slept at least 12 hours every night. To witness the total eclipse, we scrambled to the top of a random dome, ate Goldfish and shivered in our windbreakers as the world shifted dimension—black void over all that is normal and right in the perceived nature of things. We let ourselves laugh at it all. How absurd we were, giggling with waves of hysteria, savoring the passage of orbits and forgetting the differences between the celestial bodies, bodies of granite, and our own. And despite all our varying curvatures, we were all orbiting nonetheless—or traversing feral topography as howling she-wolves beneath a harrowing, black moon.

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