When I close my eyes, I see myself picking a line down a steep gulley that I’ve never been through before. It’s chossy and loose and exhausting; it’s slow going, but I’m going nonetheless, careful to place my hands and feet in ways that won’t lead to rock slides or twisted ankles. I’m strong, and I’m smart, and I see myself carefully navigating the descent from Lone Peak. I see myself reaching the Bells Canyon trail, following this final line to the trailhead. I see myself finishing the WURL.
When I open my eyes I’m sitting in my car, parked in front of my office. It’s just past 8 a.m. and I grab my keys and water bottle, and I head inside.
People call this a visualization exercise or meditation. It’s where you imagine what you want to accomplish and play out the full scenario in your head, calling the colors and textures and emotions to full attention. They say it’s a powerful mind-body connection tool, one that can actually yield success in achieving goals. As a mountain athlete with big dreams, it’s a big part of my training—it helps me feel at peace.
Last summer, when I first heard about the Wasatch Ultimate Ridge Linkup (WURL) from two Salt Lake City friends, I immediately fixated on the ~36-mile, 21-peak linkup even though I’d hardly stepped foot in Utah’s Wasatch range. It wasn’t ever about the mountains themselves (never have I not loved a mountain). It was about the fact that no woman had ever finished the WURL in a single push without a man’s presence, meaning no all-female or solo-female parties have completed the route. No offense to men, but I thought that was ridiculous.
At first, I started to wonder why this was the case. Was the linkup too technical? Too scary? Too complicated? From research online, I understood a handful of the route’s sections are rated as committing fifth class, and finding the proper way between the peaks can be arduous even for lifelong locals. Only 35 people have been documented finishing it, perhaps only four of whom are women (this is based off Jared Campbell’s blog, the man who helped establish the WURL and has provided the most comprehensive information about the route that I’ve gleaned online).
It didn’t make sense. With the amount of local hype I perceived surrounding the WURL, plus the many capable, badass women living the Salt Lake City area alone, I couldn’t understand why the current picture didn’t feature more ladies.
I hate when things don’t make sense. So, I flipped the perspective. I started to wonder “Why not?” and with that, at least I had a definitive answer: Nothing. None. There were zero reasons why a woman would not be capable of doing the WURL without a man. It was then I started to think, why not me?
Late-night parsing through information and trip write-ups online; daydreaming at work, wondering whether or not I was capable of trying such an endeavor; it made me think back to my first big trail run last summer, the ~28-mile Four Pass Loop inside Colorado’s Maroon Bells-Snowmass wilderness. I’d been training for a regular half-pavement, half-dirt-road marathon when a friend asked if I wanted to join him and two of his coworkers on the Four Pass Loop at the end of the month. I’d run most of the trails around my house, but nothing like the 8,000 feet of elevation gain and four mountain passes we’d run up and over throughout the Loop. I was intrigued, but I also had my doubts. Namely, what if I couldn’t keep up with the three men? The thought of being the weak link or slowing them down (especially as the only woman) unsettled my confidence.
I’d run a marathon once, two years earlier, and earlier that summer I’d gotten up to 18 miles on trails. I was healthy, uninjured and loved spending long days in the mountains. But still, I reckoned it would be an irresponsible decision to try and run with them, lest I spoil their fun adventure or put them in danger of afternoon thunderstorms.
But then, there was something I’d heard two weeks earlier that I couldn’t get out of my head. And when I talked to my friend, expressing my doubts, he shook his head quickly—“You should definitely come; there’s nothing to worry about on our end”— and it clicked for me.
They say women only apply to jobs when they meet 9 or 10 out of 10 job requirements. Men, on the other hand, will apply with only 6. Running is no different. I had the exact same qualifications as they all did. Yet I was the only one concerned with it. It took a few minutes to sink in, but I knew if they were going to try, I was going to try. I called my friend immediately and told him I was all in. Even that declaration was thrilling.
As I started to consider the WURL, I figured it might be the same case. A techy trail demands not only expertise, but confidence. A 24-hour-plus mission demands not only endurance, but also faith in one’s abilities.
What that job-application statistic tells me is that these traits of faith in oneself and confidence aren’t as intuitive for women as they are for men—whether a product of social conditioning or otherwise—and thus, it can require more inertia for women to embark on endeavors that require them.
By the time I decided I definitely wanted to try the WURL, I’d already signed up and was training for my first 100-mile race, had a handful of near-24-hour mountain missions under my belt, and was a competent 5th class scrambler, not to mention experienced trad climber. But when I started sourcing beta from people who’ve completed or done sections of the WURL, I was met primarily with skepticism.
One man, whom I was referred to via a friend, told me I could call him on the phone to ask any questions I had about the route. He picked up on the first ring, and before I even introduced myself, he started: “Hey, so I’m just a name to you, right? Well, let me tell you who I am so you have some context…” He then proceeded to rattle off his career and Wasatch mountain resume as I sat there, at first grateful he was willing to share his time with me, considering he’s spent so many days on the WURL’s terrain… but once he continued to spew his opinions of the route, his cautionary “advice,” tales of his own capabilities—all without asking me a single question about my own experience levels—I knew I needed to get off the phone ASAP. He had no idea who I was. He never once asked me where I was coming from. All he knew was this: I wasn’t keyed into any major trail running communities; I was trying to plan the endeavor remotely (trying to source info from other people); and I was a woman.
It made me think to other times in my life when I’ve gotten unsolicited talking-tos and über-cautionary advice for my outdoor pursuits. One day this winter, a man on Green Mountain, just a few miles from my home, lectured me on bear safety as I was mid-run. He never inquired about my comfort levels around bears. Did he know about the dozens of hours I’ve dedicated to outdoor leadership training? Or my years of Wilderness First Responder and First Aid trainings and certifications? No. Because he never asked.
Another time I was at Joshua Tree National Park and two older men called out “Have fun and be safe!” as my friend, another woman, and I parted ways with them in search of boulder problems. I was left wondering whether or not they would’ve shouted “Be safe!” to two 20-something-year-old men walking with crash pads on their backs?
Even the last week of July, when I was smack dab in the middle section of my on sight attempt at soloing the WURL, I ran into a man on the summit of Flagstaff who, lifting his trekking pole as a pointing stick, proceeded to explain every peak name that was left on the WURL, as if I hadn’t done my research before attempting to link them all, and wasn’t in the middle of a semi-time-sensitive adventure… And yes, I know it’s shocking, but he raised his eyebrows and said “Really?” when I told him I was alone.
At the same time I harbor this frustration of not being taken seriously as a big-mountain dreamer, I do recognize we’re in a tenuous era of mountain travel. With most “first ascents” on aesthetically famous lines established around the world, people are looking to do things faster and bolder—a dangerous concoction that has left too many elite and respected mountaineers dead in the past two years alone, not to mention the everyday “weekend warriors” pushing limits in their own fatal ways, too.
Perhaps what irks me the most is watching Jordan, my fiance, navigate mountains and never getting ‘splained or cautioned by strangers. I’ve heard him relay his mountain aspirations, gnarly 5.13 trad lines in the alpine, and he never gets a discerning tone. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “Be careful!” to him except his parents and sisters. He told me himself, “I don’t think a guy has ever told me to ‘Be careful.’”
Just because I’m a woman does not mean I need extra-cautionary advice or a lecture or explanations below my pay grade. Do not sow doubt into by being, I want to scream at everyone who tries. I have enough to overcome on my own.
And while this is a matter of me feeling like I’m treated differently as a woman pursuing goals in the mountains—as though the default is to assume I am dreaming over my pay grade—it’s also a matter of elitism. I approached women for advice on the WURL, too, and while some sent their best wishes, others took similarly condescending approaches. No, I’m not a professional athlete. But that’ll never prevent me from exploring the edges of my comfort zones.
Nearly 14 hours and 17 miles into my first attempt of the WURL, I was approaching Devil’s Castle—an evil-looking fifth-class peak that most trip reports and people I talked to revere as one of the route’s main cruxes. Clouds had been coming and going all day, though the weather forecast didn’t give weight to thunderstorms or much rain. So when the sprinkles started coming down, I paused on the ridge line and thought it might subside.
Then the lightning struck. The thunder rumbled. Within minutes I knew I needed to scramble off the ridge and down below tree line to safety, but I hesitated. I didn’t want to bail. I didn’t want to fail. I felt like I was carrying this torch, and so desperately I wanted to deliver it to the Bells Canyon trailhead. I’d be delivering the truth of “Why not?”—the potential of women in my palms.
But, like I said, I’m strong and I’m smart, so I made my way down the ridge, into a gulley that I’d never before considered envisioning. It drizzled sheets of rain as I ran the dirt road through the belly of Little Cottonwood Canyon all the way back to the car.
An editor at one of the magazines I work for has a mantra for the journalism world: “Assumptions will drown us.”
And I think this applies far beyond media ethics and libel lawyers. Yes, I bailed on my first solo attempt of the WURL, and, yes, I was able to take a lot of valuable information from my time on the route so that when I go back, I’ll have an even smoother and better day in the mountains.
But, what I really learned and took away from my attempt, and what I’ll continue to apply in my life beyond the rugged techy trails, is to ask more questions and to listen more deeply when people tell me about their dreams. To meet them with suggestions and advice only after I’ve determined where their starting line is. To check both elitism and sexism, however implicit, at the doors of my conversations. To believe in people, no matter their aspirations.
I believe dreaming, and dreaming big, is going to do the most for our future—as women, as earth stewards, as compassionate human beings. And when I close my eyes now, I see my 18-month-old niece playing with legos. I see my four-year-old cousin wearing her board shorts at the beach. I see my sister leading political change across California. I see myself on training runs after work, climbing new terrain around the world, writing front-page stories about the health of the earth, loving my partner fiercely and walking my dog after dinner.
Dreaming big is contagious—and if the only price to pay is the potential of failure, minus the gains from each experience, I reckon I’ll be shelling out dreams as long as I live.