Five Women. One Wilderness. Zero Mansplaining.
When Maggie Shipstead set out to report on women-only expedition travel, she was driven by a desire to learn new skills in a low-bro-factor environment. But six days exploring Alaska with the state’s first woman-owned adventure outfitter turned out to be regenerative in ways she didn’t expect.
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When I flew to Alaska in July for an all-women backpacking trip, I wasn’t feeling my most confident, centered, or fit. I wasn’t entirely sure I still liked hiking. Or going places, or doing things, or meeting people. Sixteen months of a global pandemic can do that to you. But I had gotten on the plane, and now I’d either reconnect with my dormant adventurous self or have a terrible time trying.
I arrived in Anchorage early in the morning on the Fourth of July, a day before my group and I would be shuttled up to Talkeetna by van and then deposited in the backcountry by floatplane. That night, I had dinner at a downtown brewpub. All I wanted was to eat some halibut at the bar and read a book on my phone, but the guy one stool over was determined to chat me up, no matter how many times I pointedly turned back to my reading. After I paid and said goodbye, he jumped up to follow. “Let’s go get ice cream,” he said.
“I can’t,” I said, because that was easier than telling the truth: I don’t want to. I went back to my hotel room and glumly ate some gummy bears, staring out over the placid Cook Inlet. But because it wouldn’t get even a little dark until the wee hours, there were no fireworks.
This trip had been on my docket since the fall of 2019. Back then I’d been looking to do a story on the growing popularity of all-female adventure travel—for example, more than twice as many women signed up for REI’s women’s trips in 2019 as in 2018. Through Instagram, I stumbled upon Backpack Alaska, a fledgling guiding company. It stood out, especially in Alaska, because its founder and owner is a woman: Kathryn Walsh, then 30. Born in Nome to a gold-mining, bush-flying father and a Californian mother, Kathryn was raised between her parents’ home states and returned north for good in her mid-twenties after the stability of a finance job failed to drown out the call of adventure. I was intrigued by a small-group trip she ran called “Wild Women: Expedition Basics 101.” It’s five days in the backcountry, building the skills and confidence needed to venture into the wilderness on one’s own—something that, hypothetically, would cancel out the need for exactly what Backpack Alaska was selling.
“I’d love to cannibalize my entire company—for people not to need guides,” Kathryn told me. She pointed out that women haven’t always been welcome on trips like hers or encouraged to engage with the backcountry at all. “There wasn’t that lineage and network to draw you in,” she said. “And when you did get into it, you were always the odd man out—odd woman out, whatever—and that gets tiresome.” She wanted to create a ripple effect of self-sufficient badassery.
The point of all-female travel isn’t to exclude men, but sometimes a break from the dudes feels right. Years before, I attended a women’s ski camp in Aspen, Colorado, and I liked how the women in my group encouraged one another without razzing or one-upping or throwing down gauntlets. Sure, lots of women are terrible, and men contain multitudes, but I don’t think it’s out of line to say that women, left to their own devices, tend to be more cooperative and supportive than all-male or mixed groups.
I pitched the idea to Outside and by early 2020 was set to go in July, after which I planned to put my newfound skills and confidence to work on a three-week hike in the Swedish Arctic. You know what happened instead.
So there I was, a year later than planned, buckled into a teensy Cessna 185 floatplane for a half-hour flight next to a hip-wadered, mustached pilot who looked like he’d been grown in an Alaskan bush-pilot lab. We took off from Talkeetna under an ominous sky and passed over forests that quickly vanished as the foothills rose up, turning to tundra. At this latitude, 62 degrees north, the tree line was well under 3,000 feet. Our landing zone was an alpine lake encircled by barren, snow-streaked mountains, the highest of which was a steep, malevolent-looking 5,800-foot tooth of black rock known as Sheep Back Mountain. Whoever named it that had clearly never seen a sheep.