The Radical Power of Challenging Yourself Outdoors
How Sarah Herron found herself in the mountains, then helped others do the same
Beauty comes in many forms, but for years, Sarah Herron had a hard time recognizing that. Born without the bottom half of her left arm a result of a condition called amniotic band syndrome, Herron refused to do sports as a young girl, for fear of what others would think. Raised in Colorado, she grew up with the outdoors all around her, but she stayed inside when her family went skiing or hiking.
“Growing up, I loved the indoors. I loved creativity, I loved to paint and do theater,” Herron says now. “I think a large part of that was because of my physical difference. I felt uncomfortable. I tried playing soccer in third grade but gave up.”
It would take years and a stint on reality TV before Herron would realize the power the outdoors had to transform—and the many ways beauty can take shape around and within us.
After studying art and design in Los Angeles, Herron landed a job at an advertising agency. At 24, she was single and having a hard time dating. “I felt insecure about my arm,” she says. “I was too self-doubting to put photos of myself on social media or dating apps. I worried that when someone saw photos of my arm, they would reject me.”
A friend recommended her to a casting agent at the TV show The Bachelor, and Herron was selected. It was 2013, and she had nothing to lose. She didn’t fall in love on national TV, but she did discover something about herself. While on adventure-oriented dates, like jumping off a skyscraper in Los Angeles and playing roller derby, she realized she wasn’t afraid. “My confidence was building. I was excited for every obstacle they threw at me,” she says.
After the show, young women from around the country who’d seen her on TV started reaching out to Herron to say thank you for showcasing a body that looked different. With newfound self-assurance, Herron started hiking peaks like Mount Baldy, outside L.A., and skiing in places like Mammoth Mountain and Big Bear. “I loved the way skiing and hiking and being outside made me feel about myself,” Herron says. “I felt so much more confident standing on that mountain, knowing I’d done it myself.” She wondered, What if I can give that feeling to other women, too?
So, in 2016, she took a group of women with physical differences on a ski retreat to Aspen, Colorado, where an adaptive ski program helped get everyone on the mountain. That was the start of Herron’s nonprofit organization, SheLift, which seeks to empower women with physical challenges through outdoor recreation and hosts multiple retreats each year.
You can find community anywhere. Join a hiking group, go on a retreat, hire a guide, use social media. I encourage women to see past their self-limiting beliefs and find a community.
Herron, now 33 and based in Carbondale, Colorado, has gone on to tackle bigger feats outside: She’s climbed 19,341-foot Mount Kilimanjaro, in Africa, six towering peaks around Southern California, and the cable route on Half Dome, in Yosemite National Park.
Whatever your goal might be, Herron recommends you first find your people. “One of the big reasons people think they don’t belong is they feel like they don’t have the community to support and encourage them to try new things,” she says. “You can find community anywhere. Join a hiking group, go on a retreat, hire a guide, use social media. I encourage women to see past their self-limiting beliefs and find a community.”
Setting goals can help, too. “Set yourself up for sustainable growth,” she says. “Pick a goal and work your way up to it.” And keep things interesting. “Whether it’s a new group fitness class or learning to rappel or rock climb, I love trying new things,” Herron says. “It doesn’t mean that activity has to become my new favorite hobby, it’s just about discovering.”
Three More Leading the Way
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As a Salomon WMN ambassador, Herron is part of a community dedicated to breaking stigmas and empowering all women to find their best selves outdoors. Below, three of Herron's fellow ambassadors share their hard-earned advice for building confidence in the outdoors.
Logan Dralle, Her Oregon Life
“The outdoors helped me set aside the limiting beliefs that I wasn’t capable of doing hard things,” says Dralle, a Eugene, Oregon–based storyteller and healthcare worker, and the woman behind the popular blog Her Oregon Life. “I was scared to step into that realm, but as soon as I did, I saw it’s just one foot in front of the other.”
Dralle, who got into hiking and backpacking after moving to Oregon in 2013, recommends finding a mentor, taking classes on things like route finding and wilderness first aid, and borrowing or renting gear to test it out before you buy. “Focus on what you can control,” Dralle says. “Laugh through the uncomfortable moments and try to stay positive when things get tough.”
Gretchen Powers, Powers Provisions
Gretchen Powers, a photographer, filmmaker, and entrepreneur who has been living in Alaska for the past few years, is the founder of Powers Provisions, an online storefront that sells prints, postcards, knits, beads, and other accessories. In her free time, Powers knits hats for her brand and cross-country skis, hikes, and bikes with her wife, who's in the Coast Guard.
When a friend offered to take her rock climbing for the first time a few years back, Powers was afraid of heights and scared to try something new. But she went ahead with it. “The first moments are going to feel hard. But it’s OK to sit back and take your time. Be kind to yourself. You don’t have to be good at everything you do,” says Powers, who this summer is planning her next big adventure, a move to Honolulu, Hawaii. “Now, the more I go rock climbing, the braver I feel in other parts of my life.”
Chelsea Murphy, @She_colorsnature
Murphy, who runs the Instagram account @She_ColorsNature to promote diversity in the outdoors, didn’t grow up camping and hiking, but she’s working hard to give her two young daughters, ages three and seven, that opportunity. A friend introduced Murphy to hiking after her first daughter was born, and now, from their home in Leavenworth, Washington, the family goes on hikes together. “I want my kids to know the opposite of how I grew up,” says Murphy. “Until recently, I never had someone tell me how to get from the couch to a hiking trail. It’s been life-changing for me. I didn’t know there were 15 trails within 30 minutes of me.”
Murphy’s advice for getting out on the trail, especially with kids: “Turn up the patience. Turn down the expectations,” she says. “You are all learning something, whether you go the whole route or just 50 steps from the car. It’s not about the distance. It’s about the memories.”
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