Ben Willis
Written by Ben Willis
Published on 8th March 2019
10 min read
To mark International Women’s Day, four prominent female adventurers reflect on how the growing prominence of women in adventure and exploration is helping change society for the better

With a number of notable exceptions, the history of adventure and exploration is one largely dominated and written by men. Traditional societal norms, alongside misplaced notions about what women were physically capable of doing, meant that the golden age of exploration was a predominantly male affair.

Happily that is changing. Today, feats of exploration and endurance are just as likely to be undertaken by women as men, proving women are as capable as men, if not more so, of pushing themselves to extreme physical limits. In many parts of the world, the stuffy expectation that women would stay at home and raise children while the men went out and conquered new worlds is largely gone, and women are enjoying an increasingly prominent profile as adventurers.

This is beneficial to the adventure and outdoor community itself, creating a healthier and more balanced sector that better reflects the world around us and is thus ultimately more sustainable. But perhaps, more importantly, having prominent female figures in influential positions in adventure and exploration directly benefits wider society, inspiring women and girls around the world to look beyond their social constraints and see new horizons.

There is of course a long way still to go; in many parts of the world, the barriers that once before prevented women from playing a greater role in adventure and exploration are still, sadly, very real. And in some sports, women continue to have to fight for equal recognition, enjoying lower remuneration and public profile than their male counterparts.

But things are certainly heading in the right direction, and this special report to mark International Women’s Day is a celebration of and reflection on the progress that has been made. We speak to four prominent female adventurers – the adventurer-conservationist Holly Budge, the ‘Everest Twins’ Tashi and Nunghsi Malik, and snowboarder-filmmaker Anne-Flore Marxer – about the changing face of women in adventure.

Thinking big, dreaming bigger

Holly Budge is an adventurer, conservationist and, latterly, artist, who counts pioneering mountain ascents and elephant conservation among her many achievements.

Adventure Uncovered: What’s your main achievement your most proud of to date?
Holly Budge: I felt proud to have made a successful first ascent in the Altai Mountains, in Western Mongolia. It was a wonderful liberation to go where no human had gone before. It was not without it challenges though. We had to carry out a long medical evacuation for a crush wound to one of our teammate’s legs, we had to battle precarious boulder fields, extremely steep virgin snowy slopes, huge exposure and avalanche risk. It was also a proud moment to stand on the top of the world, on the summit of Everest. My climbing partner and I were fortunate to experience blue skies and awe-inspiring views, which we enjoyed by ourselves for 30 minutes. Having the summit of Everest to yourselves is a rare privilege!

What’s your first defining memory of experiencing the outdoors, and what influence has that had on where you are today? 
I don’t remember one defining moment of experiencing the outdoors. Growing up in rural England was quite literally a breath of fresh air! I have an older brother and I have lots of memories of us running around, exploring, jumping over gates and fences and climbing trees for hours on end. I was a real tomboy! I used to compete from a young age in Tetrathlons, which involved trail running, equestrian, target shooting and swimming. This taught me valuable lessons early on, which held me in good stead for my career as an adventurer and a conservationist. Competing taught me discipline and patience, and the importance of being a team player. I feel so fortunate on reflection to have had the opportunity to grow up in the absence of technology, as we know it today and as a result, I feel I have a deep connection to the outdoors and with nature. 

What role model(s) have inspired you on your journey?
I have been very inspired by the Black Mambas, an all-female front line anti-poaching team in South Africa. They are an initiative I support through my campaign, How Many Elephants, and so far I have raised £9,500 for them. I recently had the opportunity to immerse myself with these women and documented my experience on film. One of my aims was to intimately learn what drives and motivates these pioneering women to pursue their multifaceted roles as protectors, educators and beacons of hope. Armed only with pepper spray and handcuffs, they patrol the hunting grounds of armed poachers who pose an imminent threat to many wildlife species in Africa. They also strive to change attitudes towards the role of women in Africa and beyond. 

What contribution is the increasingly prominent role women are playing in the world of adventure making towards greater gender equality in society?
It is great to see female adventurers are increasingly being recognised and acknowledged for their talents and achievements, and rightly so. It is so important for girls and young women to be able to identify with ‘real’ role models who encourage others to pursue their own journeys with passion and purpose. I am a firm believer that great role models do not have to have elite qualities of a physical or mental advantage. I think women being increasingly more prominent in the world of adventure is making a positive contribution to gender equality in society as it is showing women breaking new ground and also showing the capability of females, often in traditionally male roles. Through my own adventures, my vision is to inspire others to daydream, meander, run, climb and jump into their own adventure of self-discovery, and in doing so, learn that with self-belief, determination and resilience, even the biggest of challenges can be overcome. My motto is, ‘Think Big, Dream Bigger’.

For more information on Holly’s adventures and conservation work, go here.

Hitting new heights

India-born Tashi and Nunghsi Malik are the first twin sisters notch up the Seven Summits (the highest peaks in all the world’s continents) and go on to complete the ‘Explorers’ Grand Slam’ by additionally reaching the North and South Poles. Their NungshiTashi Foundation is seeking to empower women through adventure sports and make India and ‘outdoor nation’ and in 2018 they co-founded India’s first outdoor education institute, the Outdoor Leadership School (OLS), to build life skills through the great outdoors.

What’s your first defining memory of experiencing the outdoors, and what influence has that had on where you are today?
At the end of our first ‘by default’ exposure to basic mountaineering, when we told parents that “we’ve fallen in love with the mountains”, Mum was a most worried soul. Girls falling in love with a sport associated in India as a pursuit of rustic people or the security forces! She had far better dreams for her ‘English’ convent school educated daughters. Dad, though initially taken aback, stood with us, and some months later we were off again this time for the advanced course. Of similar duration, this three-week course pitted us against the ‘selected few’, all of whom had earned due grade and recommendation based on their high performance and potential to progress further from the basic course. The competition was tough. The ‘boys to girls’ ratio had gone further in favour of boys. But once again we were right on top. More intense than the basic course, here we were absolutely stretched to our limit of endurance both academically and physically. There was no sympathy, no concession and no mercy from the side of the trainers. If we were to move closer to qualifying as mountaineering instructors like them, we had to earn every bit of it.

Considered adequate qualification for one to become a member of any mountaineering expedition, the advanced training culminates in planning and executing a week-long expedition to climb a selected peak (Mt. Rudugaira, at approximately 19,500 ft) using combination of rock craft, ice craft and all possible climbing techniques. As days pass, the altitude increases and fatigue sets in. Then it’s all about you and the mountain. No age, no gender and no family background matters. Only the best reach the summit. And reaching the top is a mandatory criterion for ‘A’ grade. What could be a more memorable and proud moment for two girls than to reach the summit ahead of everyone? And not just by a margin but by a huge distance! Our speed on the mountain had already been widely noticed and appreciated. Some attributed it to our ‘Gorkha’ genes from our mother’s side! Given our gender context for a boy it would just be a personal triumph, for us it was a victory for one half of our society, one that is treated as inferior, often excluded and frequently marginalised in almost every socio-economic sphere. As we stood on top of Mt. Rudugaira holding the ‘tri-colour’ high with one hand, our ice axe with another and looking down on the vast expanse of smaller mountains, we felt we had conquered the world. We had never before felt such a sense of power and pride at being girls. In that moment, we felt we could climb any mountain anywhere, we could surmount any obstacle, any barrier whether man-made or natural.

The mountaineering institute is a small community, so news spreads fast. As we got back to the dorms a day later, we noticed huge admiration from fellow climbers and received generous appreciation from our trainers. As we reached the reception enclosure, our most senior instructor came running to greet us, jokingly telling the other instructors, “Hey guys, our ‘Everest twins’ have arrived!” He hugged us with immense pride. In the same breath he declared, “You two are our Rajdhani and Shatabdi express!” (Referring to what, at that time, were two of India’s fastest trains).

That evening we had the closing ceremony. A boisterous event marked by a cultural programme, award of certificates, sumptuous food and merry making continuing until late night. In the midst of all the sound and laughter, our senior trainer’s two words were echoing in our heart loud and clear. “Everest Twins.”

These words were etched in our heart. A dream was born. And just four years later it was to turn into reality – we had become world’s first female twins to stand together on top of the world and in quick succession from there in just over two years we had unfurled the ‘tri-colour’ on top of all the seven continents and the two poles.

What female role model(s) have inspired you on your journey?
From early childhood we had read about Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. They are etched as iconic figures in our minds. In the more contemporary world, our mountaineering hero is Mr Reinhold Messner, who has climbed all 14 above-8,000m peaks and without oxygen. Those who have a mentor or a guru are very fortunate; we have none. The person who comes very close to that role is our own father; he keeps tab on all major issues from proper training, medical preparedness and logistics to monitoring our weight and nutrition, and planning for all our expeditions.

Strangely we haven’t really followed women mountaineers so far! The one lady we surely admire is Junko Tabei who seems to defy age and goes on moving mountain after mountain. Of course, one of the greatest female alpinists of our time, Austrian Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner, is certainly one mountaineer we are so eager to meet. Gerlinde, are you listening?

What contribution is the increasingly prominent role women are playing in the world of adventure making towards greater gender equality in society?
Women’s participation in sport has a long history. It is a history marked by division and discrimination but also one filled with major accomplishments by female athletes and important advances for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. Women were often perceived as being too weak for sport, particularly endurance sports, such as marathons, weightlifting and cycling, and it was often argued in the past that sport was harmful to women’s health, particularly their reproductive health. Such stereotypes fuelled gender-based discrimination in physical education and in recreational and competitive sport, sporting organisations and sport media. 

But even though the positive outcomes of sport or adventure for gender equality and women’s empowerment are constrained by gender-based discrimination in all areas, women have now emerged to show the power of she. Through social media platforms, women have been able to create a community of women entrepreneurs and adventure seekers from all across the globe. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have manifested the need to constantly broadcast our lives on the internet. And by doing so, the majority now have the liberty to share messages (regards to gender, diversity, etc.) and create stories for empowerment and improvement. Believe you can and you’re halfway there. The other half is an unwavering commitment to set aside fears of failure. Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears. Innovate. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. Passion backed with commitment is a sure recipe for success.

Follow Nungshi and Tashi’s exploits on Twitter, @NunghsiTashi

The fight for greater recognition

Anne-Flore Marxer is a former champion snowboarder and now a filmmaker. Her film ‘A land shaped by women’, made in conjunction with fellow snowboard and surfing star Aline Bock, featured in the inaugural Adventure Uncovered Film Festival last November.

What’s your first defining memory of experiencing the outdoors, and what influence has that had on where you are today?
Everyone in my family has a passion for skiing. Eight days after giving birth to me, my mother went straight to join my grandparents in our family mountain cabin. She arrived in the middle of a snowstorm that blocked her car; she had to hike through the snow knee deep in powder with me wrapped up in a shoebox! Then my first experience on skis was at one year old when a big snowfall reached Lake Geneva. I could barely walk. My mother says I’d have the biggest smile on my face to be sliding on the skis and I would get very unhappy the second she tried to get them off my feet.

Growing up I was always on the mountains or doing fun stuff outside, climbing or jumping stuff, playing soccer or ice skating, riding to school with my bike or on my monocycle. Outdoors is simply the way I lived my life from a very young age. It gives me the freedom I need and the connection to nature I crave. I love all outdoor activities, especially the ones in the wilderness. Still today, through the mountains and the ocean, it is the space I love the most.

What role model(s) have inspired you on your journey?
Valeria Kechichian, who founded Longboard Girls Crew, has encouraged a network of thousands of women around the world to start longboard skateboarding. It also had the effect of reversing the skateboarding industry, which was until then sinking; the large number of women who had started the sport needed boards to ride, so it led to the rebirth of skateboard production.

Greg Long has fought to bring women into the big wave surfing tour. He is one of the legendary names in big wave surfing and lives his values faithfully, always in sync with environmental issues.

Billy Jean King for her fight for equality of genders in sports along the years.

Kata Oddsottir for her fight to bring more equality in Iceland and finding ways for all minorities to live better together. She is a human rights lawyer who took part in writing the new constitution in Iceland and is leading yet another movement through women to bring the New Constitution to the front of the social debate as we speak. That new constitution would be the first to stipulate interdiction of violence against women.

Muhammad Yunus is an economist who received the Nobel Prize for bringing micro-credit to the poor and the huge support organisations he is at the source of. One of the anchor points of his movement is to bring a big focus to women and is absolutely revolutionary for the betterment of humankind.

Photos: Eleonora Raggi

What contribution is the increasingly prominent role women are playing in the world of adventure making towards greater gender equality in society?
The direct impact of women in board sports has been huge. Sarah Burke brought women’s ski halfpipe to the competition at X Games and brought equal prize money for the Winter X Games. Mimi Knoop and other skateboarding champions fought for Summer X Games to pay gender equal prize money in the skateboarding competition.

Making changes within our sports has a massive impact in sports like mine – skiing and snowboarding – where 40% of participants are women. By achieving greater equality within our industries we also bring more women to get to enjoy sports all together. If we know the positive impact of sport on men, those same positive impacts – moral and physical, as well as self-confidence, health and having an active lifestyle – are true for women. When we see women’s lack of self-confidence in negotiations of salary, body image etc, bringing more girls to sport will help them grow into stronger women.

And of course other sports Billie Jean King, Serena Williams and other female pushing for equality means a big step for our society as a whole. Bringing awareness is the first step to find solutions, and showing concrete examples of shocking inequalities in sport gives the opportunity to most people to understand how unfair those situations in sport might be and then reflect on more general situation within society. 

Anne-Flore’s film, ‘A land shaped by women’, is now available to watch On Demand here. Follow her on Instagram @annfloremarxer