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When does trying to help women not help women?

Over the past week, social media has been the platform for a number of very heated debates about the safety of women in the hills. The trigger? An article that intends to act as a guide for how men should treat women in the hills. Whilst I am sure the intent behind this article is good, it made me wonder - when does trying to help women not help women?

Me, Cat, enjoying a solo mountain day

My first real self-led adventure saw 16yr old me and a school friend attempt the West Highland Way. We had many fears on that trip – ticks, weather, monsters, the dark… but men were not one of those fears. Reading this article 17 years later made me wonder if my feeling of security is misguided. Should I be afraid of men when I go to the hills? The article vaguely references “horror stories” which naturally made my imagination run wild. Having reflected, I’m firmly of the belief that I should not be afraid of men when I go to the hills.

The wild home of two 16 year old girls for the night (before the camping ban)
The wild home of two 16 year old girls for the night (before the camping ban)

Since the misadventures of 16yr old me, I’ve covered thousands of miles and I have seen a big change in the presence of women in the hills and the attitudes towards us. The author of the article refers to himself as a middle-aged, middle-classed white man and therefore a representative of the “dominant majority” on the hill. This is a balance that has been slowly but surely levelling for years. The most recent annual report from Mountain Training Scotland shows the number of women registering for qualifications is on the rise. Don’t get me wrong – things are a long way from 50/50 but I genuinely believe it will get there in my life time. In a previous job, I led dozens of Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Expeditions. The vast majority (or is that a dominant majority?) of participants were girls. These girls are the wandering women of the future and I’d hate to think that reading articles or posts online, that imply women are unsafe, prevents them from becoming such. Don’t get me wrong - casual sexism is well and truly alive and kicking in mountaineering. I’ve been on the other side of it more times than I can count. But am I really unsafe because of it?

Admiring the view or worried about who I'm sharing the hillside with?

Once, when heading up onto the Braeriach Plateau late one evening to camp, I met a group of 3 men coming off the hill heading for Corrour Bothy. “Do you know it gets dark in an hour?” one of them asked me sincerely. I stopped and chatted to them for a while, and it was clear they had judged that I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. They were concerned. They asked me about my 36l rucksack they had deemed to be too small to contain sufficient gear.

A woman blissfully unaware of the fact it will be dark in a few hours
A woman, blissfully unaware of the fact it will be dark in a few hours

Did these men patronise me because I was a woman? Absolutely. Were any of these men a risk to my personal safety? Absolutely not. Their comments, whilst condescending, came from a good place and I successfully challenged their bias.

A few weeks ago, a man whom I have tremendous respect for and who has supported me in almost every stage of my mountaineering career, was accused of “not caring about the safety of women”, purely because he pointed out that the MBA could not be held responsible for the actions of those using bothies. We need to do better than just attacking men. All this does is widens the divide.

Last weekend, I was guiding 1:1 in Knoydart with a female client. We encountered a few groups of men and every single one of them treated us as equals. On the summit of Luinne Bheinn, we met a group of three very fit men about my age. They told us we were the first people they’d seen in 2 days and my phone pinged for the first time in two days – the football scores. I asked if they wanted to know and we shared a friendly English/Scottish football joke before chatting about the routes we were doing. Further along the route, a lone man walking in the other direction stopped to speak to us. He asked for a bit of route information and thanked us. Our final chat was with two men who asked if there was a way to cut down before the summit. Men were asking us for advice. It led us to discuss just what huge progress has been made in a relatively short space of time.

Knoydart 2024
Knoydart 2024

In November, I was climbing in the Cairngorms with an all-female group, one of whom recounted the days where she had to pretend to be a boy to get into Mountaineering Huts. She was amazed at the number of female voices she could hear. It was a truly empowering and uplifting day.

The article sets out a list of 10 rules for men to follow when in the vicinity of women in a hillwalking environment and has been described by the Guardian as “new guidance”. Among the “new guidance” was “don’t ask what route they are taking” and “say a brief hello and keep moving.” Until reading this, I had never considered the possibility that a man might change his entire day’s plans, to pursue me. Part of what I love about a day in the hills is the hill chat. I’d feel a lot less welcome and part of the community if men avoided me on account of me being a woman. Of course, some women will not want to disclose their plans. People have real fears based on experiences that are absolutely valid and must be respected but it’s easy to be vague if answering genuinely worries you. I’m usually vague when I’ve been asked this question because the answer genuinely is “I haven’t decided exactly yet.” Taking issue with this response and demanding an answer is another issue and would indeed be quite strange but asking is absolutely fine.

Better not ask these four where they're going!
Better not ask this four where they're going!

Another guideline stated “Never camp near anyone else, especially if they’re a solo woman, even if they’re in the best location.” This reminded me of the poor bloke who encroached upon my friend and I’s camp a few years ago. We had come off Ben Alder to find a 3rd tent in our little spot. When we arrived the man was absolutely mortified. He’d made a wee camp social area and was completely lovely. He was a lone walker who was hoping to sit by the river for his dinner and a chat with some other people that looked like him. He offered to move and we told him there was no need. The three of us sat up and found we had mutual contacts. He was fascinated to hear our stories and blown away that two young women would go out alone – not because we should be scared of him but because his life experience had led him to expect those tents to be men of his demographic. Again we successfully challenged his bias. It is through interactions like this that women become equal in the mountains.

The bottom line for me is that articles like this appear on the surface to have the interest of women at their heart, but they serve no useful purpose. My point was proven late last week when an article in the Spectator sarcastically bemoaned that men need to watch what they say in the mountains now, as if the mountains were previous a place where it was ok to be rotten. It has created a divide and the message being pedalled by the Spectator is that men should be afraid of talking to us. Is this what equality looks like?

So when does trying to help women not help women? When it makes women fearful of things they didn’t fear before. When it isolates them and flags them as vulnerable. When it tells men they should follow different rules talking to women than when talking with men.

If I could give men one piece of advice about the treatment of women in the mountains, consider if you’d say the same thing to a man. If the answer is no then don’t say it. It really is that simple.

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