Saturday, 1 September 2012

Mother or Mountain Guide

Those of you whom I bore with my tweets will know I have recently been writing an essay regarding the issues facing parents who also choose a career in the outdoors.
While this is obviously an issue close to my heart, it also affects many around us, perhaps it even affects you?

The following is some initial research towards what I hope will become the theme of my dissertation.
I would welcome any feedback and thoughts, personal reflections, reading suggestions...

Mother or Mountain Guide: Is having a career in the outdoors compatible with being a parent?

On the 13th August 1995, Alison Hargreaves died, aged 33, in a blizzard descending K2. Just three months earlier in the May of that year, Hargreaves had become the first woman to make it to the summit of Everest alone, unsupported and without any artificial oxygen. She received almost universal praise. "One of the greatest climbs in history," declared the front page of the Times (Barnard, 2002). But following her death on K2, the media criticized her for leaving behind her two children, excoriated by media commentators for "foolhardiness", "self-indulgence" and "abandoning her two young children" (Arthur, 2000).

There are two important issues raised here: the career choices we make once becoming a parent, and also a matter of gender and what expectations are placed on a woman when she becomes a mother.

“It seems many of us have fixed ideas about what a mother should be” (Douglas, 2012)

Many male mountaineers have died ‘doing what they love’ after achieving great feats within the climbing community – have they come under the same criticism that Alison Hargreaves and her family faced following her death?

Barnard (2002) presents us with the question: “If a woman is brilliant in a profession that is dangerous and she becomes a mother, how old do her children have to be before it is acceptable for her to return to work?”

Surely this is question for any parent. What do we deem acceptable once we have the responsibility of a child to consider? Reflecting the words of Ed Douglas, it seems many of us have fixed ideas about what a parent should be. And how do those feelings change for those of us who become parents?

And is it still a man’s world? Many people are brought up with the idea that physical activities involving a high amount of risk are not for women (O’Brien, Saunders & Barnes, 2004) which is further discouraged when a woman becomes a mother. This was highlighted by the savage press treatment Alison Hargreaves received following her death, after such praise of her achievements just a few months earlier. Do we see the same hounding in the press of male mountaineers?

Despite telling his wife he was going on a skiing holiday, David Hempleman-Adams was praised by the media on his return from his expedition to be the first person to walk solo to the geomagnetic pole (Hann, 2003).

Let us also look at the treatment of Alex Lowe, who passed away in a massive slab avalanche in Tibet on October 5th, 1999: Lowe was widely considered as one of his generation’s finest mountaineers. He left behind a wife and three children under the age of ten. However, instead of reflecting on his career choices as foolhardy and selfish, he was praised for his love and commitment to his family despite being away on exploratory trips for long periods of time and tackling dangerous first ascents. His obituary in the New York Times stated: “Unlike many other serious climbers, Lowe also resolved to put his wife and children first. He acknowledged that mountaineering entailed risks, but said that experience increased the margin of safety” (Wren, 1999).

In an interview with Outside Magazine in the year of his death, Lowe said his biggest challenge was balancing the passion to climb with his love for his family, whom he described as life's greatest reward.

''I would let climbing slide away if I had to, to maintain my relationship with my family,'' he said. ''Because it really is the big adventure.'' (Wren, 1999).

Rob Hall, the New Zealand Mountaineer and Guide, died on Everest in 1996 while his wife was seven months pregnant. The fact that he died whilst trying to save an exhausted client confirmed his status as the world's most respected leader of commercial Himalayan expeditions (Venables, 1996).

Venables (1996) explains there was some consolation in knowing that Jan Arnold had herself climbed Everest with Hall in 1993, that she had shared his dreams and she understood the risks. And she knew that, in a situation where "Every man for himself" is the norm, her husband had died trying to save another life.

Why was there such a stark contrast between the reactions towards a father and a mother?

Giddens (1997) states: “Clearly, gender socialisation is very powerful and challenges to it can be upsetting. Once a gender is ‘assigned’ society expects individuals to act like females and males”.

Gender socialisation processes influence our expectations (O’Brien, Saunders & Barnes, 2004). With these heavy expectations placed on a mother the result is often that her family commitments will be more important than her need for adventure. Pottinger (1994) expresses some women often feel guilty leaving family members behind while pursuing their own leisure time. I can back this view point from personal experience. While I enjoy and value my leisure and adventure time away from my daughter, at this point in time it is always overshadowed by a feeling of guilt that I should instead be ‘playing mum’ and that it’s not yet my time.

These were the findings in a study carried out by Allin (2000). The results showed that many women felt they had been held back or forced to put their careers on hold, or to indeed choose between a family and career because of family commitments.

Sharp (1998) also expresses that the conflict between coaching responsibilities and the need to travel and prepare courses alongside trying to maintain a family life is a barrier that women face when pursuing a career in the outdoors.

I created a survey to help me gain a general feel of people’s opinion on parenthood and their careers within the outdoors. While rather elementary in its approach, the results were fairly conclusive.

While I believe these conflicts between family life and a career are not gender specific issues and experienced by both parents, evidenced in the survey results, I do believe that the real issues lies in the different expectations placed on men and women.

I found it encouraging that the male/female split of participants was relatively close to an even divide. It was also revealing to see that men experienced the same feelings of compromise as that of mothers working within the outdoor industry, showing that despite the different treatment of genders within the media, and the different expectations placed on men and women, that when it comes to being a parent, we all experience very similar feelings.

It is evident that on becoming a parent, one feels that sacrifices are not only made within ones career, but in family life as well.

It is also apparent that despite continued developement and understanding, and changes in opinions towards women within the outdoor industry, when it comes to being a parent, a women’s role as a mother is still clearly defined by society.

If these opinions will ever change, remains to be seen.

The numerous issues we have glimpsed at in this piece I hope to further explore in my dissertation.


Allin, L. (2000) Women in Outdoor Education: Negotiating a Male-Gendered Space – Issues of Physicality. In Humberstone, B. (Ed.) Her Outdoors: Risk, Challenge and Adventure. Eastbourne: LSA

Arthur, Charles. (2000) Regions of the Heart reviewed [online] Available at: [] Viewed: 28/8/12

Barnard, Josie. (2002) I loved her because she wanted to climb the highest peak. The Guardian, Wednesday 28th August
Barnes, P. & Sharp, B. (2004) The RHP Companion to Outdoor Education, Russell House Publishing: Dorset

Douglas, Ed. (2012) Burnt at the stake by the Media [online] Available at: [] Viewed 28/8/12

Gidden, A. (1997) Sociology. (3rd Edition) Cambridge: Policy Press

Hann, M. (2003) Gentlemen prefer mountains. The Guardian, Friday April 11th

Pottinger, R. (1994) Mountain Leader Training: Why Women only courses? The Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Leadership. 11: 1, 15-16

Sharp, B. (1998) The Training of Mountain Leaders: Some Gender Concerns. European Journal of Physical Education. 7: 2, 85-94

Venables, S. (1996) Obituary: Rob Hall. The Independent, Wednesday 22nd May

Wren, C. (1999) Obituary: Alex Lowe. The New York Times, October 7th [online] Available at: [] Viewed 28/8/12

All words Copyright: Menna Pritchard, 2012