During the month of March we celebrate women with Women’s History Month, and yesterday was International Women’s Day. Is there a woman in your life that has helped shape who you are? Ambassador Sarah shares with us two women who mentored her and helped her become the women she is. I love how she shows us how powerful female mentors can be and then challenges us to become a mentor to some one else.

These days, it’s fairly easy to find motivation from inspirational women who are doing amazing things in the outdoors if you search online. There are 80-year-old women climbing mountains, 15-year-old girls sending new routes in rock climbing, and women winning long distance trail running races.

But, what is even more important sometimes, is the inspiring women in your own backyard who can mentor and motivate you to be an even better version of yourself in the outdoors.

Until I moved back to Oregon three years ago, I didn’t have that many encounters with female mentors in the outdoors. In college, for four years, all of the leaders of our rock climbing club and outdoor club were men and so on my first climbs, my first camping and backpacking trips, there really weren’t women leaders to look up to. And even now, with the outdoor group I am a part of, almost all trips posted for rock or mountain climbs are led by men. I have been fortunate to have had great experiences and I have nothing absolutely nothing negative to say against the male leaders that I have had the opportunity to learn from. I have gained so much knowledge and skills from these guys. I have been lucky to be in groups where the males have been very inclusive and supportive, kind and patient with teaching, although I know that isn’t always the case for others.

Even so, as a woman, there is something different when another woman reaches out to you and tells you that you can do it. When she tells you that she has been in the same situation of feeling inexperienced and out of her comfort zone at points in her life, the encouragement feels like a sisterhood. When that woman takes time to hang back with you to teach skills and cheer you on, you feel less intimidated and more capable.

It is one thing for a guy to tell you that you can reach that hold in climbing or carry a heavy backpack up a steep hill, but it’s another thing to see another woman doing it because you can then visualize yourself doing those things too.

I have had two women in particular that have in recent years who taken time to mentor me. Mentorship doesn’t have to be a long formal or complicated relationship. Sometimes it’s just a motivating talk while on a trail, a few hours spent teaching skills, advice on gear, or even a conversation over a campfire.

I first met Danni Harris when I joined a rock climbing trip put on by an outdoor group, the Obsidians, out of Eugene in my first summer back in Oregon in 2015. The trip consisted of four women and two men, and we went out climbing at Smith Rock for two days, and it was my first time climbing outside in over 10 years. On the second day, Danni encouraged me to join her and her husband on my first multi-pitch route. She took time to teach me about what the climb would entail, cheered me on, and gave me the confidence to lower back to the bottom on my longest rappel I have ever done. She then invited me to join her group climb to Three Fingered Jack (a 7841-foot peak in Oregon) later the next month, letting me know she would meet me early on the day we would leave to teach me how to climb on a fixed line. I had never considered before that day climbing any of the mountains I saw in the distance in Oregon, but once someone believed that I could do it, it changed my outlook and I was up for a challenge which combined my love for both hiking and climbing.

It was because of that interaction and encouragement that I decided to look into doing a Climb School the next spring, which has since enabled me to summit some amazing peaks.

I met Cathy Lazarus in 2016 on an outing at Smith Rock with a group of Chemeketans, an outdoor club out of Salem.  I had done Climb School through their group the previous spring. As we hiked out that day from Smith, I was amazed to hear how she had been a professional ballerina and then a school teacher. I later had the opportunity to climb with Cathy and a group of other guys in the North Cascades in the summer of 2017. I was terrified to traverse my first glacier that had crevasses beneath it, and use an ice ax and crampons for the first time in over a year, but she stuck by me the entire climb, encouraging me, reminding me of technique, and letting me know she was often still scared on climbs and that is was completely fine to be afraid (even though she is an amazing and very experienced climber and mountaineer).  Seeing the climbs she has done and how she gives back to the club through teaching and patient mentorship, definitely inspires me.

I wanted to reach out to these two amazing Oregon women and share a bit more about them, so I asked them each to answer a few questions.


When did you first start spending time outdoors?

“I’ve loved being in nature, the outdoors, and being athletic since I was a child, but training to become a ballet dancer since the age of seven didn’t leave a whole lot of time for outdoor endeavors.

After school and weekends were spent traveling from Orange County to Los Angeles to the ballet studio for lessons and rehearsals. When I started dancing professionally, nothing was “good” for ballet, not running, hiking, skiing, etc., as it would develop the “wrong” muscles or put you at risk of injury (not that there was any time or energy left anyway). I did indulge though, in car camping and off-roading during the ballet “off season,” developing a real love of the desert, the ocean, as well as the mountains. It wasn’t until my mid-30 when dancing was over that I took up my first outdoor sport: sailing in San Francisco Bay.

My husband (who had also been a dancer) and I took sailing lessons, bought a sailboat and took on all the responsibilities of taking care of it. Eventually I wanted something more physically active and took up downhill skiing in the Lake Tahoe area at the age of 40.

There I really started to love the mountains and snow. I guess getting off a lift and then taking off my skis, throwing them over my shoulder and hoofing it up higher on the mountain to more secluded areas and better powder was the precursor to my current sport: mountaineering.

I took climb school with the Chemeketan Climbing Club in Salem at the age of 52! Since this is for “Hike Like a Woman,” I have kind of a funny story about how I got into climbing.

I had been down in southern California visiting my family. My brother had always wanted and had attempted a few times to hike Mt. Baldy, the highest peak near Los Angeles at 10,064 feet with 4,000 feet of elevation gain. I got to the top a ways before my brother and sitting completely alone up there, gazing out at the San Gabriel Mountains and seeing the Pacific coast to the Mojave Desert, I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever done. Back home and two months later, a male friend of my husband and me wanted to do a “guys” climb up South Sister over Labor Day.

South Sister, the third highest mountain in Oregon at 10,358 feet is non-technical, but challenging with over 5,000 feet of elevation gain. South Sister is often the “gateway” mountain into mountaineering. I was livid as I wanted so much to do this after succeeding on Baldy, but was not allowed on this “guys” trip. My husband finally refused to go unless I was allowed on.

Anyway, I went and had a blast; my husband and I had to leave the other “guys” in the dust as they were so slow. I was completely unprepared for a 10,000-foot peak though, in my cut-off jean shorts and cotton hoody and had to run down the six miles from the summit to the trailhead to keep warm.

I did Climb School to learn how to handle myself in the mountains. In the nine years since Climb School, I’ve been climbing any rock and mountain I can, from rock climbing in Joshua Tree in southern California to mountain climbing in the wild North Cascades near the Canadian border in Washington and plan to do so as long as I am physically able to. There’s quite a number of climber friends in my age bracket in my climbing club that just keep pushing the limit and refuse to allow age to matter, so it kind of makes it hard for me to slow down and quit. I guess its peer pressure.”

What advice would you give to women who are just starting to hike, backpack, or want to learn skills to climb?

“I guess I’ll answer this from a climbing standpoint. Number one: Join a club if possible.

Then you will be surrounded by people who will love teaching you the skills and you will learn in a safe, supportive atmosphere. You will make connections with certain people in the club that you will end up spending more time with to further your skills and knowledge. Those are the people you will ask your endless questions you will undoubtedly have.

When I first started climbing, the learning curve was HUGE for me since I skipped the whole hiking and backpacking thing. Not only did I have to learn all the skills, gear and overwhelming technical aspects of climbing and mountaineering, but also didn’t know so much else about just hiking and spending nights outside in a tent that I had to carry on a trail, much less how to haul a four season tent up a crevassed glacier on a rope team, clipping past pickets (snow anchors), show good rope management skills, proper crampon technique, and set up a base camp in snow in windy conditions and everything else that goes with that including knowing how to stake down your tent in the snow, how long it will take to melt snow for water, what to eat, how much food to bring, how to pack.

And how do you do all this while you’re freezing your “you know what” off at 10,000 feet and feeling the altitude? Then there’s the whole navigation part and wilderness first aid; it’s endless!!

Also, at the same time period in your life, you are learning how to rock climb, and the technical aspects that go with that (and also for me, dealing with fear). More confusing gear, the physics behind anchor building, rock protection, so much rope to deal with, and I’m supposed to climb that? Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that being a new climber can be overwhelming. I had to let myself accept that being overwhelmed as I learned is OK. I always felt I was not quick enough at picking up things and it stressed me out, but I always felt very supported in my climbing club.

It all starts to come together and then you can see what all you have accomplished. Then you just get overwhelmed up at the next level, but that is okay. I constantly have to practice things at home. I’ll pull out my gear and practice making rock anchors on the kitchen cabinets; I’ll set up a Z-pulley (crevasse rescue system) in the living room, among many other things. It gives me more confidence and makes me a better team member. I think review, repetition and practice is important. Eventually, you wake up, and you are a climber who is now answering questions, teaching and being a mentor to newer climbers. Pretty cool.”

Do you think it’s important to encourage more women to get outside? Why?

“There’s still a gender gap outdoors, though we are seeing more and more exceptional women pushing the boundaries and accomplishing amazing things.

There’s a lot of women participating in the outdoors now, but I think it’s important to push to their limits and encourage them into leadership roles (teaching, coaching, guiding) because that’s where it still seems to be male dominated. Getting together with women outdoors is such an awesome thing. As well as the physical and mental health benefits, we build close friendships, help each other step out of comfort zones, build confidence and fall in love with the outside world.

Pursuing outdoor adventures isn’t for everyone though. The kinds of things I do are my sister’s absolute worst nightmare. She achieves the same effect and builds her muscles by manipulating heavy quilts on scary huge longarm machines, creating beautiful works of art and connecting with other women whose passion is quilting. The important thing is connecting with people with common goals and sharing experiences, whatever your passion is, regardless of being male or female. I enjoy time with my guy outdoor friends as well!”

Who has been an inspiration or mentor to you?

“When I became a Chemeketan climber in 2009, I was so thankful and kind of amazed that all the climb leaders and more experienced climbers in the club took so much time to teach and mentor new climbers, including me.

I used to wonder why they did that; they were so good—why weren’t they just out there climbing hard, awesome stuff instead of spending all this time and being so patient bringing along the “newbies?” But that is the nature of our club; that’s what we do and I am so appreciative of all of the leaders, both past and present. They were all so different in their approach, but I remember what each and every one of them has given me in knowledge and experience.

There are so many times when I’m out there on something and I remember and apply what one of them had said. Having said that, I am so thankful for my good friend, mentor and inspiration: fellow Chemeketan Sue Nelson. She is a 104 pound bundle of badass energy. She has taught me most of what I know and can do on rock.

Rock has always been the challenge for me due to fear and I get down on myself real easy. She is so positive, calming and finds what’s good and it gives me confidence. I try to emulate her energy (which is never ending) and appreciate what I have learned from her about nutrition and fitness. I would probably follow her to the ends of the Earth (and sometimes it feels like we have)! That’s how much I trust her skills and judgment. I have spent the last eight years with her hiking, climbing mountains and rock and hopefully there will be at least that many more to come.”

What do you do when you are not summiting mountains or rock climbing?

“My husband and I live on 11 secluded acres in the Santiam Canyon, so there is endless work, but I look at it as helping my fitness. We live with our dog Rainier, who just showed up six years ago and our cat Rosie, who showed up 10 years ago. Rainier loves hiking and trail running with me right off our property. I also take yoga lessons which are a really good complement to climbing. I recently retired from teaching fifth grade, but still do some substituting at my school.”


Tell me a bit about your background, what do you do when you are not summiting mountains or rock climbing?

“When I am not out playing I am usually demolishing bathrooms or mowing lawns. I have been working with my husband’s general contracting business for the past several years doing mostly residential home maintenance and remodeling. I also have a small landscape maintenance business that I do on the side. I’m also very passionate about search and rescue and volunteer with my local mountain rescue team. Most of that time is spent training, serving on their board of directors and going out on missions.”

When did you first start spending time outdoors?

“I was very young. My family was outdoorsy but in a more hunting, fishing, ski boating, snowmobiling kind of way. When I was a teen my uncle took a bunch of his nieces and nephews out for our first backpacking and climbing trip. We climbed South Sister. It was amazing and I was hooked.”

What advice would you give to women who are just starting to hike, backpack, or want to learn skills to climb?

“Don’t let the “maybe somedays” get in your way, like “maybe someday when I’m in better shape” or “maybe someday when I’m thinner, when my kids are grown, when I’m making more money, when I’m retired”, etc.. Get out there now. Start small and build your experience and endurance. Set a goal and plan out some baby steps to get there. Join a club. Take a class. Most communities have a local club or parks and recreation group that offer classes and beginner friendly hikes with leaders who love to share their experience. With climbing I got my start by taking a basic mountaineering course through my local club. That course was taught by the most wonderful, patient people. It was the doorway to a whole new vertical world for me. Now I am an instructor for that same course. “

What has been the biggest challenge you have overcome?

“Overcoming perceptions. First my own perception of who I should be. It took me a long time to figure out that God made me for this stuff. That my passion and talent for outdoor pursuits is part of who I am and part of His plan for me. That I can be a woman, and be a good wife/mom, and be a good climber, and that’s okay. I can also be a lousy cook and not so good at the domestic stuff and that’s okay too. Secondly, other people’s perceptions. It’s improved a lot in the past several years but the mountain community has not always been welcoming to all. I sometimes get those looks at the trailhead or the crag or when I meet new people. I see the doubt in their eyes or hear the slight rejection in their voice and know I’m being judged. How can the short, slightly pudgy, middle aged, woman with the soccer mom physique possibly be a decent climber or competent in the outdoors or able to keep up? I’ve often felt like I have had more to prove. But the key is not letting other people’s doubts into my head. Let them watch me climb or eat my dust on the trail. If they take the time to get to know me they will know that I am faster than they thought, doing just fine, and having a marvelous time.”

Who has been an inspiration or mentor to you?

“Many women and men have inspired and encouraged me. My husband, Rick, has been hugely supportive. With climbing, the other women involved in my mountain rescue team have been a big influence. Some of them have been blazing the trail for women climbers for decades. Two have been especially helpful. Susan Sullivan and Maryanne Reiter have generously given their time to teach and encourage myself and dozens of other climbers for many years.”

Do you think it’s important to encourage more women to get outside? Why?

“We all need to get outside more. Women and men. Nature can be transformative, healing. Our spirits need that beautiful waterfall and those amazing sunsets. For women to get outside, they often need a relational connection. That is usually a friendly person to go with or a little encouragement from another woman. Someone who believes you can hike that trail or climb that mountain and sleep in a tent. Another woman that tells you it’s okay to be dirty and uncomfortable. The wild places are worth it.”

Back to Sarah

I’ve been really lucky to have found incredible mentors like Danni and Cathy, and if you haven’t found a mentor yet, all you have to do is ask around. And mentorship can go both ways. Here’s the thing, you can be a mentor. Yes, read that one more time. You are a worthy mentor. These amazing ladies spent a few hours of their lives coaching and encouraging me and then probably never thought much about it. And yet, they changed the trajectory of my life in a small but incredibly substantial way. I don’t see myself as wise or experienced in the outdoors, but… I have something to teach and share. You do too. Share with someone about Leave No Trace practices. Talk to someone about what you pack or eat while hiking or your favorite trail. Be taught. Teach. Inspire and be inspired. Who inspires you?

One comment on “Who Inspires You? Women Mentors in the Outdoors

  1. What an awesome article!! I love to see how you reached out to other amazing people to support your journey, Sarah! Thanks so much for these wonderful interviews.

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