I have a theory.

by Emma Follender

My legs shook. I wanted to cry. But I chose this. At 10:30 a.m. on January 1st, 2018, I paused on a 1-foot-wide, snow-covered catwalk and stared down the 11,250 feet that dropped to the base of the volcano. I reminded myself that every inspiring venture I’ve had in my life once terrified me.

I have a theory.

Women recovering from abuse are drawn to outdoor and extreme sports because it’s a way to reclaim strength.

Lately, I’ve noticed posts in private women’s outdoor groups asking for resources and assistance in leaving abusive relationships. A person doesn’t post a cry for help to a group unless they feel safe. Part of the community. As much as these groups are about creating this sense of community, they also act as inspiration for women to venture out alone. The power found in discovering what you’re capable of on your own is unrivaled.

I never felt weak. And I imagine that many of these women feel or felt the same. I learned survival skills young: backpacking at eight, climbing at crags by nine, and I also learned to subsist on foraged crickets that same year.

A three-year relationship with a man who used tactics to undermine and control every display of my strength was never a case of me not knowing the things of which I’m capable.

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The Adirondacks. Photo: Emma Follender

Though I spent my childhood dreaming of leaving the Garden State to live in the mountains, I moved to New York to be with him. Living in a city took away these outdoor outlets I’d grown to know as sources of strength. Never one to commonly wear heels, I started wearing them more in an attempt to generate the same power I found in myself atop a summit. No one I met in New York knew about the mountains I’d climbed. They didn’t necessarily know how to care about such feats; and when people do not comprehend your strength when measured in their own units, they cannot reflect your strength as such. I started to doubt what I had.

I didn’t believe in my own strength again until I started cycling through the city. Cutting off traffic, weaving through cars, blasting past Citi bikers—it was my reclamation. I suddenly felt power I hadn’t felt since backpacking as a kid in the Adirondacks.

We have forty-six mountains in upstate New York whose peaks are above four-thousand feet—the “Forty-Sixers.” To climb all of them is to become a “forty-sixer” yourself. Before age 11, such a thing wasn’t a goal of mine. Though I loved the natural world, I didn’t understand why you would voluntarily put yourself through something so arduous, over and over again.

But one year at summer camp, my oldest sister (well on her way to becoming a forty-sixer) bet that I wouldn’t ever reach the top of even one. In the spirit of sibling rivalry, I found myself atop the peak of Phelps. Then Whiteface, Colden, Big Slide, Giant, and Rocky Peak Ridge. I was hooked. No other sport I’d done before had allowed me, someone so small, to feel so big.

All of my ascents that summer were through thunderstorms. The Adirondack mountains have been worn away by time to reveal bald faces, smooth rock slides, and precarious scrambles. Some peaks can be death traps given a little water. Through one of those storms, I have a distinct memory of a hand reaching out to pull me up a steep rock section that stood as high as I was tall. Enabled by the support of my summer camp group, despite these risks and my own self-doubt, I was rewarded with a view absent of signs of civilization—a shocking sight for the densely populated Northeast—a scene only available because I chose to push myself that far.

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Summer camp. Photo courtesy of Emma Follender.

Atop a New York peak, you stand higher than anything else in the region, allowing you to contemplate the lives of those multiple states away. It’s a kind of clairvoyance. In spirituality and mythology, the figures we consider powerful are those with an all-seeing perspective—so perhaps such a view brings you a little bit closer to acquiring that sense for yourself.

When I think about it now, I’m honestly not sure whether I was addicted to the mountain views or to the fascination these trips inspired from others waiting back at camp. Either way, the moment allowed my power to manifest in a way that was visible to the world around me.

Just two years ago, I returned alone to summit Dix, a reliable favorite, with plans of continuing on to my first ascent of Nippletop (I didn’t name these). Reaching a rock section on the backside of Dix, I knew that if I jumped down, it was possible I wouldn’t be able to climb back up. I realized I had underestimated both the challenge I’d selected for myself and the value of support from others.

It’s difficult to communicate strength. It feels like you shouldn’t have to tell someone you’re strong. We want people to understand us silently. When you start climbing mountains, hanging off rocks, or skiing off cliffs, strength becomes something obvious. If it’s difficult to acknowledge your achievements on your own, the outward nature of these endeavors creates an echo chamber—one that conveys the awe you’ve generated in those who see and support you. That rise of strength seems exponential, and isn’t limited to the sports it derives from. You start to wonder what else you can do with that power. Can you leave a painful relationship? Can you intimidate a past abuser from coming after you, by flaunting the outward strength you’ve cultivated?

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Photo: Emma Follender

For the holidays last year, I decided to not go back east. Maybe it scared me knowing I might not be able to continue growing this sense of self-empowerment in the flat terrain of the Garden State. Beyond choosing to stay in the Northwest, I didn’t have much of a plan. Then I read a post in one of my outdoor groups on Facebook:

“Checked the weather and I’ve decided to do the Crater Lake Rim Trail the 19th-23rd. If anyone would like to join me in this 33-mile winter expedition let me know!”

A week later, I was facing my snow-driving fears, white-knuckling down a post-blizzard road to meet a woman from the internet at an isolated cabin. Still shaking from the trauma of Highway 58, I barely said hello, walked past her to drop my bags and pop open a can of wine.

We bonded instantly. Never before had I met anyone with the same indomitable drive—another woman who would latch onto a goal and not let go.

She told me about the mountains she’d climbed—the 14-hour technical ascents, and a night spent in a bivy once because her campsite location had evaded her on the way down. She spoke with aggressive affection, referred to each mountain as a woman with a story to be heard—Glacier Peak, Three Fingers, Baker (a story she has yet to finish). We drank and the conversation wandered into the realm of past relationships that held us back. Her most recent ex wasn’t interested in joining her for the climbs she lusted after, but also wouldn’t let her go alone. I could relate.

The next morning, details about the man came out on the slow, 30-mile drive to the lake. He was in jail now, on domestic violence charges. I was reminded that my own ex’s actions were never made public—I felt a tinge of jealousy. Her ex’s camping hatchet was still in the trunk: dull, rusted, fragile. She wondered aloud what to do with it, whether to return it. It had become a useless tool, a useless memory to her. As if I could feel its wooden handle splinter into my hands, I told her to drive it into a tree in front of his house. He could have it back.

It doesn’t seem coincidental that two women with the same unrelenting passion for neutralizing challenge have eerily similar stories to tell. Maybe it’s the desire to prove, that while we’ve both survived something painful, it’s not, in the wider scope of things, the most difficult ordeal we’ve endured. Through our own choices, we’ve put ourselves through situations far more taxing, terrifying, and ultimately rewarding.

We met again a week later, on New Year’s Day. Shaking, I followed her footsteps to the end of the catwalk, atop the ice sheet sometimes referred to as Mount Hood. She and her friend apologized for subjecting me to such questionable risk, but I only wondered how much further I could push this feeling.

Only since returning to the mountains have I finally felt strong enough to share details of my own story. When your strength is derived from something greater than the very thing you fear, overpowering that fear doesn’t seem so out of reach. Suddenly, you’re prepared for the unknown that lies ahead.

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“While I would’ve found this woman on the summit of Hood unrecognizable just one year before, I’m now eager to continue this journey and meet the woman that stands atop Denali in 2019.” Photo: Emma Follender
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