Last summer, Sandy Sklar backpacked two weeks in the Alaskan wilderness with two other women, facing frigid, punishing stream crossings, steep mountain traverses, isolation, fear and exhaustion.

The 5'3" Sklar does not consider herself athletic, and until three years ago had done nothing more outdoorsy than go to a church camp in Colorado.

The Alaskan trek was a confirmation of newly developed skills and endurance: "I kept going in spite of fear and fatigue because I could remember past experiences of looking back and saying 'I did it. That wasn't so bad.' It gives you a real feeling of being alive," Sklar says with pleasure. And just a touch of wonder.

Her personal journey from indoors to intrepid backpacker is paralleled by the growth of Washington Women Outdoors (WWO), the organization she founded and for which she remains the touchstone.

Sklar took her first, hesitant steps into the world controlled by nature during a family vacation in Switzerland in 1977. She took a hike into the mountains.

"I enjoyed it so much I wanted to do it again," she recalls. "I'd seen people of all ages taking overnight hikes, but it took me weeks to work up the courage to sign up."

Back home, she looked for a group in which she could learn the skills that would give her more freedom and confidence. But most of the groups she found were focused on the young and those already skilled.

Headed for the downside of 30, Sklar wanted an atmosphere that did not require her to compete with those younger, one where she would not be intimidated by already accomplished and naturally gifted athletes, where it was okay to be scared or awkward or both. So she created her own.

She didn't set out to limit it to women, but she got 600 calls from a clinic in cross-country skiing she had set up for 12.

Many of the calls were from women whose experiences and frustrations were similar to hers, and she began to see a need to be filled.

Women, especially those over 35, face special problems in taking up an outdoor sport -- not problems of physical strength, generally, for many sports require training and practice rather than muscle, but largly social problems that reflect the conflict within women over their roles. Upbringing, custom and experience say that the out-of-doors is not "womanly."

In a soft voice that reveals her Southern heritage, Sklar says: "We don't think of ourselves as risk-takers, so being mechanical, or as able to use our bodies to meet a physical challenge."

Sklar set up WWO so as to overcome the barriers, both external and internal. Most classes are for beginners regardless of age, and they are kept small so each woman can take part fully. The instructors of WWO also are women, though that was not so in the beginning.

"I think it is very important for women to see other women who are competent at waxing skis or building a fire," she explains. "Women see mothers and think 'That's me,' or they see a housewife and think 'That's me.' I want them also to see an accomplished woman rock-climber and think, 'That's me.'"

There are other reasons, too: "If the instructor is a guy, it's hard not to worry whether or not you look graceful when you're falling," she adds with a smile.

Most important to Sklar, though, is that an all-women group fosters the self-reliance needed in the out-of-doors. Libby Miller agrees. Miller, 42, recently took a WWO backpacking clinic. She recalls, "Before I got to the meeting place, I don't know who I thought was going to carry that pack, but I sure never thought it would be me."

Carry it she did, though. She also learned to set up her own tent. "The instructor, Robin (Wightman ), was really good about showing me how, but not doing it for me.

"If I had gone on a coed trip, I would have tended to hang back and let the men do it for me. And, if I was trying to gain some confidence in my ability to take care of myself, that would not have been good for me."

Miller also would probably agree with Sklar's comment that "For women, learning we can handle physical challenges tells us we can do other things."

At the end of her backpacking trip, Miller accepted a chance to try climbing to the top of a mountain. She got halfway up and stopped.

As she describes it, "I thought I coundn't go on, but Sandy and Robin kept telling me I could, just to take one step at a time." She reached the top and on the way home joyously told Sklar, "I don't care what happens at the office tomorrow, I can handle it: Today I climbed a mountain."

Women join WWO for a variety of reasons. Some want to try something and cannot get their boyfriends, or husbands or children to join in; some are so busy with their careers that they haven't the time to make arrangements for trips and equipment. Others feel too old for most groups; many find in WWO a sense of community.

Statistics recently compiled for a grant application show that WWO members are well educated -- 70 per cent are college-educated. There is a roughly even mix of those who are single, married, or divorced or separated. Ages span adulthood -- more than 65 per cent are over 30, with 18 per cent being over 50. Some 77 per cent don't belong to any other outdoor group and 55 per cent say they joined because it was a women's group.

Though WWO was started especially for those who take up the outdoors as adults and with some trepidation, a growing segment of the members are younger, with some outdoor experience and looking for more.

Margi Montgomery is one. She had been an outdoor-club sponsor at the high school where she taught before coming to the area and had led extended group bicycle tours through the U.S. and Europe.

"I saw the WWO notices in the paper and was impressed with the variety of activities they offered. One day I called up Sandy and offered to help." Now she is one of two women who conduct the bicycle clinics and is plnning to try cross-country skiing with WWO come winter. She's also talking about setting up a three-week WWO bike trip through Europe next year.

The fall schedule for WWO includes canoeing, backpacking, rock-climbing, sailing and hiking. In December, cross-country ski season begins. Equipment, instruction, food and lodging, if needed, are included in the fee. Transportation is arranged. Nonmembers pay a slightly higher fee for activities.

The variety of activities WWO now offers seems a long way from that first ski clinic, just as Alaska seems a long journey from Switzerland; but it's only a step on the journey Sklar can envision:

"We've been around long enough now that we are beginning to offer some advanced trips and training. As we better understand the particular needs and desires of women in Washington, we can expand in the direction to fill them."