Mount Washington, the highest peak in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, is famous for epically awful weather that includes a 1934 record-setting 231-mph wind gust. In winter, the mercury routinely plunges past 20 below, and punishing storms move in quickly.
Seems like a good place to avoid. But on a Friday afternoon in February, I arrived at the Joe Dodge Lodge, in the shadow of the snow-covered 6,289-foot peak, to attend a Women’s Winter Adventure Weekend organized by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC). The next day, we would ride a four-track all-wheel-drive vehicle up the steep and winding Mount Washington Auto Road, then snowshoe down. To tell the truth, I was kinda terrified — of the cold, of snowshoeing (which I had never done) and, mostly, at age 48, of spending the weekend with 13 strangers, including two who would be my roommates.
Kim, 54, another Women’s Weekend participant, didn’t seem daunted at all. Like other women in our group, Kim said she likes woman-only organized outings because they are safe, supportive and “you’re not always trying to compete with men.” She was planning to go on at least two other all-female adventures: a Yukon trip by canoe and bike, with WomanTours, and a Minnesota hiking and camping trip with Adventures in Good Company.
A year earlier, Kim, owner of an auto body shop in Cranston, R.I., had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. On the advice of her doctor, she began lifting weights, then going on weekend hikes with an AMC group in Rhode Island. When her local trails disappeared under snow, she decided to learn how to snowshoe with other women before heading out with her mixed-gender hiking group. “So I bought all the gear and I signed up for this weekend,” she said, her voice as matter-of-fact as a shrug.
Although woman-only outdoor travel is not new, it has taken off in recent years, said Marian Marbury, founder and guide of Baltimore-based Adventures in Good Company, which promises “adventure travel for women who want an active outdoor vacation.” In 1999, the company’s first year, about 100 women signed up for 20 outdoor adventures, she said. This year, more than 600 women have planned to test their mettle in 54 domestic and international offerings, including a Grand Canyon backpacking excursion and a safari and trip up Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro.
Most of her customers are in their 40s and older, she said, and about 75 percent sign up solo. “I think there’s a camaraderie, that’s probably the biggest thing,” she said. “There’s a lot of laughter and sharing.”
Her customers choose all-female travel, she said, because “in that sort of supportive atmosphere, you’re much more likely to try new things and much less worried about looking stupid. There’s a lot less fear of being the slowest or the least experienced.”
Sarah Delucia, adventure program supervisor for the Appalachian Mountain Club, said the nonprofit organization, founded in 1876, began regularly offering woman-only winter adventures in 2012, and they typically sell out. In 2015, more than a dozen such outings are being offered, including a rock-climbing day in May and a fly-fishing weekend in June.
For our snowshoeing trip, our group — 14 participants plus four female guides — lucked into an absolutely gorgeous, sunny day, all blue sky and white snow, with hardly any wind. The temperature at tree line was a balmy 14. Previous snowshoers had packed down the trail, making our travel relatively easy.
One of our guides, Nicky, stopped often to point out tracks of snowshoe hares, trees with bark scraped clean by moose, and even, to her delight, scat from a marten. We learned how to trek up steep inclines by digging the teeth of our snowshoes into the trail, and we heeded her reminders to shed layers if we were in danger of sweating.
But the first major trip downhill proved more daunting. One by one, we stumbled and slipped down the trail — learning a new verb, glissading, which basically means “butt-sliding.” But the supportive spirit was evident: Nobody was in a hurry, and everybody cheered as we all made it to the base of the hill, some more gracefully than others.
Rustic and cozy, with simply furnished bedrooms, wood-paneled walls and posters about safe hiking in the stalls of the shared bathrooms, the Joe Dodge Lodge is a scenic three-hour drive from the Manchester Airport, through mountain notches and small towns. The $297 price tag for the Women’s Winter Weekend included two nights at the lodge, snowshoe and cross-country ski instruction, equipment rental, guided touring along the trails, a 90-minute yoga session, hearty buffet-style meals and a SnowCoach ride past the tree line on the Mount Washington Auto Road.
I could have paid more for a private room, but instead I had roommates: Phyllis, 66, and Linda, 63, Connecticut friends who shared their dark chocolate and boxed red wine and happily told me about their marriages and (even more gleefully) described their divorces. “It’s a pajama party!” Phyllis announced as we perched on our bunk beds, talking about careers and television and crossword puzzles. Linda is single, a retired engineer. Phyllis, a retired schoolteacher, is married to a man who likes outdoor adventures but not organized outings. “I was just so excited when I saw it was a woman’s thing,” Phyllis said. “I knew Linda would go.”
“I wouldn’t have come if it were mixed,” Linda agreed.
After breakfast on the final day, I struck up a conversation with Sandra, 73, a tiny woman with gray hair and piercing blue eyes. In the 1990s, she was executive director of the group PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Now she’s a council member for her New Hampshire town of Richmond, population 1,077.
For her, the snowshoeing weekend was just a warm-up for a more ambitious May trip — an AMC-organized trek through the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Sandra, with children and grandchildren from a long-ago marriage, chose a woman-only adventure, she said, because “the camaraderie is just different. I’m not opposed to men, but their presence just changes the dynamic.”
Clearly, she embraces adventure, but that was not always the case. “My sister and I were taught that women, at least proper women, didn’t sweat,” she said. “I didn’t break a sweat until age 40.”
Becoming an Outdoors-Woman (BOW)
A nonprofit organization founded in Wisconsin in 1991 that has chapters in nearly every state, including Maryland (dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/Education/bow/index.asp) and Virginia (dgif.virginia.gov/events/descriptions.pdf). Offers a wide variety of outdoor travel and instruction, locally and internationally.
Adventures in Good Company
“Adventure travel for women of all ages,” with destinations including Africa, Europe and U.S. national parks. Sign up early — the trips fill up fast.
Appalachian Mountain Club
With chapters from Maine to the District, AMC offers outdoor activities for men, women and children of all ages and abilities. Click on the “Get Outdoors” tab, the “Activities Search” page and then type “women” in the keyword box to see women-only outings.
Founded in 1995, this Rochester, N.Y., woman-only bike-touring company offers supported inn-to-inn national and international tours for all levels.
Washington Women Outdoors
A volunteer-run nonprofit group that hosts bike rides, hikes and other activities in the region.
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Karen Nitkin, a writer for Johns Hopkins Medicine and amateur snowshoer, lives in Howard County.