Pushing through the tree line

Standing in nature we’re all equal. It doesn’t see gender, race, ethnicity or religion. So why is it that hiking trails, rock faces and mountain tops are dominated by men? And why is it always a competition to be the strongest, fastest and boldest? A few years ago, these were just a few of the questions running through Johanna Nygård’s mind.

Johanna would never describe herself as exceptional. She’s not putting up first ascents of Himalayan giants or technical Patagonian spires. Yet she has become an inspiration to many women, women like you and me. But it’s perhaps because she is so normal that she has become such an inspiration, because compared to most women she’s not doing normal things.

A few years ago, Johanna had an epiphany on a mountain top in Engelberg. Surrounded by the beauty of the Swiss Alps she started to question her life. Why had she given up on all those outdoor activities, like skiing and hiking, she loved so much as a child? She made a promise to herself: when she got back home to Stockholm she’d start spending more time in nature.

Back in the Swedish capital, longing for the mountains, reality hit. Who would she go camping, skiing and hiking with? Failing to find friends willing to join her she started searching for companies running group ski trips to the Alps. “I was surprised that is was so hard to find a company that communicated from a female perspective. It was all about gear, how fast you could go, or how high. It was all action-sport orientated. It felt too competitive for me.”

Johanna finally found a less machismo ski holiday. But looking around her on those steep, snowy alpine slopes she saw that almost everyone else was male. Not that she didn’t have a fantastic holiday and make lots of new friends. And, as Johanna explains, it’s not about segregating men and women. It’s more about sharing values, ones that aren’t linked to a list of superlatives.

“I believe in a sisterhood in the mountains, but this doesn’t just mean women. It can include men too. For me it’s not about gender. It’s about sharing values that are more feminine, such as just enjoying nature, being there and present, rather than competing to get the top, focusing on what’s coming next.”

Johanna saw a gap in the market and with a background working with communication she started a company focusing on speaking in feminine tones about the outdoors. She’s since taken courses in ski instructing, mountain safety and climbing. And through her company, Systrar I Bergen, she’s creating a community of people that believe nature isn’t all about conquests.

“When I take people out it’s not about comparisons. It’s about improving yourself and your own abilities. And it’s been amazing to see women taking bigger personal steps and feeling braver and more empowered outdoors.”

Johanna has also experienced a generally positive reaction from men, too. “Many men don’t like the macho side of outdoor sports either. It’s stressful and competitive. There are plenty of men that want to enjoy the experiential side of nature as much as women.”

When Johanna takes people out on trips they don’t talk about home life, about the stresses of work, kids, who’s planning Christmas etc. Instead they focus on the here now; they talk about the day’s activities, how they felt, what they saw. It’s about connections, to each other and nature.

“I believe you can have a relationship to nature as well as with other people. I feel truly connected to the mountains. Nature is my biggest inspiration. I want to continue learning, exploring and developing my own abilities. And meeting like-minded people to share it all with, of course.”

Johanna’s tips for take your first steps above the tree line

Don’t let having no nature-hungry friends stop you. There are companies out there, like Systrar I Bergen, that offer trips tailored to women or have a more feminine take on adventures in nature. Another bonus of going with a guide or company is that you’ll get to borrow kit. This can be reassuring and financially beneficial when starting out. Plus, you get to test different gear before investing in your own.

Wave goodbye to the “go big or go home mentality”. If you’re starting on your own, don’t start with the biggest mountain you can find. Start small and grow your own knowledge and experience. Be humble and respectful of nature and your own abilities.

Prepare yourself physically. You’ll enjoy yourself so much more if you’re in good shape. Don’t be fooled; walking 20km on the flat is nothing like walking 5km up a mountain. Find some hills to train on and if you really want to get a head for heights, join your local climbing gym.

Images: Johanna Nygård & Three Piece Media Production


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