Rivalry and Role Models: Stories from WOLC23
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Rivalry and Role Models: Stories from WOLC23

A guest blog from photographer and storyteller, Sarah Hewitt

Following on from her previous blog, Sarah explores the dynamics within the Women's Outdoor Leadership Course, learning more about the experiences of the participants and the influential role models who have shaped their careers.

As well as being supportive to one another, the WOLC also gives plenty of opportunities for participants to learn from each other, which is a unique experience as quite often they’ve found themselves the only woman - and most experienced person - in the room.

Being surrounded by women with a range of qualifications has created a great learning environment, with tidbits of information shared on a daily basis, like what things everyone takes with them when they go out on the hill, as well as the opportunity to learn more technical things from one another.

I was curious to know if there was ever any sense of competition amongst the group, especially as the course draws to a close and everyone is applying for vacant positions in the Trust. Some expressed concerns they’d had before the course that there would be difficult dynamics because sometimes, in an industry where there aren’t as many women working, it can feel like you have to work very hard for your place. “When you're the only woman, you're threatened by other women. Because there's only space for one or two”, and that “the other women that are there are potentially your competition”.

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But possibly because everyone has slightly different goals and directions, the group seemed nothing but supportive of each other, wanting everyone to get the jobs they wanted, wishing there were multiple spaces in the same locations so they could move on together, and more worried that someone’s going to miss out rather than beat them to it.

The talk turned to role models. I wanted to know if there were any specific women who had inspired them into making a career in the outdoors. While Muireann cited Tracey Edwards, the skipper of the first all-female crew in the Volvo Ocean Race, and Lucy said the climber Hazel Findlay, who she felt rarely gets any of the credit the male climbers get despite doing equally hard things, much of the group discussed the various instructors and guides they’d encountered during their training who had left lasting impressions. Lærke said:

the ones that really change me and inspire me are the ones I meet along the way.

"So, people and mentors within the industry, when I've gone on a course, when I work with someone, you pick up those little things. I'm like, wow, when it comes to doing this one thing, I want to do what you do. And then when I walk into a room, I want to have the confidence that you have. And when I rig an abseil, I want to do it your way…I think that's the entire hope of this, is that down the line, you can be that person for someone else.”

You might think that spending ten weeks working outdoors with young people in all kinds of weather would mean that the group were put off going outdoors on their days off, but far from it. The resounding answer when I asked what they liked to do for fun was “go to the mountains!” And as Lærke put it, “we do a lot of the same stuff that we do with the young people, just more extreme.” Some did stress the importance of balance though, of finding time for crafts and reading and not only wearing outdoors clothes, to round out personalities and offer some time to “turn off the danger”, meaning your hobbies can stay fun and not have the work element creep in.

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Despite some groans from the group, I asked a series of “favourite” questions. Starting with their favourite activity to lead, Lucy and Gemma both preferred any journeying activity, especially with inner-city kids, as the impact is profound and they’re a lot of fun to work with. Muireann and Lærke were both water fans, with Muireann smiling as she described her love of running surf sessions for 8-year-olds in Ireland. Laerke said that her coasteering was the right mix where “you can pack so much adventure, but also mindfulness and being present and moving with the environment and into quite small space”, as well as it being an easy activity to adapt to different abilities and capacities. Verity took a different tack, explaining that for her,

“the best part about a week or a session with young people is getting to know the young people and the conversations with them rather than activity.”

It was nearing dinner time, and the interview was drawing to a close, but we had time for a few last questions. I asked for a memorable moment from this year’s WOLC, one that only they would know. I was regaled with a description of when they went to climb the Gutter on Ben Nevis, but couldn’t find the start of the climb. Despite walking past the path right at the beginning, and despite all their experience in navigation, they ended up beating their way through the heather to the top. Eventually realising someone had put in the wrong GPS coordinates, they finally did the climb, topping out just as it started to hail, but were rewarded with a rainbow and a sprint back to the cars. As they said, “if you don't get lost on the way to a crag, you're not doing climbing right.” The group, finding this story about a group of outdoor instructors getting lost hilarious, have detailed it all on the Instagram page they created for the group, WOLCERS23. And with that, it was time for dinner, and the group left the room chuckling about that day and many more since.

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Final thoughts

As I made my way back to Fort William, I thought a lot about the women I’d spent time with that day. It was clear that they were passionate about working in the outdoors, willingly practising and honing their skills on icy rivers and lochs in freezing December temperatures. I was expecting that, from my experience working with other Outward Bound instructors at various centres. What I was impressed about was the careful consideration and engagement the group showed towards their own learning and professional development.

Not just what sort of role they wanted, but about what kind of instructor they wanted to be. Outward Bound have been advocating for more women working in a male-dominated environment for some time. But to me, facilitating a space that enables women to learn from each other in a non-competitive environment, where they can make lifelong friendships and professional connections, and take time to reflect on where they want to go is not only to going to produce more skilled female outdoor leaders, but ones who are able to inspire countless future generations of women.

Apply to join the next Women's Outdoor Instructor Development Programme (previously known as WOLC) and help shape the future of female leadership at Outward Bound. Applications are now open!

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