Heather Balogh Rochfort, Special to The Washington Post
It was August 2017, and Sonya Pevzner stood on a small ledge, halfway up Washington's imposing Mount Shuksan. With eight hours of climbing in the rearview mirror, only a single belay pitch stood between her and solid ground. Nervous jitters coursed through her body, leftovers from the stressful rappelling. But she felt something else, too: elation.
She glanced around the ledge and saw a handful of women - no men - packed together to accommodate each other in the cramped space. They came from different backgrounds and different parts of the country, and each had her own reason for being perched thousands of feet up the face of a mountain. But none of that mattered. They were in this together.
For Pevzner, 27, a blogger and multimedia storyteller, an all-female course was the perfect way to experience mountaineering for the first time. She didn't seek out an adventure designed for women only; she stumbled upon it while chatting with a friend. But, once she thought about it, she realized it was the safest space for her to learn a new skill set.
"Single-identity spaces are incredibly powerful for finding kinship," Pevzner says. They free people "from the power dynamics" that she thinks exist in mixed groups.
She isn't alone. According to Megan Behrbaum, manager of strategic communications at REI, 59 percent of travelers on REI excursions in 2018 were women. Moreover, registrations for REI's women-specific travel adventures - which launched two years ago - more than doubled from 2018 to 2019. Women are experiencing the world like never before - and in the company of other women.
Becky Marcelliano, outdoor marketing manager for adventure brand Salomon, says a special kind of magic happens in female-only groups.
"Conversations tend to be more open and vulnerable, empowerment creates a landscape of growth and friendship, and emotional intelligence tends to lead the space. In co-ed spaces, this strength tends to be shadowed," she says.
Salomon recently hosted a series of all-female trips in Europe to celebrate the launch of its new women's line. But Marcelliano is quick to say that this is not just about the gear; it is a company-wide movement that isn't going away.
"We want to encourage women to go their own way; find their own path; discover balance in being sweaty, brave, beautiful, loud, funny or courageous," she says.
Elinor Fish is the founder of Run Wild Retreats, a company dedicated to all-female running experiences with itineraries in Iceland, Spain, Ireland, Italy and the United States. She, too, has noticed an increase in business but notes that the intersection of adventure and wellness travel seems to be the sweet spot.
The Wellness Tourism Association defines wellness travel as travel that allows people to "maintain, enhance or kick-start a healthy lifestyle." Such trips focus on healthy food, fitness and nature. In short, these trips aren't for women who want to sit on the beach for a week.
Fish believes women need these trips to feel supported in their everyday lives.
"Women come away with a greater understanding of their own power, and that carries over into how they conduct themselves" when they return, she says. "When women feel strong and powerful in their personal lives, they are able to show up and contribute more to the broader society."
Anastasia Allison founded Kulapalooza for this reason. The inaugural women-only weekend retreat is set to take place in Washington's North Cascades in October, with workshops focusing on outdoor skills, adventure and art.
"I personally spent my life trying to prove myself to people all the time and never realized that self-fulfillment doesn't come from anywhere externally," Allison says. "If we can cultivate an environment where women can reconnect with themselves, I believe they will discover self-love that empowers them in the real world, whether that is in their career, with their friends, or at home with their partners and children."
Fish says that the women she hosts are not traveling because they have surplus free time. In fact, it's just the opposite: women are busier than ever, juggling relationships, children and careers.
"My clients are very successful in their careers but they are realizing that they need to focus on their wellness, too," Fish says. "They know stress is an epidemic, so they are seeking out these travel experiences with other women in the hopes of returning home refreshed and restored."
As for Pevzner: She says she was spiraling toward suicide-level depression when she climbed Mount Shuksan, largely because of resurfacing memories and emotions regarding the death of her father when she was a child. She didn't expect her traveling adventure to assuage those feelings, but it helped.
"The one thing we had in common was our shared experiences as women and how that affects our perspectives," Pevzner recounts. "We all walked away from Shuksan with our own ideas of how we relate to the world at large, and that is one thing we will always have in common. Like, even if there is nothing else, we always have that. And that is powerful."
Feature Image: Participants in REI's Machu Picchu Women's Lares Lodge Trek in Peru. Image: REI