REI Outessa is changing not only the perception of what it means to be female in the outdoors, but it is also elevating women to new heights in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
The three-day REI Outessa retreat has become a formidable place for women to challenge themselves, have breakthroughs and find support in each other. Outessa is an open invitation for women - regardless of background, experience, culture, age or size - to come together, be empowered and continue their journey of a life outside.
In this interview, Hope Oldham, senior instructor of Outdoor Programs in the Atlanta market, explains why Outessa matters and why it's important for women to get outside.
What is Outessa?
Outessa is a haven for women to come together to push themselves and each other in an encouraging environment. I've been a guide at three Outessa Retreats, and what always surprises me is women think they're coming for themselves, but they also come and make a bond they didn't think would happen. They find a community of women who challenge them and love them through the challenges, whether it's a physical or an emotional one. It's an incredible three days with no judgment. The vibe is unexplainable; you have to experience it. It's a place to try new things and have fun. I don't want what women learn at Outessa to stay at Outessa. It needs to spread to everywhere they go.
What's a memorable story from Outessa?
There are many, but there's one that represents why Outessa should exist. We were on a group hike, and I stayed back with Alessandra, a woman who was breathing heavily. I walked with her and told her we didn't need to go any faster. She opened up and shared it was her first hike ever and that she felt too fat to be at Outessa and didn't belong in the outdoors. I told her nature is the world's largest leveling field, and it doesn't matter. We caught up to the group, and I shared at age 45 it was Alessandra's first hike and to give her a round of applause. I also told the group that at a previous Outessa, I shared I didn't believe I was skilled enough or worthy to be a guide. Alessandra started crying and said she had never heard any woman say they didn't feel good enough and didn't know other women had these thoughts of insecurity. By the end of the four-mile hike, she was hiking incredibly fast. I don't think Alessandra was out of breath earlier. I think it was more she was holding herself back mentally. She had an amazing breakthrough on the trail that day. She went rock climbing the next day, another first.
When did you know you wanted to be an outdoors leader?
When I first started in the industry, I didn't know people slept outside or went whitewater rafting. (I'm from a small town. We just got a Krispy Kreme last year!) My shift in confidence that I could be a guide came when I attended a National Outdoor Leadership School program. During the rafting segment, we came up on a Class IV rapids. I thought I could get through it but also thought there's a good chance I'd flip over. There was a red flag in my head, but I didn't want to appear not cool. The instructor gave us an out if we wanted to walk our boat. No one wanted to be the one to say, "I don't want to go through the rapids." I was the first one to say I wasn't comfortable and I'm walking my boat. Within a few seconds, two other people followed me. As painful as it was to walk my boat, I was that person for them - the older one who stepped down and made the right decision. That was when I knew I wanted to be an outdoors leader. It was a defining moment I'll never forget.
What is your favorite outdoors memory?
It's more of "Type 2 Fun." Not fun at the time, but fun to talk about later when you tell yourself it was a great experience. My most memorable trip was in college during a three-day leadership training in the North Georgia Mountains. It was my first experience to learn the nitty-gritty of the outdoors. On the last day, a blizzard rolled in and the temperature dropped to 20 degrees. It was so cold, my contacts were frozen in the case. I sat crying eating frozen peanut butter and tortillas. It snowed more, and we lost the trail, so we were stuck in our van for several hours waiting for search and rescue. It wasn't the trip our leaders were expecting, but we talked about what we learned. I knew I was doing something bigger than I'd ever done before. I told myself if they can do it, I can do it, and if I can do this, who knows what else I can do in the outdoors or what's possible? This is why Outessa is so important. It builds confidence and makes women believe in themselves.
Who inspires you?
The women who I've met working at REI. These women are so hardworking and genuine. They push me to do things. I used to hate mountain biking, and now I own a bike, shoes and helmet, and go biking weekly. The guides are incredible and inspire me daily. They have such passion and enthusiasm for the outdoors; they make me want to work harder.
What accomplishment do you consider the most significant?
Being selected as an Outessa guide is a highlight of my life. I love being a part of women having breakthroughs, as Alessandra did on the trail that day, and hearing stories of empowerment from other women. I like the idea of making a difference in the world and that I can do it in such a unique way.
How did you end up at REI?
Three years ago, my mom told me about a position in the Atlanta market for a senior instructor within Outdoor School. My immediate reaction was, "I'm not qualified." While I didn't apply for that position, I did apply for an instructor position. Within a year, I was promoted to senior instructor, which is where I've been ever since and loving every minute of it. It's my dream job.
What's your #OptOutside adventure?
I'm doing one of them at the end of September! I'm going to Iceland to see the Northern Lights and hang out with puffins. I also want to climb all the cool places in the United States. I've been to Colorado, California and Wyoming, but there are so many more amazing climbing spots. You'd probably be surprised to learn I'm terrified of heights.
How has time outdoors inspired you or helped overcome a challenge?