Inspiring Girls Expeditions: Becoming a Mentor in the Mountains

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Inspiring Girls Expeditions brings together science, art and wilderness through a tuition-free education program for high school girls.

Editor’s note on October 11, 2018: In continuation of the co-op’s Force of Nature effort to advance gender equity in the outdoors, this year, REI is investing $560,000 in 25 nonprofits dedicated to connecting women to the outdoors. Inspiring Girls Expeditions received a $10,000 grant from the 2018 Force of Nature Fund.

Perched on a high promontory deep in the North Cascades, I looked in awe at the immense snowy face above me of Mount Baker, a 10,781-foot dormant volcano. The vibrant colors of the sunset painted on wispy clouds in the valley below. Beside me my teammates rested on the rocky ground of the high camp that would be our home for the next week. I saw my thoughts reflected in their faces: excitement, nervousness, wonder, joy—and the question of what have we gotten ourselves into?

It was 2010. We were a group of nine young women, many of whom had never hiked before, let alone traveled up a snowfield on one of Washington’s five volcanoes—and we were completely out of our element. Although I had backpacked before and loved to hike, I had never traveled much distance on snow and had zero mountaineering experience. For some of my teammates, this was the first time they had ever stepped on snow or seen a volcano. After a long day of hiking, we were relieved to arrive at camp. The only reason we all made it was thanks to the efforts of volunteers and our three instructors: a glaciologist, a mountaineering guide and a botanist/artist, all of whom were unlike any teachers I had had before. That day, each step was an opportunity to learn, and with each passing hour I had more and more questions as the instructors helped me observe the landscape through their eyes.

The fist hike of the program takes the group through a high alpine meadow and a steep trail perfect for testing new gear. (Photo Credit: Claire Giordano)

Girls on Ice Cascades, the program I was a participant in, is a wilderness, science, field art and leadership program for high school girls. The tuition-free experience offers a unique opportunity to learn, lead and gain self-confidence in physical, intellectual and social abilities.  Now in its fifteenth year, Girls on Ice Cascades has grown into Inspiring Girls Expeditions, which, in addition to Washington, hosts Girls on Ice programs in Alaska, Switzerland, Canada and soon, a new Girls on Rock program in Colorado.

The expansion means more participants will get to explore different environments and new fields of science. The first year of the program was 1999, when two instructors and five young women wandered into the Cascades to learn about glaciology. In 2018, Inspiring Girls Expeditions will allow 45 young women to venture into the wilderness to explore not only glaciology but also geology and ecology. One of the new Inspiring Girls programs is Girls on Rock, which is the recipient of a $25,000 grant from REI’s 2017 Force of Nature Fund. Through the $500,000 fund, REI is supporting more than two-dozen organizations that create opportunities for women and girls in the outdoors.

climbers approach crater

After starting to climb in the dark and watching sunrise turn the glaciers shades of pink, the group was nearly at the summit crater of Mount Baker. (Photo Credit: Claire Giordano)

During the 12-day Girls on Ice program, we lived on the flanks of Mount Baker and worked together to explore the terrain and ourselves. Each day brought new challenges: walking the edges of a crevasse with guest scientists, trying to capture the textures of white snow in a sketch using only a black pen, learning how to cook in the wilderness, and trying to find clues to answer our questions about the the landscape. We were empowered to lead and supported to make mistakes. It was eye-opening to experience the intersection of art and scientific process in a real-world setting, where mundane terms and processes became important and fascinating tools to learn. This is one of the greatest lessons I carry from Girls on Ice: The world around us is full of stories, information and history that can be found through careful observation, research and insatiable curiosity.

Each evening we would sit in our circle at camp and reflect on the day, connecting new ideas and hypotheses with what we observed and were taught. I remember falling asleep each night with my journal usually still in my hand. In those evening reflections, each of us got to share what we learned, in terms of both science and our personal growth. The group was defined by a diversity of perspectives and experiences. From creating hypotheses on melting patterns based on observations of shadows in big cities to hearing how leading her team for a day helped one girl overcome her fears, each of us brought something beautiful to the group. In addition, our unique interests drove scientific research projects which were the culmination of our mountain explorations. We designed and implemented our collaborative projects in the field with the help of an instructor, and investigated things such as snow-melt patterns, plant succession in the glacier terminus and crevasses. At the end of the program, we presented our projects to a group of people gathered at the North Cascades Institute.

Girls On Ice the team navigates terrain

After five days on the mountain, the girls now moved with confidence on snow and rock as they explored the glacier’s moraines. (Photo Credit: Claire Giordano)

Just as I explored the glacial geology and mountain terrain of Mount Baker, Girls on Rock will send young women to Colorado to climb and explore the ecology and geology of the Rockies. Girls on Rock Program Co-Founder Evelyn Cheng said that she knew that “the expedition's success would ultimately hinge on finding someone to help us with the costs of the program, including transportation, food, equipment, instructor training and lodging.” She continued, “Thanks to REI, next summer we will have the resources to fly nine young women out to Aspen, Colorado, where they will spend 12 days exploring art  and science together, practicing technical rock climbing skills, and learning how to thrive in the backcountry. There aren't really words to do justice to the gratitude that we feel.”

Girls on Ice had—and still has—a tremendous impact on my life. It gave me a sense of self-confidence, helped me push my boundaries and taught me to seek out help when needed. It deepened my connection to the world around me by showing me the intersections of science and art. It made climate change personal, as I watched a glacier I had studied shrink year after year. It showed me the power of art to foster connections between people and place. And most of all, it gave me three mentors who challenge me to follow my passion for connecting people with nature and creating art that communicates science by fostering emotional connections to a place.

It gave me a sense of self-confidence, helped me push my boundaries and taught me to seek out help when needed.

Because of Girls on Ice’s impact, I return as a volunteer for the program each summer. Some years it’s only for a day, other years for a week. This summer, I had the privilege of being the visiting artist for the team. Walking onto the mountain and leading the girls in their first art activity, I realized I had come full circle. As a participant, the instructors gave me the confidence to call myself an artist and to begin sharing my art publicly. The sketches I made when on the program opened my eyes to the potential of art to complement science and inspire people. To now be the one teaching art filled me with joy and gratitude, as I am certain I never would have gained the confidence to share my art, let alone teach it, without participating in Girls on Ice.

Claire's painting close up

Claire's painting of the peaks she saw from camp. She carries a small set of watercolors on each trip. (Photo Credit: Claire Giordano)

Over the course of two days this summer, I walked the same paths I did as a participant and observed the changes in the glaciers, and in myself. We explored how art and science can work together to communicate complicated scientific concepts or vast changes in a landscape. We huddled under tarps while sketching glacial ice in a downpour, laughed at our ridiculous sketches and marveled at the patterns rain made in watercolor. Together, we created a space where everyone was an artist, regardless of whether they had ever touched a paintbrush. As a team we opened our eyes to the patterns, colors and information ingrained in the sinuous runnels of snow and jagged edges of rock beneath our feet.

Seven years later, I have become one of the mentors in the mountains.

This is the gift that REI’s grant gives: the gift of lifelong relationships, opportunities to learn about ourselves and science in a challenging setting, and to experience things we might not have otherwise. Inspiring Girls Expeditions empowered me to follow the winding path of my passions with the confidence of a mountaineer, the creativity of a field artist and the curiosity of a scientist. I can’t wait to go back next summer and see how the program inspires the next generation of young women.

If you’d like to learn more about Inspiring Girls Expeditions, get involved or make a donation, click here

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