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State of Play
Twenty years ago, mothers faced sharper criticism than their male peers for taking risks in the outdoors. How far have extreme sports come from that double standard? By Kasey Cordell
On August 13, 1995, just three months after becoming the first woman and the second person to climb Everest alone, unsupported, and without supplemental oxygen, British climbing phenom Alison Hargreaves died while descending from the summit of Pakistan’s K2. The mountaineering world lost one of its brightest stars; Kate and Tom Hargreaves, just four and six, lost their mother.
After the shock of Hargreaves’ death subsided, the press latched on to the motherhood storyline. In numerous articles, Hargreaves was criticized for pursuing a high-risk passion while having two small children at home. Equal criticism, though, was not leveled at fathers on the same mountains, including two British men who died just days before Hargreaves on a nearby peak.
Seventeen years later, in May 2012, Telluride ski mountaineer Hilaree O’Neill’s children were nearly the same ages as Hargreaves’ when O’Neill stood atop Everest and then, less than 24 hours later, on top of neighboring 27,940-foot Lhotse, becoming perhaps the first woman to conquer both peaks in one day. Happily, O’Neill made it home safely, but if she had not, her family likely would have been spared any posthumous criticism. O’Neill says she sees little evidence of the double standard that existed for mothers in Hargreaves’ era today. “There’s not a lot of discrimination now,” she says. “I think we’re kind of past that.”
She’s not alone in the observation. Fellow marquee Colorado athletes also note such blatant injustice has largely dissolved from extreme sports—among them 27-year-old Boulder native and six-time national climbing champion Emily Harrington and Mt. Crested Butte’s former Olympic ski racer turned free skier, 42-year-old Wendy Fisher. But why?
The simplest explanation is more women are participating in sports—extreme and otherwise. As the number of female athletes has increased, so has society’s acceptance of what is “normal” behavior for women—and mothers. When Hargreaves was climbing, she was an almost singular example of a woman achieving extraordinary success in the mountains, making her the subject of fierce public celebration (and scrutiny). Thus, as British research fellow Paul Gilchrist noted in the May 2007 issue of Media, Culture & Society, Hargreaves became the focal point for a discussion of morphing values. Her accident occurred in the 1990s, a time—especially in conservative Britain—when society’s acceptance of mothers returning to work full time was just taking root on a larger scale, never mind mothers working in dangerous fields.
Such thinking might seem foreign to a generation of American women raised in the warm embrace of Title IX—and especially here in Colorado, which in many ways has led the way with respect to women’s rights: We gave women the right to vote in 1893, and in 1972, we added the Equality of the Sexes amendment to our constitution, something the nation has yet to do.
Plus, anecdotally, Colorado has one of the nation’s largest populations of outdoor athletes, many at the top of their fields. “We’re such a tight-knit group. Everyone’s in it to see the sport progress,” Fisher says of the free-skiing community. “When you show you’re talented, responsible, and hardworking, no one judges you for being a female.”
Still, female extreme athletes are not immune to the gender-equality issues prevalent in other industries: O’Neill points to pay equity and Fisher to the eternal to-work-or-not-to-work question for moms. “Women have come a long way in every realm, but there’s obviously still going to be hurdles for us to deal with,” says Harrington. “Maybe with adventure sports it’s different because we don’t allow the same cultural pressure to influence us as much. We’ve already rejected a lot of what society tells us is the proper way to exist in this world.”
5280.com Exclusive: Read our Q&A with Hilaree O'Neill.