Pioneering Women of Colour

Intrepid editors, Faye and Eve, celebrate the impact of women of colour on all kinds of adventure, the outdoor community and Nature writing.

Barbara Hillary - Adventurer

"Wouldn’t it be better to die doing something interesting than to drop dead in an office and the last thing you see is someone you don’t like?"

Barbara Hillary (pictured above) proved, once and for all, that there is no age limit on adventure. As a retired nurse Hillary became interested in the Arctic after a trip to Canada, leading her to fundraise for an expedition to the North Pole in 2007, despite never having skied in her life. At 75, she became one of the oldest people to make it to the North Pole and the first African American woman to do so. The expedition clearly left her undeterred and in 2011, at 79, she carried out an expedition to the South Pole, again making her the first African American woman to do so. Furthermore she completed both these expeditions as a survivor of lung cancer which left her with only 75% of her breathing capacity. Following her outstanding feats, Hillary became an inspirational speaker, lecturing on her expeditions and climate change.

Junko Tabei - Mountaineer

Junko Tabei made history as the first woman to summit Mt. Everest in 1975 and became the first woman to summit all the Seven Summits (the highest peak on every continent) in 1992. Undoubtedly, Tabei paved the way for female mountaineers to prove they could excel in every way their male counterparts could. During her early years as a mountaineer she financed her pursuits by working as an editor for a scientific journal. She climbed prolifically and would look for teammates in the male-dominated mountaineering groups in Japan, where it was assumed she was actually looking for a husband! In defiance of similar domestic expectations of women at the time, Tabei founded the women-only Joshi-Tohan mountaineering club in 1969 with which she led the second ascent of Annapurna III with an all female team.

“I never felt like stopping climbing and I never will” a promise she stuck true to even after her diagnosis with cancer in 2012, until her death in 2016.

Rell Kapolioka'ehukai Sunn - Surfer

Rell Kapolioka'ehukai Sunn was a pioneer in the world of women’s professional surfing. Excelling on longboard, she was a world surfing champion. To the community of Oahu, Hawaii - to whom she was known as the "Queen of Makaha" and "Aunty Rell" - she was so much more than her competitive achievements. She encouraged women and children into surfing, being instrumental in the establishment of the first women’s pro surfing tour, the Women’s Professional Surfing Association and her annual Menehune Surf Contest, which has since given a stage to some of the best competitive surfers of this generation. Living her whole life on Oahu, Sunn was an accomplished free diver, spearfisher, canoer and in 1977 became Hawaii’s first female lifeguard. Her life is documented in a film called ‘The Heart of the Sea, which is the meaning of her middle name, Kapolioka'ehukai, and could not have been more appropriate.

Kareemah Batts - Rock climber

Kareemah Batts is the founder of the Adaptive Climbing Group (ACG) and a leader in the American climbing community. She found healing in the outdoors and climbing after becoming a cancer survivor and a below the knee amputee. The ACG took off quickly given the gap in the industry for meaningful and sustainable adaptive climbing networks rather than one-off events which leave little behind for participants to continue to progress. The ACG now meet up year-round at the climbing gym as well as hosting several events and trips, with multiple members training for the paraclimbing National team. Check out Batts' Instagram @herhopness or follow @adaptclimbgroup to learn more.

Kei Taniguchi - Alpinist

"To me, exploring unknown mountains resembles life itself."

In 2009, Kei Taniguchi became the first woman to win the Piolet d’Or, an award described as the ‘Oscar of mountaineering’ which represents the ‘spirit of alpinism’ for her first ascent of the Southeast Face of Kamet (7756m) in India with her partner. During her lifetime she climbed many significant peaks using alpinist principles, including several first ascents in Asia and America as well as being a mountain biking tour guide.

Taniguchi’s essay Being With the Mountain was published in Alpinist, weeks before her tragic death, and articulates an intimate relationship with nature that many of us adventurers can both relate to and seek to attain.

The Afghan Women’s Cycling Team - Cyclists

The Afghan Women’s Cycling Team have overcome social boundaries and threats of violence to pursue the freedom of cycling. Before the fall of the Taliban in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, just riding a bike could get a woman killed, but many misconceptions and prejudices remain. Nevertheless, in 2012, a group of Afghan women formed a cycling team and began to train with hopes to compete internationally. They were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their promotion of cycling in Afghanistan in 2016. The same year they were announced as some of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the year. The team managed to compete internationally, but has since been knocked back by corruption from the Afghan Cycling Federation and their coach. Nevertheless, the number of women cycling in the country continues to grow, inspired by the first few who fell in love with cycling. A documentary ‘Afghan Cycles’ has been made about the women and can be found online.

Wasfia Nazreen - Adventurer and activist

“I refuse to live by society’s standards or expectations of me.”

Wasfia Nazreen is the first Bangladeshi and Bengali in the world to climb the Seven Summits. As the only woman to hold the simultaneous titles of National Geographic Explorer & Adventurer, she doesn’t just climb for the thrill; she climbs for a cause.

She has won numerous national and global awards for her activism and commitment to empowering women through the field of adventure. Nazreen was named by Outside magazine as one of 40 women in the last 40 years who have advanced and challenged the outdoor world through their leadership, innovation, and athletic feats. She is the founder of Osel Foundation, which empowers marginalised girls from Bangladesh through the outdoors. You can watch the stunning short film on her achievements here.

Sabrina Chapman - Rock climber

Sabrina Chapman has the distinction of being the first woman to complete a 5.13d grade ascent in Ontario and the first woman to ever to land the cover of a Canadian climbing guidebook in 2016. Her cover also made her the first known black woman to be on the cover of a climbing guide book, according to Ontario Rock Climbing.

A Canadian sport climber, she started climbing when she was 26 – a rarity in a sport where most of the top athletes started training as kids. While her family is originally from Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, Chapman and her brothers were raised in the working class town of Hamilton, Ontario. Her story offers inspiration to any passionate adventurers that there is no one path to excelling in the outdoors.

By “climbing hard, pushing limits and taking up space outside” she hopes to set an example for women — especially women of colour who may not see themselves represented in the outdoors. You can read more about Chapman, here.

Amanda Thomson - Nature writer

Amanda Thomson is an artist and writer who teaches at the Glasgow School of Art. She describes her work as focusing on "the idea that places are multi-layered, ever-changing, embodied and active, containing complex ecological, sensorial and physical histories and presences." She is informed by Nature, particularly the Scottish Highlands, and our place within it.

She is one of the contributors for the Willowherb review, a ground-breaking literary journal that featured at the Kendal Mountain Festival this year. The journal, founded by Jessica J Lee, is dedicated to diversity in nature writing, championing writers of colour "who take as their themes place, environment, and nature". Thomson's work, ox-e’en, was published in the first issue of the Willowherb Review. Her first book, A Scots Dictionary of Nature, was published in 2018.

Mira Rai - Ultrarunner

Mira Rai hails from a remote village in Bhojpur. She left school at age 12 to help her parents in daily household chores. She regularly walked up and down the mountainous terrain to collect water and go to market. In 2014, running in the hills of Kathmandu, she met a group who were training on the same trails. After running together for some time, they asked her to meet them the following week for another run. When she arrived for that run, she found it was the start point of the 50 km Himalayan Outdoor Festival race. Despite being unprepared, without carrying proper food or water, or wearing technical running clothes, she won the race, and caught the attention of race organisers with her positive attitude and dedication to the sport.

She began to travel overseas to participate in international ultra-trail running competitions where she quickly became a well-known name. In early 2016 she suffered a knee injury. During her recovery time, she turned her attention to promoting trail running across Nepal, and helping to train other promising young female athletes from rural Nepal to compete on the international stage. To learn more about Mira Rai, you can watch a short film about her here.

"The outdoors, like many industries unfortunately, still has a long way to go for equal access and representation, yet people of colour have done so much to open up outdoor opportunities for all of us today. As editors of Intrepid magazine, we are proud to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and acknowledge the long way we have to go. We are working out how we can go further in the future to practice anti-racism and make all of our readers feel seen, heard and welcomed." - Faye and Eve

If you have any suggestions for how we can do better, would like to write about your outdoor adventures as a woman of colour, or about women who you've been inspired by, we’d love to hear from you.