When Fay Fuller climbed Mount Rainier in 1887, one fellow mountaineer privately doubted she’d done it, until he summited later that year and found some of her hairpins near a steam vent at the top.
Women, in fact, often love exploring the wilderness, but concerns about safety and the difficulties of finding hiking partners in the midst of busy lives makes hiking difficult for many would-be woodswomen.
One group of Monroe women has found a solution to that problem, and for the last 15 years, they’ve belonged to a group called Wilderness Women, hitting trails from local day hikes to grueling multi-day treks in remote reaches of the state.
Now that the snow is out of most of the high country, the Wilderness Women are gearing up to visit some of the most spectacular scenery in the Pacific Northwest, and they welcome new members to join them on the trail.
The group was founded by Vina Donow, who once found the Pacific Northwest disagreeably drizzly and chilly compared to her native Singapore, until a friend coaxed her to Lord’s Hill Park. A second hike, a climb to Lake 22, had her hooked completely, and soon she was hiking every chance she got.
But she had a hard time finding hiking partners. So her husband, former Monroe city councilman Mike Donow, suggested she take the innovative approach of offering a hiking class for women through the Sky Valley Community Schools program, which she did in May of 1999.
The first year, five women signed up; in the following years, the class grew to 20 or more.
And once the class was over, the women stayed in the group, some of them for years.
“From late winter training hikes at Wallace Falls, to Mt. Dickerman ascents, to backpacking trips, Vina and the gals have been part of my life for 10 years,” said Jan Beatty-Adams. “This diverse group of women has provided me a place to share solitude and troubles, chatter and recipes.”
Among the trails the women have tackled are the 90-mile Wonderland Trail that circles Mount Rainier and the Grand Canyon from the north rim to the south, a three-day trip.
At first the group was nameless, just the women who made up a hiking class, but that didn’t seem adequate, the members decided.
“Someone said, ‘We need to name this something other than just a hiking group,’” said Donow. “We love the wilderness and we will be the Wilderness Women.’”
And so it was.
The Wilderness Women have found that hiking together adds a dimension to the wilderness experience that hiking alone, or even with their families, lacks.
One of the main pleasures of hiking with the group is the social aspect, members agree.
“They are such an eclectic group, and I have met the most interesting women and heard the most interesting stories hiking with Vina and the rest of the ever-changing hikers,” said Karen McPeters. “There is always a mix of people I have met on other hikes, plus a new person or two. I even got my job through a connection I made hiking with the Wilderness Women.”
The women share stories of grandkids, jobs, experiences and backgrounds. And they share knowledge.
“One of the things I’ve enjoyed is the community of hiking ladies I’ve gotten to know and the knowledge each one of them has contributed, from learning the names of the wildflowers and peaks, cooking and foods to general advice about life,” said Donna Blake.
The chance to hike with the security of safety in numbers is also important to some of the women.
“I wanted to hike but did not feel safe hiking alone so I joined the group,” said Alice Hollister.
She, too, values the company of other women.
“The group is much more than hiking and experiencing the beautiful state we live in,” she said. “It is a group of women who are very supportive, encouraging, friendly and positive. After the Saturday hikes, I always feel uplifted and recharged.”
Vina Donow still is in charge of the class; each year she includes the class description in the brochure for Sky Valley Community Schools, a program of the Monroe School District in which school facilities are made available for classes for the community in the evenings and on weekends, usually for a nominal fee.
The class for 2014 took place April 24, and it was, as usual, essentially a planning and information session. There was information on hiking safety and equipment, then discussion of the travel goals for the year.
Women who wanted to come for the hikes could pay a flat annual fee of $15 for the entire year, and Donow planned the trips.
But one doesn’t need to attend the class to join the hikes. Women can join at any time, simply paying a $15 fee that goes right to the school district to support the community school program.
There is a second planning meeting in September; the Wilderness Women don’t quit hiking once the weather turns cold.
For some of the women, that’s been a new experience.
“I’ve also learned to love the four seasons of hiking,” said Donna Blake. “I started out as a fair-weather hiker and quickly learned the joy of winter hiking with the bare trees, wet moss, ferns and hoar frost pushing up from the frozen ground. It’s not so bad getting out there on a misty or rainy day. It just adds another perspective to a otherwise dreary winter day.”
For other women, the Wilderness Women has been their first experience at all with the beauty of the outdoors where they live.
“During winter I’ve been doing snowshoe hikes and I took one women to Paradise (at Mount Rainier) for a snowshoe hike who had never been to Mount Rainier and she was in tears,” said Donow. “A lot of time what I hear from the women is that they are just shocked that they had never seen such beautiful country in this state.”
The women also gain confidence and perspective, said Donow.
“’It’s amazing what you can do with very little out there,” she said. “That’s what I like about it; everything is in one small space and you don’t really need much. You learn and you manage to go along with it.”
And a recent river crossing illustrates the power of camaraderie, she added.
“We went and did a trip to Spectacle Lake, and we had to cross a river,” said Donow. “It was high, above my knees, but the girls said, ‘We can do it.’ You get nervous, but you encourage each other, and we did it and it was incredible.”
In the next weeks, the Wilderness Women are planning hikes to some of the state’s most spectacular locations, include an Aug. 9 trip to Yellow Aster Butte in the Mt. Baker Wilderness.
To learn more about Wilderness Women, contact Vina Donow at email@example.com