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Vermont Quarterly

Gender politics in thin air

Jan Reynolds in the mountains
Jan Reynolds ’78


Gender politics in thin air

by Thomas Weaver

September 1980, Jackson Hole, Wyoming: Jan Reynolds heads out for a run in the Grand Tetons with Kim Schmitz, one of the men she will team with on the ambitious Everest Grand Circle Expedition—the first-ever circumnavigation of the world’s highest peak, climbing and skiing five passes of up to 22,000 feet and summiting 24,000-foot Pumori.

As their casual trail run (Reynolds wears just nylon shorts, a sports bra, and a pair of what are now termed “vintage” Nike waffle trainers) progresses upward, it become clear that Schmitz has plans for the Grand Teton summit. Soon, Reynolds is faced with a 5.9 rock-climbing move—no harness, no rope, no chalk bag, and those floppy soled Nikes on her feet. “My brain instantly squeezes all the fear out and focuses on that move. Nothing else on the planet exists, but my hand and that rock and that move,” she says. “You make it or you don’t.”

Thirty-four years later, as Reynolds relates the story from her home in Stowe, she says Schmitz turned a friendly run into a test to see if this woman had the mettle to be an asset on what would be a highly challenging expedition. It’s something Reynolds would experience from time to time as the lone female among males in her pioneering life and career in outdoor adventure—mountaineering, high-altitude skiing, and ballooning, among other pursuits.

While Reynolds says she largely earned a “one of the guys” sort of acceptance and camaraderie, she also recognizes, then and now, that due to her gender there were distinct differences in how she approached adventuring and its inherent challenges. Recounting and reflecting on those experiences is at the core of Reynolds’s latest book, High-Altitude Woman: From Extreme Sports to Indigenous Cultures, Discovering the Power of the Feminine (Inner Traditions).

As an author/photographer, Reynolds has more recently focused on the children’s audience with her Vanishing Cultures series, photo-rich books that document the lives of indigenous tribes she lived with on each continent. High-Altitude Woman grew out of her desire to write again for an adult audience and also to explore the stronger sense of her feminine self that began to emerge with the birth of her first child twenty years ago, Reynolds says.

From growing up in a Vermont farm family of seven kids to UVM days as a top-flight varsity Nordic skier to her years in the high-stakes, high-alpine world, Reynolds had plenty of experience with a traditional masculine mindset. “Quite frankly, my mentality was go harder, go longer, go higher. I had more of a male attitude than female,” she says. “It took me until I had my first child to really fully embrace and appreciate my feminine side. That was a very defining line. I connected and bonded with so many women who took care of their kids yet could kick butt at work, as well. I realized women really have it all.”

Raising two decidedly turbo sons (Briggs is studying industrial design at the Rhode Island School of Design; Story is a student at Stowe High School with his eye on playing Division I lacrosse in college), made Reynolds continue to reflect on how gender can come to bear on matters such as decision-making, power structure, and competition.

Creating the book meant going back through old expedition journals, past articles, and thousands of her own photographs to write a book that, for the armchair adventurer, makes vivid everything from the glory of a Himalayan summit ridge to the poly-stink of a crowded tent at base camp. Beyond her own experience, Reynolds dug into social science research and psychology. Reaching back to Carl Jung, she cites the balance of animus (male) and anima (female) characteristics within all of us. We truly mature, she suggests, when you recognize the opposite gender inside yourself “and accept it with a big, fat embrace.”

But Reynolds is clear that the audience she most hopes her book will reach is young women: “I want to be that voice in every woman’s ear, in every little girl’s ear, that says, ‘You’ve got this. You can do this. You’ve got everything you need to be successful within you.’”

Jan Reynolds’s next adventure and book will unfold on a trek in the Himalayas, a journey to two monasteries in the Everest region, in September 2014. Alumni who might want to join in on that trip can reach her at

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