Royal Geographical Society with IBG International Conference 2021

It has been a busy year at RGS this year where I presented three papers on diverse topics including, COVID-19 the recovery of tourism in historic cities, experiences of restricted leisure through the use of the cycling app Zwift and of course mountaineering.

My papers were as follows:


With Katrina Myrvang Brown, James Hutton Institute


With Dr Paul Barratt, Stafford University

BEYONd COVID-19: Re-purposing tourism: Engaging our radical in a Northern English Tourist-Historic City

With Dr Brendan Paddision, York St John University

I had the great pleasure to Co-chair Dr Anna de Jong and Professor Gordon Waitt’s session on Food Geographies and I was re-elected Treasurer for the Geographies and Leisure Tourism Research Group.

Here is my paper for Dr Jonathan Westaway and Paul Gilchrist session on Mountaineering and Everest as a place of exception:



This paper explores the enduring appeal of adventurous white masculinities and the impact this has on women mountaineers. 

It stemmed from our experiences of mountain guiding and a curiosity to understand the experiences of women mountaineers. Broadly the research explored the sensory and emotional experiences of professional women mountaineers and how these are impacted upon by socio-political influences in extreme adventure tourism settings.

Our research explores the emotional labour experienced when managing risk and how this limits access to the social and material spaces of mountains in, gendered ways. We offer a feminist affective analysis of the structural inequalities experienced by professional mountain guides (United Kingdom). This presentation focuses on the emotional labour experienced when managing risk and how this limits access to the social and material spaces of mountains in, gendered ways.

To do this we explore how:

1) Governance structures in mountaineering codify and grade mountaineering spaces and places

2) And how grading as a governing structure produces extreme spaces of risk through the hidden practice of women solo mountain climbing

Mountains are increasingly commodified leisure and tourism spaces that provide opportunities for adventure, generating imaginative and material ideas of risk. Rooted in a legacy of imperialism and gendered traditions, these experiences often feed into narratives that reify the trope of the heroic and intrepid adventurer (Ortner, 1999).

More broadly as, feminist tourism scholars Ferguson & Alarcon (2015) argue, gender equality in tourism has yet to be systematically integrated in policy and practice. In adventure tourism, this is acutely apparent where even a casual glance into hypermasculine adventure cultures reveals systemic inequalities associated with gender, race, dis/ablement and age (Hough MacKenzie & Raymond, 2020; Beames, Mackie, Atencio, 2019; Frohlick 2005, Ortner, 1999).


To illustrate, the 22nd of May 2019 hit the headlines with the extraordinary image of over 220 people queuing to summit the highest point on earth, Mount Everest (Arnette, 2019). Only twenty-nine were and none were guides (figures relate to the South Route considered to be the easiest and thus most popular) (Salisbury, 2021). Despite a booming adventure tourism industry and the rapid commodification of high-altitude mountain places (Cater, 2013), it is striking that in the twenty-first century, so few women are represented. Such statistics provide fresh impetus for interrogating how inequality in the apparatus of adventure tourism is perpetuated.

Women have made a significant but hidden contribution to mountaineering due in no small part to the “complicated relationship of nationalism, colonialism, and masculinity at play” (Hunt, 2019, 2). However, mountaineering is rooted in a powerful legacy of male-dominated clubs and governing institutions founded on masculine norms. These clubs assumed responsibility for codifying and grading mountains that govern spatial practices in mountaineering in two ways. Firstly, by establishing traditions based on making first ascents of mountains, of which, very few are by women. All first ascents were graded by their difficulty and recorded in official guidebooks and records published by the clubs. Grades are symbolic of risk, the higher the grade the greater the risk where protection is virtually absent and the climber is effectively soloing. Secondly, mountains are codified through masculine emotions and expressions such as bravery, strength, aggression and heroism (Roche, 2015; Colley, 2010). Displays of heroism became synonymous with mountaineering and socially transmitted through rules that have evolved over generations that govern how to be a good mountaineer (Beedie, 2003, Barrett & Martin, 2016)). Emotions perceived as feminine are hidden, such as empathy, care, and fear (Frohlick, 2006). Femininity is virtually absent in the codification of mountain spaces and places as tourist and leisure destinations where grades, govern and are shared constructed and performed largely through the lens of the male body.

The impacts are threefold, firstly, climbing hard grades secure reputations and places intense pressure on mountain guides to perform in spaces of extreme physical risk. Doing so enables them to secure social and economic benefits. Secondly, women mountaineers are perceived as transgressing femininity and familial gender norms by engaging in risk (Dilley & Scraton, 2010; Frohlick, 2006).  Thirdly, to survive in this emotional battleground women have historically internalized and reproduced colonial values in mountaineering leaving traditions that govern how mountaineering is performed and reproduced largely untroubled (Taylor, 2006).

Theoretical Framework

We drew on Sara Ahmed’s (2004) work to explore ‘how broader structures of power and injustice are (re)produced’ (Everingham & Motta, 2020, 3). Emotions as Ahmed attests have histories that are shared and replicated – this is no more evident than in the familiar trope of the mountaineering hero. Through this framework, we explored how heroism becomes an affective economy (Ahmed, 2004) through the grading of bodies that drives extreme forms of risk-taking and the emotional labour, dissonance or discomfort experienced through incongruence between displayed and felt emotions (Hochschild, 2012 [1983]).


Data was co-produced inductively over the course of seven winter mountaineering days with seven women mountaineers in the United Kingdom (UK). Experimental go-alongs were used to collect video ethnographic data via GoPro Hero 3s.

Data analysis involved deep reflection that was triangulated using film footage, semi-structured interviews and field diaries. NVivo provided a powerful platform for analysis, twenty-five codes and sub-codes emerged from the data and themed, under codes such as soloing, silence, well-being and grading (Braun & Clark, 2012).

Findings & Analysis

Our findings demonstrate how affect has a profound influence on how individuals gain access and legitimacy (or not) to particular groups, formally and informally. We argue that the grading structures that govern mountaineering produce inequalities that downgrade women’s bodies in numerous ways and are closely tied to how reputations are embodied.

Reputation is everything in mountaineering – we found that all the research participants expressed how having a name is a big thing in the outdoor industry. Mountaineering identities are built upon producing a logbook of extreme risk-based climbing achievements. Despite having the correct identity and credentials women struggled to achieve recognition from their clients (male & female) frequently experiencing what research participant Selkie expressed as that ‘Dip in the shoulders when they are given [Annabel] or myself on mountaineering course’. This produced an exhausting daily ritual of self-masculinisation where they recounted heroic stories of hard grades/mountaineering routes they had climbed. Downgrading women’s mountaineering bodies has a heritage that can be traced to the late 1880s, for example, Elisabeth Le Blond’s phenomenal first winter ascents in the Alps were downgraded and attributed to her male guide technical skill (Gifford, 2013).

Such discrimination remains unchallenged because Fernando & Prasad (2018, 10) point out ‘negative consequences follow those who challenge the system’ driven by the fear of losing economic and social status. The emotional labour involved in managing grading or gradism means, women ‘have to work twice as hard’ (Arnot Reid, 2017) and take’ what one research participant expressed ‘as whatever the mountain throws at us’. The gendered nature of being a good mountaineer governs and grades bodies. More broadly, we argue, gradism, contaminates the sensory fabric of mountaineering destinations circulating as an affective economy manifest in route names, style of ascent, climbing performance and representation.

Governance & Gradism

The value placed on grades and climbing extremely difficult routes is institutional and pervades structural inequalities. For example, during a national review of the highest UK mountaineering qualification Mountain Climbing Instructor (Winter) Selkie challenged the proposed upgrading of the level aspirants must demonstrate from grade 3 winter to grade 5. In voicing her concerns that such a move was dangerous Selkie risked both social and economic status leading her to consider stepping down from a role leading the winter mountaineering programme at one of the National Mountaineering Centres. She experienced a competitive gradism that challenged her status and identity as a good mountaineer, producing intense emotional labour manifest in feeling weak, lacking competence and shame. Illustrating how gradism works as an affective economy that sticks to mountain-climbing bodies silencing difference and vulnerabilities (Ahmed, 2004).

Soloing in Work

Climbing hard grades produces structural inequalities in working environments, for example, Lorrie had worked hard to build a reputation with her new employer and colleagues and the chief way of working was to ‘onsight’ the climbs when leading clients. In mountaineering, an informal code requires the leader to climb a route without having any prior knowledge of it physically, apart from the route description contained within a guidebook. This is classed as onsighting.  To receive assistance whilst climbing is perceived as weak and can lead to social shaming (Lewis, 2000). To onsight a route ramps up the pressure on the leader because all the unknowns of the climb must be worked through in situ. This, combined with leading unknown clients who may not be competent climbers themselves means the leader must be sure they can not only climb the grade but can solo the route.

Soloing is steeped in a history of heroism and is the riskiest form of mountaineering where a mountaineer climbs alone with minimal and no protection. As a result, the research participants were under pressure to lead at their limit to satisfy the demands of clients and employers. We argue that onsighting is an example of a gradist affective economy signifying valued masculine traits such as, heroism, risk-taking and strength, attributable to the gradist social control mechanisms that form the moral boundaries (Eger, 2021) of being a good mountaineer. The fear of social shaming prevented Lorrie from speaking to her employers to seek help, forcing her to accept physical risks involved as preferable to the social risks of appearing weak or incompetent because this would significantly impact her professional status socially and economically.

The precarity of working in such a gendered environment makes women mountain guides like Lorrie vulnerable and renders them powerless to challenge such inequalities. As such, the emotional labour produced by onsighting was significant with Lorrie expressing how the fear of ‘failing and how I was perceived in front of peers, all that stuff is exhausting’.

The pressure to perform also impacts on personal/leisure time where mountain guides feel compelled to climb at even harder grades to maintain a sense of bodily power, confidence and control to meet the expectations placed on them.

Solo Climbing in Leisure

Structural inequalities were also evident in leisure spaces: Within leisure five research participants used soloing as a tactic to avoid unwelcomed surveillance this had a dual purpose of alleviating sensations of toxic competition and enabling them to secure social status. This was not without consequence and produced emotional labour.

For leisure, Lorrie planned a two-day solo winter climbing experience.  On the first day, she had an amazing experience but abandoned her second climbing day. She attributed this to sharing her experiences with her peers after the first day. Sharing her success ruptured her ability to disengage from social norms. Emotional politics impacted in two ways; firstly, adherence to normative values of risk and femininity (Dilley & Scraton, 2010); secondly using her experiences to build social status as a good mountaineer – that pushed her into a space of risk beyond her limit. The consequence meant ‘It stopped Her enjoying going climbing that winter for leisure as ‘it was just too pressured’. The impact of engaging in spaces of extreme risk during work and leisure led to Lorrie cease mountaineering – she was burnt out.

Soloing is a tightly controlled space with many functions that are embodied in the gradist sensory politics of being a good mountaineer. Soloing circulates as an affective economy that reifies normative masculinities where risk is agentive for men (Eger, 2021). As Eger (2021, p.8) points out ‘this contrasts with women’s experiences, who learn to consider their social interactions and movements through an internalization of risk, to keep safe’ and be modest for fear of reprisal. This conflict produces significant emotional labour. As such, there is a hidden history of women mountaineers engaging in soloing notably: UK’s Alison Hargreaves, French climber Catherine Destivelle and the American mountaineer Steph Davies. Following her solo ascent of the Grand Jorasses Destivelle noted that she soloed so that ‘nobody can now say that it was my climbing partner, male of course, who did all the work’(Destivelle, 2015, p.186).


For the research participants solo mountaineering is a product emotional labour involved in proving that they are good mountaineers. A good mountaineer is graded through masculine heroic qualities that circulate as an affective economy producing extreme risk spaces, performances and thus, destinations. In sum, gender is consequential in mountaineering and inequality sits at the heart of one of its governing structures – grading. In sum, topographically, morphologically, geographically and culturally mountain spaces are codified by masculine ways to sense, feel and be.

Drawing on Ahmed (2004) we experimented with a new way to research how identity, place and power are constituted through embodied experiences of tourism practices (Buda et al. 2014, 104). Our contribution flags a clear need to take seriously the affective geographies of the tourist encounter and how particular places and environments become co-constituted with affective economies and in our case how women mountaineers experience and mitigate structural inequalities in spaces of adventure tourism. This chimes with calls to redouble efforts to address issues of decolonisation and diversity in tourism studies (Chambers & Buzinde, 2015). 


Ahmed, S. (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Arnette., A. (2019). Everest by numbers: 2019 Edition. The Blog on [Internet], Available: Accessed: 12 June 2019.

Arnot Reid, M. (2017) The Alpinist: Melissa Arnot Reid [Internet]. Available from [Accessed 17 May 2017].

Barrett, E., & Martin, P. (2016) Extreme: Why some people thrive at the limits. Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Beedie, P. (2003) Mountain guiding and adventure tourism: Reflections of the choreography of the experience. Leisure Studies, 22 (2), pp. 147 – 167.

Braun, V., & Clark, V. (2006). Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, (3) 2, pp. 77 – 101, DOI: 10.1191/1478088706qp063oa

Buda, D. M., d’Hauteserre, A. M., & Johnston, L. (2014). Feeling and tourism studies. Annals of Tourism Research, 46, 102-114.

Cater, C. (2013) The meaning of adventure. In: Taylor, S., Varley, P., and Johnston, T. eds. Adventure tourism, meanings, experience and learning. Oxon, Routledge, pp. 5 – 18.

Chambers, D., & Buzinde, C. (2015). Tourism and decolonisation: Locating research and self. 51, Annals of Tourism Research pp. 1-16

Colley, A.C. (2010) Victorians and the Mountains: Sinking the sublime. Farnham, UK, Ashgate Publishing Ltd.

Destivelle, C. (2015). Rock Queen. Kirby Stephen, Hayloft Publishing Ltd.

Dilley, R. E., & Scraton, S. J. (2010). Women, climbing and serious leisure. Leisure Studies, 29(2), 125-141.

Eger, C. (2021). Gender matters: Rethinking violence in tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 88, 103143.

Everingham, P., & Motta, S. C. (2020). Decolonising the ‘autonomy of affect’ in volunteer tourism encounters. Tourism Geographies, 1–21.

Ferguson, L., & Alarcón D., M. (2015) Gender and sustainable tourism: reflections on theory and practice. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 23 (3), pp. 401 – 416.

Fernando, D., & Prasad, A. (2018). Sex-based harassment and organizational silencing: How women are led to reluctant acquiescence in academia. Human Relations, 72(10), 1565–1594.

Frohlick, S. (2006) Wanting children and wanting K2: The incommensurability of motherhood and mountaineering in Britain and North America in the late twentieth century. Gender, Place and Culture, 13 (5), pp. 477 – 490.

Gifford, T. (2013) Early mountaineers achieve both summits and publication in Britain and America. In: Gomez Reus, T., and Gifford T. eds.  in Transit through Literary Liminal Spaces. London, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 91 – 106.

Hochschild, A. R. (2012 [1983]). The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, University of California Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Hunt, R. (2019). Historical geography, climbing and mountaineering: route setting for an inclusive future. Geography Compass, 13(4), e12423.

Lewis, N. (2000) The climbing body, nature and the experiences of modernity. Body and Society, 6 (3-4), pp. 58 – 80.

Ortner, B.S. (1999) Life and death on Mount Everest: Sherpas and Himalayan mountaineering. Oxfordshire, Princeton University Press.

Roche, C. (2015) The Ascent of : How women mountaineers explored the Alps 1850 – 1900. PhD thesis, Birkbeck, University of London.

Sailsbury (2021) Personal Correspondence Himalyan Mountain Trust.

Taylor, J. (2006). Mapping adventure: a historical geography of Yosemite Valley climbing landscapes. Journal of historical geography, 32(1), 190-219.


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