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Women, mountain sports, and privilege – thoughts on an all-female sports festival in Austria

Two weeks ago, I attended the Women’s Summer Festival in Ischgl, Austria. It’s basically a three-day summer camp for female adults. You can sign up for lots of different sports workshops, including yoga, mountain biking, climbing, hiking, the full works. All of it women-only, set very scenically in the Austrian Alps. I’d read about last year’s edition and it sounded like a ton of fun: a chance to try out new things, meet people and spend a few days frolicking in the mountains? Sign me up.

View over a lush green alpine valley, from the beginning of our via ferrata.

I agonised for a while about my choice of workshops – there’s no way you can do them all – and finally put myself down for a via ferrata (complete novices), trail running (beginners), morning yoga (all levels), and an all-day hike (experts). Aside from yoga and hiking, I decided to do things I hadn’t done before, so for instance bouldering fell by the wayside in favour of the via ferrata. And I was too much of a chicken for mountain biking. Somehow, the thought of hurtling down a mountain on two wheels terrifies me a lot more than the thought of being suspended above a precipice secured by nothing but a fixed steel cable and two carabiners attached to my harness through a via ferrata set.

Bettina in full gear, taking a well-deserved sip of water after completing her first ever via ferrata.

The classification of levels, I later learned from fellow participants, stumped not only me. How do you know you’re an “expert” hiker, rather than an “advanced” one? As I’ve mentioned before, I have my share of athletic impostor syndrome, so I was mildly terrified of both the trail running (should I have signed up for the “complete novices” one?) and the hiking tour (what on earth had made me think I was an expert? The hubris!). If anyone still needed proof that women tend to underestimate themselves, they only had to attend this festival. Nearly everyone rocked up with the same self-doubts.

But these shared concerns actually ended up making for an incredibly supportive environment. Everyone cheered each other on and kept encouraging others. It had been a long time since I’d seen two people as happy as two women with vertigo after crossing an incredibly scary suspension bridge on our trail run, fuelled by gentle coaxing from our guide and the supportive cheers of the other participants. It was wonderful to watch.

The really quite scary suspension bridge we had to cross during our trail run, complete with some runners from our group approaching in the distance.

The other thing I’d been a bit wary of is going by myself. I wasn’t organised enough to enlist anyone else to come with me, and I’m not exactly a social butterfly – my small talk is limited and I tend to get incredibly intimidated by people I think are cooler than me, which is pretty much everyone. I ended up really, really enjoying myself, both in terms of the activities and the company. I met some very nice people, and the activities were great. In fact, both the via ferrata and trail running (who would have thought, considering how badly I do running uphill!) left me hungry for more.

The morning yoga was beautiful, and the hike was out of this world stunning – three three thousand-metre summits in one day! With bright sunshine! And incredible views! If I were to do this again, and I’m definitely keeping this option open, there are plenty of things I didn’t get around to doing: a more challenging via ferrata, bouldering, more hiking, and maybe, just maybe, even some mountain biking?

Bettina in a red t-shirt and hiking gear, beaming widely with one of the summits she climbed during her all-day hike in the background.

There was a framework programme too, to keep yourself occupied while not attending a workshop, with ad-hoc activities such as TRX training, massages, pilates, etc., and you could even get your nails and your hair done if you wanted (I opted for the nails, which I usually never do or get done, and also because there’s not much you can do with my hair). In the evenings, one night there was dinner at a local hut, which ordinarily is a hip après-ski joint, and another night there was a concert with a local band in the festival tent. And as these things are wont to go, there were exhibitors peddling the latest trail running shoes, hiking poles, outdoor and yoga clothing, etc. You could also try all these things in action, which was fun, though it didn’t motivate any purchases for me.

The whole thing was a very enjoyable affair, but I wouldn’t be a good feminist killjoy if I didn’t have some issues with it. This was obviously not a free event. The all-in festival pass set me back just under 280 Euros, and I treated myself to a nice hotel in addition. There was the option of booking just individual workshops, but they also weren’t super cheap. There was a goodie bag for those who’d booked the festival package that contained some ecologically very dubious plasticky giveaways (although in fairness, there were some great quality ones too that I’ll definitely be using). And diversity at the event was limited to cis-gendered almost exclusively white, almost exclusively able-bodied, relatively fit women who could afford to be there, and a bunch of invited press, bloggers and social media influencers who were there for free (disclaimer: I wasn’t one of them).

In other words, we spent three days oozing privilege from all pores. Is this inherently a bad thing? Probably not. We had a lot of fun and it was great to completely disconnect from the news and the heat wave gripping the rest of Europe for a few days, being active among a bunch of very nice, like-minded women and pushing our comfort zones in a highly supportive environment. The event is absolutely fantastic in that it lets you test the waters with new activities that might otherwise be quite intimidating, which I think is very important in getting women to be more active. But it’s important to be aware of that privilege – and of the fact that if you were insecure about doing any sort of exercise, you probably wouldn’t sign up for a three-day mountain sports festival in the first place, so a substantial threshold is still there.

Enjoying these views was part of our privilege: panorama of the Alps with some flecks of snow in the sunshine.

And things could be done to make the event more inclusive. One could think of travel stipends, marketing the event a bit differently to attract a more diverse crowd, and so on. Again, the organisers are a for-profit company that makes money with this, so it’s not surprising that it’s all a bit commercial, and all things considered, the commercialness is very low key – you’re not forced to buy anything or partake in any activities that aren’t your jam. And yet. A bit more of an effort in making the event more diverse and accessible would be very welcome.

Will I go back? Maybe. I had too much fun not to contemplate a return next year. I’ll keep you posted – and if I do, perhaps it will be in some fit feminist company? Would be fun.

11 thoughts on “Women, mountain sports, and privilege – thoughts on an all-female sports festival in Austria

  1. This sounds quite blissful all around — good on you for going on your own, Bettina. And I appreciate the thoughtful analysis — good to hold the paradoxes even as we sink into the privilege a little bit.

    1. It was most blissful indeed! 🙂 But yeah, this privilege thing did bother me and made me feel a bit iffy about the whole event. It also sort of felt… like a lost chance for some activism for me? I mean yes, there was talk about how women can bond over exercise, how it’s a more supportive environment in an all-female group and so on, but I feel like this would have been a great chance to have maybe a talk about sports and feminism or something like that to get people thinking a bit more. And also, I think the majority of the guides and instructors were male. It would be cool if they made an effort to rectify that.

  2. Invite me next year! Though I agree, the privilege issue is a knotty one. Diversity improves an environment—though I admit I’m unsure how to solve the able bodied restriction.

    1. YES! Please come 😉
      Yes, that is a tough one. Though actually, there was a woman who had lost a leg and who’d crossed the Alps walking. She was a “special guest” and there was a sort of panel discussion with her, but it felt a bit cringeworthy to me, along the lines of “you’re so inspiring”. This woman is super badass, one-legged or not, and I felt the discussion didn’t do her justice. And she was the only one. None of the other participants had any visible disabilities. And I suppose some of the workshops were fairly accessible actually, but there’s e.g. no info on the website about that. So that might be something fairly easy to solve.

  3. I think sounds super fun. REI had one near my home in Tahoe but reading about it was Very turned off by the high cost. $899 for activities and no lodging but they’d let you camp out… for another $225. I can think of many many other ways to spend that kind of money and that kind of makes me sad.

    1. Whattttt? That’s incredibly expensive! Wow. How many days was this for? Must have been more than three?

  4. Glad you enjoyed yourself. I guess in a way this “privilege” is not a whole lot different than embarking on a long international bike trip. We just have to be aware that we don’t closet ourselves in our own world with others from the same “world”. Hence, it bugs me abit, when some travellers wants to avoid locals, seeing much of local culture and ie. just see animals on a safari or just mountain climbing.

    1. That is a great point! This weekend was really too short to interact with others outside of the people who participated. But at the more general level, you’re absolutely right. Although the ‘interactive’ bit can also go really badly wrong when people think they’ve had super ‘authentic’ interactions with locals, when they’ve just been barely scratching the surface (or in fact just seen a spectacle put on for tourists) – and in some places, doing more than that is very difficult to do. So as you say, one has to be aware of these things when travelling.

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