(WOMENSENEWS)–Just before midnight on May 24, Roz Savage lowered her 23-foot boat into the San Francisco Bay, set her oars in the water and began rowing toward the Golden Gate Bridge on her way out to the open sea.
It was the beginning of a two-year journey. If Savage makes it all the way to Australia, she will become the first woman to row across the Pacific Ocean alone.
While Savage rows, Alison Criscitiello climbs. The Boston resident is attempting to summit Denali, also known as Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. She began May 18 and plans to reach the Alaskan summit by June 12.
Savage and Criscitiello, along with others such as Helen Thayer and Kit Deslauriers, are among that relatively rare group of women who disregard the unwritten limits on extreme adventure.
Thayer, a New Zealand native who now lives in Snohomish, Wash., became the first woman to walk alone to the magnetic North Pole in 1988 and later became the first, along with her husband, to walk across the length of the 1,500-mile Gobi desert. And Deslauriers of Teton Village, Wyo., was the first person to summit the highest peaks in all seven continents and then ski down them. She completed that feat in 2006, when she skied from the summit of Mt. Everest.
Although there is no way to quantify the numbers of extreme sportswomen, it is possible to sum up a common attitude among them: They see no reason not to try.
"I grew up in a family where, just because you’re a girl, doesn’t mean to say you can’t do it," Thayer, the Gobi desert walker who is now 70, said in a recent telephone interview. "I really had to go against the grain a bit to get things done. But that never bothered me."
Wrote Her Own Obituaries
Savage, 40, had yearned to go against the grain, too. That was while she was working at an investment bank in London and living an all too comfortable existence. Then one day–about 10 years ago–she wrote two obituaries for herself. The first described the pleasant life she was living at the time. The second detailed the adventurous path she wanted to take.
Savage, a former member of the Oxford University Lightweight Rowing Club, decided to get back in the water. In late 2005 she embarked from the Canary Islands and rowed across the Atlantic. She completed the journey all the way to Antigua in 2006 after 103 days.
Her first attempt to cross the Pacific came last year, but she abandoned it because of deteriorating weather conditions and equipment concerns. This time, she hopes to reach Hawaii, 2,324 miles away, within about two and a half months. Savage will take an extended break and return to the crossing in 2009 on her way to Tuvalu, a Polynesian island nation, then continue to Australia in 2010.
Equipped with high-tech gear to record her trip and communicate from the ocean, Savage blogs each day on her Web site about her struggles. Her progress also can be tracked.
Savage rows not only for herself, but also for others.
"This is why I do the blogs, and I do the videos, and I write the books," Savage said in a telephone interview before she left. "People find something in what I’m doing that resonates with them and they find is a source of inspiration for them."
Providing a Platform
Savage also wants to bring attention to ocean pollution and plans to row past the Great Pacific Garbage Patch northeast of Hawaii. The massive collection of mostly plastic debris has converged there because of currents and is estimated to be the size of Texas.
Rowing provides her a platform to send an important message about the environment, she said.
Others use their adventures to inspire, educate or raise awareness as well.
Thayer, named one of the "Great Explorers of the 20th Century" by National Geographic, has used her expeditions to teach more than a million students through her not-for-profit organization, Adventure Classroom. Thayer offers guide programs of her trips for use by schools and also visits classrooms to educate students about the environment and cultures.
And Criscitiello, 26, of Boston, a glaciologist working toward her doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, raised over $7,000 with her climb to benefit Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass. Silent Spring Institute gathers scientists, physicians, public health advocates and activists to focus on women’s health and the environment.
Her climb up Denali is the first time she coupled climbing with charity, and Criscitiello said she plans to continue combining the two efforts. She hopes to summit Mt. Everest in the next few years.
Criscitiello is the only woman in her climbing party of nine on Denali. She said she was unable to convince her female friends to come along.
Few Women on the Unbeaten Path
"Generally, the way I’ve felt and I’ve heard this from other women, too: The higher you go, the less women you see," Criscitiello said. "That’s certainly been the case in my experience."
Thayer says she doesn’t see too many women on the unbeaten paths, either. Nor does Savage, who was the seventh woman to row across the Atlantic.
She thinks she knows why.
"Because they’re too sensible?" Savage joked. "I think women are generally more worried about self-preservation. I think traditionally we’ve been in more of a nurturing role.
"There hasn’t been that tradition of female adventurers."
Or perhaps there simply hasn’t been the support. Thayer said she had a hard time gaining financial support for her expeditions at the beginning.
"When I wanted to walk to the magnetic pole alone, corporate America was horrified," Thayer said. "’You’re a woman and you’re 50 years old and going alone?’ They just told me flat out it was impossible."
Some women might gravitate to these extremes because they are suited for it. But Diana Nyad, the long-distance swimmer who now lives in the Los Angeles area, also notes that social barriers can actually be lower than in some more conventional athletics.
"You can keep a girl off the wrestling team and you can keep her off the boxing team and you can keep her from playing professional football, as a general rule, but you can’t keep a woman from climbing K-2," said Nyad, who set a world record by swimming 102 miles from the Bahamas to Florida in 1979.
As a sports broadcaster and journalist, Nyad has followed such extreme athletes and adventurers as four-time Iditarod champion Susan Butcher and Arctic explorer Ann Bancroft. She believes the number of women participating in extreme activities is growing.
It’s certainly not losing one of its charter members anytime soon. Thayer is planning a kayaking adventure down the Amazon with her 81-year-old husband and two trips to Alaska to study the effect of climate change on native cultures.
"No, I’m far from done," Thayer said. "Goodness gracious. I’ve got many, many more years yet left of walking long distances."
Viv Bernstein is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C., and a frequent contributor to The New York Times. She is a former staff sports reporter for the Detroit Free Press, the Hartford Courant and other newspapers and has written for numerous publications.
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