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The World’s Most Adventurous Women 2019

Cristina Mittermeier
 

LAST FALL, Mittermeier, a Mexican-born marine biologist turned photographer, was shooting some 50 orcas hunting a school of herring in a fjord in Norway when a pod of 50-foot humpback whales passed just feet away. “There is a part of me that wants to push through fear to get images nobody else has,” she says. “So I know that if I am a little terrified, I am probably in the right spot. That is what swimming with wild orcas is all about—a mix of terror and glee.”

It’s that spirit that has helped Mittermeier, 52, pioneer the conservation photography movement through her iconic photos of indigenous cultures and ocean ecosystems, and led her in 2014 to cofound SeaLegacy, a conservation society that uses visual storytelling to create positive change. Two years later, Mittermeier released a photo and video of a starving polar bear struggling to find food and they went viral, reaching an estimated 2.5 billion people in two weeks. The outpouring of emotion spurred a conversation about climate change—exactly as she had hoped.

“SeaLegacy is my ikigai,” she says. “It’s a Japanese word. It means when you find what you’re passionate about and something that you’re good at, something you can make a living from, and it’s also something that the planet needs.”

Laura Adams—Professional Guide and Adventurer

FOR LAURA ADAMS, 1997 was the year that everything changed. She was a certified ski guide—just the fifth woman ever to be accredited by the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides—and was working for the most well-respected operations in the country. On an off day, she was climbing Gray’s Peak in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park with her then-boyfriend Joe Pavelich, a ski patroller. When Adams reached the summit ridgeline, she expected Pavelich shortly afterward. But he never arrived. Adams down-climbed and found him crumpled on a rock ledge, unconscious. He appeared to have fallen about 100 feet.

Pavelich survived, following a helicopter evacuation, but with significant brain injuries. Four months later, Adams, as a member of search and rescue, got a call to help locate the body of 23-year-old Michel Trudeau—younger brother of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—who had been backcountry skiing with friends when a slide swept him off the mountain. A year and a half after that, another friend died in a climbing accident when a large rock fell and struck him on the head.

“It was a lot of loss in the mountains in a short period of time,” says Adams, now 51. “And while I accepted the fact that the outdoors is a dynamic environment that you can’t control, I was also interested in learning about the things you can control—how we make decisions in these environments.”

So Adams took a break from guiding and enrolled in a master’s program in leadership and organizational change at Royal Roads University, in Victoria, British Columbia. While there, she interviewed more than 70 of Canada’s top guides and avalanche forecasters about their experiences in the mountains. The year was 2004, and the mountaineering community was still very much focused on the physical sciences, like weather and snowpack and terrain. Adams’ social science approach—looking at how people make sound decisions and what human factors (like ego) influence them—was somewhat novel.

“I heard Laura present at International Snow Science Workshop,” says Diny Harrison, the first Canadian woman to become an internationally certified mountain guide. “It was the first time in my career that I heard someone speak of ‘human factors’ as something we needed to develop in avalanche education.”

Adams’ groundbreaking work earned her an award from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and a job offer from New Zealand to lead the country’s fledgling office of outdoor recreation and adventure tourism. It was a dream come true—she’d wanted to be a guide since she was 15, and had taken off after college to rock climb in Australia and New Zealand and test her mettle on some on Nepal’s 7,000-meter peaks. So Adams moved with her young son (she and the boy’s father had since divorced) to Wellington. While there, she discovered kitesurfing, and with her trademark intensity learned the sport. Within two years, she had become New Zealand’s women’s national champion.

Today she lives in the Kootenay region of southeastern B.C. and is one of the most sought-after guides in the world. Last year, for example, when Weber Arctic launched the first heli-skiing trip in the Arctic, on Baffin Island, the outfitter could have chosen practically anyone to serve as its lead guide. They picked Adams, both for her personable nature with clients and ability to read terrain, but also because of her unassailable judgement with group dynamics while exploring terra incognita. Individually, she leads small-group tours by invite only to little-known mountains like those in Japan. In January 2019, she’ll run her most ambitious expedition yet: the first commercial backcountry skiing tour in China’s obscure Altai Mountains.

“I’m really curious about ancient mountain culture, places where people have lived in the mountains for thousands of years,” Adams says.

She’s also exploring new personal connections to the mountains. Following a string of Arctic expeditions in 2018, Adams produced a series of oil paintings of the massive granite peaks and landscapes there. Her father, who died of cancer in 2014, produced hundreds of paintings in his lifetime, and Adams suspects that her newfound passion is a way of coping in a constructive way. “I think that’s maybe the key,” she says. “To be open to what is, rather than wishing for what isn’t. Taking new wisdom from these experiences and looking forward, not back.”

Lael Wilcox—Endurance Cyclist

IN JUNE 2015, the 32-year-old Wilcox, who had only ridden recreationally, set a course record for women at the Tour Divide, North America’s most grueling endurance cycling event, covering 2,745 miles from Canada to Mexico. Two months later, she biked the route again because she believed she could do it faster—which she did, in 15 days and 10 hours, shaving nearly two days off her time. The following year, in the TransAm race across the U.S., Wilcox beat everyone, men included.

It was an auspicious start to a career for a woman who essentially got into racing on a whim: In 2015, the Alaska native was riding across Israel when she decided to enter the 900-mile Holy Land MTB Challenge and was winning when the race was called due to weather. “I didn’t even have the right equipment,” she says. “I was like ‘Wow, I guess I can do this.’ ” Since then, she’s pedaled more than 100,000 miles across Canada, the U.S., Mexico, and South Africa. For 2019, she’s tackling the 1,056-mile Silk Road Mountain Race though Kyrgyzstan. “The racing stuff is new for me,” she says. “But I like the travel. So as long as it’s fun, I’ll keep doing it.”

Ines Papert—Ice Climber and Alpinist

LAST SUMMER, while attempting to set a new route on the south face of Shishapangma, the 14th-highest mountain in the world, Papert and her partner, Luka Lindic, awoke in the middle of night to a deafening roar. The two bailed from their tent only moments before an avalanche buried it and all of their gear. “For a moment we thought we were trapped on the mountain,” she says. “Without gear we had no chance to descend, so Luka was shoveling for hours.”

For the 44-year-old German climber, this is the risk you take when you’re pushing the limits of what’s considered possible in your sport. And push Papert has: Since retiring in 2006 from competition ice-climbing, where she became the most decorated athlete of her generation, she has made a habit out of racking up first ascents in some of the most technical terrain on the planet, from Morocco to Nepal. Some of her ascents, including Finnmanen in Norway, have never been repeated.

In 2015, Papert scaled Scotland’s the Hurting, thought by many to be the hardest single-pitch traditional mixed climb in the world. It’s these accomplishments—and her victory in Colorado’s Ouray Ice Climbing Festival, beating not only all the women but also all the men—that have led many to regard her as one of the best alpinists today.

Next year, she plans to begin the biggest project of her career: to drive from Alaska to Patagonia and climb every route of every type she’s ever dreamed about. Papert will take five trips over five years to complete the quest, just in time for her 50th birthday.

Chloe Kim—Olympic Snowboarder

WHEN KIM’S parents first laced her feet into snowboard boots at age 4, it was clear she was destined for success. She was such a natural that by the time she was 13, she’d already qualified for the Olympics even though she was too young to participate. Her chance came four years later, in 2018, and she delivered a dominating performance, capturing the gold medal for the U.S. in the halfpipe. It was one of the Pyeongchang Games’ most memorable moments, as Kim, whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from South Korea in 1982, won on their home soil. At 17, she was the youngest woman ever to win an Olympic snowboarding medal.

For snowboarding fans, it came as no surprise. Kim has been redefining the limits of women’s competition snowboarding since she arrived on the scene: She is the first and only woman to land back-to-back 1080 spins in competition and is only the second person, after phenom Shaun White, to score a perfect 100. If Kim keeps at her current pace, she’s tracking to become the greatest female snowboarder of all time.

This off-season, she worked on even harder tricks for the upcoming season. “I’m actually super stoked, because I finally landed a front double 10 in Switzerland,” Kim says. “I followed this dream of snowboarding because it was something I loved to do. My goal is to keep it fun, but of course keep pushing myself.”

Ulyana
 Nadia Horodyskyj—Scientist and Alpinist

CHANCES ARE THAT if you study climate change, as 32-year-old Horodyskyj does, you’re heading to some of the most extreme places on the planet: the icefields of Mount Everest, the fjords of Baffin Island, the glaciers atop Kilimanjaro. That’s because it’s those places where the effects of a changing planet are often most easily observed.

“For me, science and adventure go hand-in-hand,” she says. The scientist, part-time professor, and assistant mountain guide has been tracking snow and ice conditions since 2008. In 2016, she founded Science in the Wild to bring adventurous citizens along to help collect data and see science in action. Her latest research, studying the impact of soot from North American wildfires, took her to Norway’s desolate Svalbard archipelago in 2018, with a documentary film coming this year about climate change and industrial pollution.

Science has taken you to some extreme places. What’s been the most remote?

“The Coronation, an outlet glacier of the Penny Ice Cap on Baffin Island. To get there, me and a teammate flew a Cessna 210 from Boulder, Colorado, all the way to Baffin Island. It was challenging—lots of crevasses—and we skied over 50 miles. My sled, filled with instruments and samples, was about 75 pounds.”

Why did you start Science in the Wild?

“When I was staying in villages in Nepal, I’d do most of my work in the communal dining rooms and I would get a lot of questions. Everyone wanted to know what I was doing, so I started inviting them out. Science is such a conceptual thing. This makes it tangible. Especially when it’s something as important—and politically charged—as climate change.”

What have the Svalbard trips been about?

“The snowpack there is melting faster and faster, and one of the reasons is soot from the wildfires in North America. The particles are very small, but they’re dark, so they absorb more of sun’s rays than clean snow and ice. You just don’t think about the global impacts of things like wildfires in California. Or pollution. These trips are about the bigger picture, looking at these kinds of far-reaching impacts.”

Denise Mueller-Korenek—High-Speed Cyclist

ON SEPT. 16, 2018, at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, 45-year-old Denise Mueller-Korenek, a former 15-time national cycling champion, pedaled a bicycle a blistering 183.9 miles per hour, a world record for fastest speed in a slipstream. Her speed bested the previous record, set by Fred Rompleberg in 1995, by nearly 20 miles per hour. To do it, Mueller- Korenek pedaled a custom-built bicycle, and drafted behind a race car driven by professional Shea Holbrook. “Maintaining your position in the pocket of air behind the pace car is a lot like surfing,” she says, “only you’ve caught the biggest wave on earth.”

Here, the San Diego native explains how she did it.

The Driver: “Shea Holbrook drove the dragster. I couldn’t have done it without her. You can’t pedal a bike like this from a standstill, so she tows me behind her for the first 1.25 miles, until I can start to turn over the gear on the bike. Once I’m drafting, Shea is the one who finds the edge—how fast she can accelerate without dropping me. We have to make it to mile 5, the speed average gets measured between miles 4 and 5.”

The Car: “Normal dragsters can go only a quarter to a half mile. This one has a 1,000-horsepower Chevy big-block engine to handle the five-mile speed record ride. The box in the back is the faring; it’s what blocks the wind and creates the pocket of air for me to tuck into.”

Drafting: “There are 46 inches from left to right that I have to stay inside, and the faster we went, the more violent the air became. When we were hitting 180 mph, it felt like I had a dozen people on either side punching me with Nerf bats. If I penetrated the air pocket at that speed, it could be deadly.”

The Kevlar Suit: “My custom one-piece is made of Kevlar and leather and weighs about 7 pounds. I used a motocross helmet, because breathing was too restrictive with an ordinary motorcycle helmet. I sealed the mouthpiece with a pair of women’s nylons to help keep all the salt that kicks up from getting into my mouth. When I set the first women’s record, in 2016, it was more like an exhilarating amusement park ride. This time was a little terrifying.”

The Bike: “My bike is designed for stability, not aerodynamics. It’s seven feet long and 35 pounds. The frame is carbon fiber, but three times as thick as a regular bike. The tires are 17-inch motorcycle tires, because the rubber on cycling tires isn’t rated for speeds this high.”

Faith E. Briggs—Filmmaker and Activist

“ALL OF MY WORK IS about representation, whether it’s for Soul River, a fly-fishing nonprofit that brings veterans and inner-city youth into the outdoors, or my work as a documentarian. I just finished a film about the National Brotherhood of Skiers, an all-black organization that started in the 1970s, and I’m working on another about national monuments. We’ll be trail-running in each place, and we’ll talk about different perspectives of these public lands—an immigrant’s or a Latino’s or a first-generation’s.

I’m biracial, and I think a lot about the context of being outside, the kind of language that is inviting, and the barriers to entry for different people. I was a camp counselor as a teenager and a runner in college. Afterward, I was lucky enough to serve as Columbia Sportswear’s director of toughness in 2017, and they flew me all over the world for things like trekking across glaciers in Iceland and fishing in Kamchatka. When people asked, ‘What’s the one thing you’ll keep doing?’ I was like, ‘Fly-fishing!’ and that’s how I got interested in Soul River. I was just up in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with them. It was insane. We’re taking bush planes into the middle of nowhere.

People are realizing that it will take all of our voices to protect these places and with that comes the question: Why haven’t certain voices been heard before? The answer is they’ve been here, but their stories haven’t been told. And so that’s what I’m trying to do, too.”

Anita Naidu—Mountain Biker and Activist

SOON AFTER the start of the war in Syria, Naidu, a professional freeride mountain-biker and onetime engineer for the Canadian International Development Agency, spent three years embedded in Beirut’s slums researching human trafficking victims and refugees. As a woman of East Indian descent and an Arabic-
speaker, it was easy to blend in, even if it was a risky proposition. Still, it made the Canadian’s goal of finding technological solutions to their plight much easier.

The experience in Lebanon spurred Naidu to lead a project that won a Google Impact Challenge grant, in 2017, for an app that connects refugees with humanitarian aid and has since served some 6 million people. The experience also broadened Naidu’s vision for how her other passion, mountain biking, could also contribute to positive change in the world, catalyzing her to start clinics that combine learning freeriding biking skills with workshops on social change.

“A lot of people see my life as two different worlds,” she says. “One day you’re at the U.N. Peacekeeping Summit and the next day you’re filming on your bike. And yeah, it can be pretty crazy, but at the same time, both things stem directly from a core value: to make the world a better, less divisive, place.”

How do you transition from something like a humanitarian crisis to riding your bike?

“It’s honestly like drinking from a firehose of feelings. I’ve got to package it all, compartmentalize it all, so I can show up and be like, all right guys, we’re going to learn how to take seven-foot drops today! Let me teach you how to whip your bike. You’re just switching so quickly and turning things off. It’s what really made me realize that we have to not separate these worlds so much. That was really the impetus behind my clinics.”

What are the clinics like?

“In the day, we teach skills like cornering, jumping, and riding down technical terrain. Then there will be evening gatherings with moderated discussions. We’ll have 60 to 70 women participating. There is no topic I won’t touch. Oftentimes I will start with the changing role of women in society, and move on to what making an impact really looks like. Then I get into matching the skills that a person has to the world’s deepest needs. So it’s all about helping them understand how they already have what they need to create ripple effects.”

How did you get into mountain biking?

“In the same way as skateboarding. When I was 10 years old in Montreal and I saw these kids skateboarding. I was attracted to the rebellious nature of it, because it seemed so defiant compared to all the restrictions and rules that existed, both in my world of traditional culture and in the everyday world of girls. I really liked being able to challenge what is expected of you. I moved to Whistler when I was a teenager and had greater access to mountain biking and got into racing there.”

You’re the first woman of East Indian descent to be sponsored in a gravity sport. What has that been like?

“I understood when I was young that I was going to have to give up certain parts of myself to retain more important ones. I had to change the narrative of my traditional Eastern values, and also the Western world’s idea of what an athlete should look like. I think that defiance, and a willingness to be controversial, is really what set the tone for everything else that I would do in my life.”

Kimi Werner—Free-Diver and Chef

HITCHING A LONG, smooth ride by holding the dorsal fin of a 17-foot great white shark. Watching a pod of narwhals swim by while free-diving under Arctic ice. Spearing a 123-pound yellowfin tuna 100 feet below the surface. These are just some of the adventures experienced by Kimi Werner. For the 38-year-old Maui native, diving and food have always been connected. She began at age 5 with her dad, who would plunge into the depths and emerge with something for dinner.

Today, free-diving is a vehicle for Werner to explore the world and understand how diverse cultures depend on the sea, making her a kind of Anthony Bourdain of the ocean. Recent travels have taken her to Papua New Guinea, Borneo, and
 Indonesia. “Connecting with the ocean, nature, food, and
 diverse cultures make my life feel whole,” says Werner, who also founded Keep Wild Co., which makes products that help eliminate single-use plastic. “I try to serve as the underwater eyes into these worlds so that others can see, appreciate, and celebrate the beauty and diversity that is out there.”

Krystle Wright—Adventure Photographer

FOR AUSTRALIAN photographer Wright, adventure has always been in her blood. “I love to document expeditions,” she says. Those trips have included racing a car toward twin tornadoes in the Great Plains, paragliding to 7,000 meters in Pakistan, and swimming in Teahupo‘o, one of the world’s most powerful surf breaks. They’ve also earned her a few injuries—a broken ankle, smashed front teeth, ripped shoulder tendons, etc.—but the pain is worth it if Wright can stir her audience.

It’s that kind of all-in commitment that has made her images and her short film, Where the Wild Things Play, an homage to women adventurers, recognized around the globe. “Sometimes my curiosity overrides common sense,” says Wright, 31. “But embarking on expeditions where there is a high chance of failure, the success feels pretty damn amazing when it all comes together.” Here are the stories behind two times when it did.

Teahupo’o, Tahiti, 2017: “My heart was definitely racing when the sets came in—surfers on this day broke boards, a collarbone, and a leg. But with such clarity underwater, I could position myself as the surfers went past and photograph them.”

Karakoram Range, Pakistan, 2016: “I always wanted to return to Pakistan after I had a paragliding accident there in 2011. The light was a photographer’s dream, and as we came across this ridgeline, I captured pilot Hernan Pitocco.”

Angel Collinson—Big Mountain Skier

THERE’S A famous video of Collinson taking one of the gnarliest spills ever in the backcountry. In 2016, descending a tight couloir in Alaska’s Neacola Mountains, the snow turned to ice under her feet, causing her to careen 1,000 feet down the slopeOpens a New Window., head over heels. The fact that she survived uninjured is almost unbelievable. And the viral video is not even Collinson’s most impressive clip.

The previous year, she rode a backcountry line that forced her to set off a mini slough avalanche, weave through a few cliff bands, then rocket back through that falling powder at top speed, a descent that won her Powder Magazine’s coveted Line of the Year Award. She was the first woman ever to win it. It’s a remarkable run, but the 28-year-old has made a habit of leaving the ski world slack-jawed with her risky exploits. Still, she doesn’t consider herself a daredevil. “I think things out quite a bit before I do something,” she says, “and if I feel like something is sketchy, I’m not into it.”

SOUL SKIER

“On skis, Angel charges with grace and power, just like in the rest of her life,” says Kit DesLauriers, the first person to ski from the seven summits. “She’s a unique soul.”

Sasha Digiulian—Rock Climber

“WOMEN ARE capable of climbing just as hard, and even harder, than men,” says climbing phenom DiGiulian. No argument there, especially considering the Boulder, Colorado, native has put up groundbreaking first ascents around the globe, including big-wall climbs in Madagascar, Brazil, Switzerland, and Italy. Her most recent climb, of the Canadian Trilogy in Banff National Park, included a trifecta of walls considered the most difficult in the Rocky Mountains.

It’s a huge change of direction for the 26-year-old, who got her climbing start in the gym and became a fixture of the competition circuit for nearly a decade. Her early years were a blur of podium finishes, and she captured world champion for female overall and was the undefeated Pan-American champion from 2004 to 2012. “I only succeed when I am doing what I am passionate about,” she says.

Lately that has involved protecting the environment and encouraging a more diverse group of people to get interested in climbing through various nonprofits, including the Women’s Sports Foundation, where she sits on the board; the Access Fund; Right to Play; and Up2UsSports. “Sasha is dedicated to the sport of climbing and sharing its values with a wider and more diverse population,” says legendary alpinist Conrad Anker. “She is determined to make the world a better place by empowering women to participate in sports.”

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