Sunny Stroeer at 17,000ft on a new route attempt in the Himalayas
Sunny Stroeer started AWExpeditions because she’s passionate about being a woman who feels at home outside in the world’s wildest places.
More importantly, she’s passionate about bringing more women out there with her.
This is why she started the Summit Scholarship. It was created with a simple goal: to break down barriers in the outdoor world and get more women outside. And by “outside” we mean climbing up some of the highest, raddest, and most breathtaking peaks in the world.
To get us hyped for the 2021 Summit Scholarship, we asked the badass past recipients of the scholarship to share their thoughts and advice on living a life outside, how they approached their application, and more.
Melissa Estep, the 2019 Summit Scholarship recipient, returning from a successful summit bid on Island Peak in Nepal
Here are their responses.
1. Why do you feel it's important that more women are able to enjoy the outdoors?
Growing up in a binary home, meant I was assigned to different chores/tasks defined by my own gender. This created the idea that I was only capable of certain tasks because of my gender. That I was only capable of chasing a limit that was set by others, rather than my own. Having more women in the outdoors allows them (me, at least) to challenge that mental barrier. For me, it allows myself to define who I am on my own instead of barriers imposed by others.
There’s so much research that shows the benefits of getting outdoors on our mental health. Just being able to see some greenery can improve mood and even help people recover quicker from surgery! With everything that has happened over the last year, it’s more important than ever to take care of both our physical and mental health, so getting outdoors (in whatever capacity) is something that everyone can benefit from.
For me, the outdoors is a place to heal and grow. A place to push myself to do better and find out who I am. When anyone is kept from that it puts them at a disadvantage because they never will get to experience what a force of good it can be or feel how it can change their lives. I would not be the person I am today or grown in the way I have If I had not had access to the wilderness.
Melissa en route to Everest Basecamp during her 2019 Summit Scholarship expedition
2. When did you first realize you felt at home outdoors? Tell us about the moment.
It was mid-season at my time in the Southwest Conservation Corps. I was in charge of carrying 4 gallons of water up a hill to base camp. Throughout the past couple months I had seen the landscape change throughout seasons and realized how beautiful it felt to be a part of real, untouched landscape (as opposed to LA, where seasons don’t exist outside of summer).
On one of my trips, I encountered a field of untouched fly agaric (mushrooms) near the riverbed I got water from, which I thought never existed outside of cartoons. I found beauty in the organisms that existed outside of textbooks and movies, which is often how I would think of myself. It made me realize how hard it was to experience untouched, unmodified anything, and that was beautiful to be a part of that. To me, that’s home and it’s worth chasing.
An early morning of altitude training in Colorado.
While I’ve always loved being outside, my first trip as an expedition medic in Tanzania was a lightbulb moment for me. While I watched the young people on the expedition, I realised that while they were initially completely out of their comfort zone, I was the happiest and most serene I’d been in months. Watching them grow in confidence and competence was one of the greatest pleasures I’ve ever had at work and really brought home the truly transformative power of the outdoors.
Not only do I feel at home in the outdoors, but I also consider it to be where I find my home. I grew up moving every 2-3 years outside of my parents’ country and have never felt a sense of home anywhere. But when I return to a landscape I visited as a child I feel the stirrings of belonging, and when I leave I feel what I can best describe as homesickness. When I moved to the United States at 17, the landscape was the only way I was able to feel connected to the country from the connection I formed on summers spent outside camping in the west growing up.
3. Tell us about the first hiking trip you ever took.
The first hiking trip I took was with my family before my dad was diagnosed with kidney failure. I remember being surprised by how big trees were or how rivers naturally ran across the lands. To be honest, at the time, I hated walking. I questioned where the sidewalks were, or the buildings with AC. I didn’t think I was good at blending in with nature. Little did I know, nature would become the place that would help define who I am.
One of my earliest introductions to self-sufficient backpacking was the practice for my Duke of Edinburgh Award Bronze expedition when I was about 14. We spent two days carrying very heavy rucksacks (we’d packed all the essentials, including some straightening irons) across the Yorkshire Dales. It felt incredible to be trusted to navigate by ourselves, cook on our trusty Trangias, and we managed to survive the weekend with some sunburnt noses and a few blisters. I was hooked!
I grew up backpacking and hiking from a young age. The earliest trip I can remember, I was about 4 years old and we were in Colorado. I remember swimming in a lake and feeling nervous but excited because there were mountain lions in the area. I remember feeling totally free because I could make as much noise as I wanted, climb on rocks, anything. I was often told to calm down and be quieter growing up, so it was great!
Melissa resting after her successful summit of Island Peak in 2019
4. What advice do you have for future applicants and recipients of the Summit Scholarship? Viviana Serrano
My advice would be to be willing to workout your mental strength. I know this year has been tough on all of us, in countless ways. But your mentality is a powerful thing that can empower you in ways you never would imagine possible. When Kilimanjaro was postponed for a year, I was disappointed, of course.
But I realized how important that was in order for me to find the strength to question those mental barriers that were holding me back from allowing myself to believe in myself. It boiled it down to the fundamentals that allowed me to realign mentally and train physically. In end, be willing to change and the best way to do that is to throw yourself into the places that create change in you.
I know that the mountaineering community can sometimes feel a bit inaccessible, especially when you’re just starting out, but Sunny and the team at AWE are doing phenomenal work in making the outdoors more accessible for everyone. They’re changing the traditionally male-dominated narrative in mountaineering, and you can be a part of that change.
I never thought for a second that I’d be awarded a scholarship and although our Kilimanjaro climb has been postponed, I’ve already had the chance to meet some incredible women and I can’t wait to get out on the mountain with them!
Tell your earnest truth and be passionate! We live for good stories, and the Summit Scholarship gives women like me (and you) an opportunity to live something real and raw and create a story worth telling.
Applications close on February 25, 2021. Head to www.awexpeditions.org for more info.
Photos courtesy of LOWA Ambassador Sunny Stroeer.