Katherine Donnelly | 06.29.2018

As part of Outdoor Project's Women In the Wild series this summer, I have had the honor of working with outdoor women from all over the industry to dig a bit deeper into who they are, how they got to where they are now, how they approach the outdoors, and more. These women are all rad in their own right, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, or how "badass" they might be. Whether they're mothers, daughters, sisters, professional athletes, beginners, weekend warriors, "instafamous," or anywhere in-between, their unique stories, journeys, opinions, and perspectives are incredibly valuable and insightful as Outdoor Project - and the industry as a whole - progresses and evolves to become more inclusive to every type of outdoors person. 

Through in-depth and often thought-provoking interviews, I hope to highlight these women's stories, their work, their adventures, and so much more with an eye toward giving them their well-deserved share of the spotlight while inspiring and empowering even more women to get outside!

In this feature we talk to Tara Sou.

Climber, mountaineer, and lover of the outdoors, this Woman In The Wild spills all - from falling in love with adventure at an early age to juggling her education and career with her passion for the mountains. Big things - and summits - are definitely on the horizon for her. Get the full scoop below. 

Photo by Collin Burk.

OP: Give us the skinny on who Tara Sou is.

Tara Sou: As a child, I didn’t have much of an introduction to the outdoors or outdoor activities. Both my parents are Cambodian refugees, making me a first generation American. It wasn’t the easiest growing up, as my parents didn’t know a lot of English, so my brothers and I had to figure a lot of things out for ourselves. But that wasn’t such a bad thing, as this left a lot of room for me to mold myself into who I wanted to be. Growing up the way I did gave me the opportunity to do and explore without the approval (or disapproval) of my parents. Apart from climbing, adventuring and exploring, I work in dermatology research. Prior to that, I was in emergency medicine research. I double majored in Health Science and Community Health Education in undergrad, and am currently working toward a master’s degree, and someday, hopefully a medical degree. I would absolutely love to be able to combine my background in medicine with the outdoors I love spending so much time in. 

OP: When did you first know that you were going to spend your life in the outdoors?

Tara Sou: I didn’t realize how much I loved spending time in the outdoors until I found myself sitting in detention for skipping school. I’ll admit I was a pretty awful student. It wasn’t for a lack of ability, I just absolutely loved going on adventures and didn’t think about the consequences. I had such a pull to be outside, the consequences seemed secondary. I did not realize the impact or extent to which I would become involved in the outdoors, but I definitely realized at this point that the outdoors was where I enjoyed spending my time. As I progressed from day hikes to overnights to getting into rock climbing and mountaineering, it became apparent to me that I was going to be spending a good chunk of my free time outside.

OP: What does it mean to you to be a woman in the outdoor industry? 

Tara Sou: Being a woman in the outdoor industry means I get to write my own story, unbound by societal norms. I get to be wild, uninhibited, uncaring and unbeholden to the societal norms of past or current times. I don’t have to shower daily, I get to wear the same set of clothes for days, I get to trade the societal norm of beauty for badassery. Being a woman in the outdoors is awesome, but it is not without its challenges, and it can come with a lot of unsolicited criticism. I always try to remind myself that I’m not doing it for them, and I’m doing what I do because it’s who I am, but also as an example to other women that you don’t have to always abide by societal norms or certain constructs of beauty.

OP: Conservation and protection of our public lands are central themes in today’s outdoor recreation narrative. As someone who spends a significant amount of time outdoors and on public lands, what role do you think outdoor enthusiasts should play in this evolving conversation and landscape?

Tara Sou: The topic of conservation and protection of public land seems like an overwhelming topic to tackle, especially if it feels like your thoughts and opinions wouldn’t make a difference. Sometimes, I feel that way. What would I even be able to do? My voice is small, and I’m not a professional at anything. How do I even make a difference? I think one of the best ways to show that we want to keep public lands in our hands is to join a trail crew or an event/organization that cleans up, builds, and takes care of trails. It shows that we, as the avid outdoor enthusiasts, care about our land. We don’t just hike the trails, we protect and take care of them too. It’s a small role on our part, but it shows that we want to keep the wild in public hands!

OP: Who has inspired you along the way?

Tara Sou: I have had the fortunate opportunity to be taught and coached by some amazing women. Jenny Abegg is one of those amazing women. One of my close friends and I got the opportunity to learn how climb multi-pitches with her, and she was a perfect example of what it means to be a woman in the outdoors. She was such a great teacher, and was so patient and even more encouraging. I truly enjoyed getting to learn how she got into the outdoors. She knew about my 30 before 30 goal and decided to push us to climb Monkey Face and check that off our list.

Katie Bono is another individual that’s been inspiring to me. I got to meet her during the Portland Alpine Festival. I learned that she was on a path to a medical career and also found time to summit mountains. I was so impressed, because that was the same thing I wanted to do: be outdoors as well as be in the medical field!

OP: What does adventure mean to you?

Tara Sou: Adventure means freedom. The freedom to make your own decisions, and to choose your own level of risk. Adventure is doing what everyone else looks at as being "crazy.” Adventure is anything outside of the realm of your day to day circle of comfort. Adventure can be anything from getting outside on a hike you’ve done a million times to a 1:00 a.m. alpine start where you leave the comfort of a warm bed for the frigid suffering of the mountain. 

OP: What does the term "badass" mean to you?

Tara Sou: To be badass means to be fearless. To respect the power of the nature around you but still go out and get after it. There are plenty of people out there who can come up with all the excuses in the world, but they aren’t the ones with the epic stories or pictures. To be badass may mean taking some risks, but it also means knowing when to trust in your own abilities. Being badass doesn’t always mean jumping into dangerous situations, but it does mean having the self-confidence to try things that others may shy away from. There is danger in adventure, but there is also danger in everyday life. You could die on your commute to work just as easily as you could die on the mountain. Being badass is accepting this fact that your time on this Earth is finite. Being badass is accepting that you may die at any time, but that to die doing what you love is far better than to die doing what’s safe and boring. “Climb the goddamn mountain.”

OP: How have you managed to align your career with your passion for the outdoors? And do you have any advice for someone who is looking to do the same?

Tara Sou: I haven’t exactly aligned my career with my passion for the outdoors. I work in clinical research, specializing in dermatology… which doesn’t really have a whole lot to do with the outdoor community, as it were. But my schedule and working weekdays has definitely allowed me to get out on some epic adventures come the weekend. It’s not always about having these two worlds align, but figuring out how to juggle both worlds. Sometimes that means a lack of sleep, and sometimes that means going into work with muscles so sore you can’t sit down without wincing. Better to have a full heart and soul, though, than rested legs and a dissatisfaction with your situation. 

OP: In a perfect world, what does the outdoors (the people, the places, the community as a whole, etc.) look like to you? And what can outdoor brands and media companies, such as Outdoor Project, do better to help get us there?

Tara Sou: The outdoor community, and the people and places that make up this community, are a people and a place of acceptance and support. Whether that is facilitating adventures to bring you further out of your comfort zone or providing the necessary beta for you to feel confident and safe in being able to undertake your own adventure. A community of people to be able to fill in the logistical gaps of knowledge that you may personally feel you lack. I think outdoor brands put on a lot of clinics that better educate people on how and when to use their product and also provide the space to safely test out their gear. 

OP: What is the greatest piece of advice or direction that you’ve ever received, and what’s the story behind it?

Tara Sou: One of the greatest pieces of advice I received was from a guide when I was attempting to summit Mount Hood. I’m not sure why I thought attempting to summit Mount Hood was a great idea when I had absolutely no prior experience or training. I had minimal gear (crampons, ice axe, and a helmet). I expected a lot of criticism from him; however, he was extremely encouraging, gave me some advice about taking it slow, and if I needed him, he would be there on the mountain. But I think what really stuck in my mind was that I need to learn to be okay with failing, that learning to be okay with failing is probably the hardest part of mountaineering. It will only make you smarter, more careful with decision making and will keep you alive.

OP: If you could give one piece of advice to yourself when you were just starting out with rock climbing, what would it be?

Tara Sou: Stop hesitating. Stop hesitating. Just do it. Everyone starts out as a beginner. 

OP: What’s next for you in the coming months and years?

Tara Sou: My co-worker (who I now consider a very good friend) threw out an idea at me: summit 30 mountains before we’re 30. Of course, being the kind of person I am, I quickly accepted the idea and the challenge. She’s got an extra two years to complete this conquest. I have a little less than three years left. I’d only completed one actual summit at the time the idea was thrown out (I summited Mount Hood back in 2016). So that meant 29 more. Which means about 10 per year. Is that crazy?

I love mountaineering, but I also very much love rock climbing. So why not incorporate topping out on pillars, spires, or peaks as well? So far this year, I’ve climbed Monkey Face at Smith Rock and summited South Sister as well as Mount St. Helens. I’m looking to summit a couple of other mountains this year as well as do a bit more climbing. I should be well on my way to reaching my goal of 30 before 30!

OP: If our readers were to take one thing from this interview, what would you like it to be?

Tara Sou: Don’t be afraid to go on adventures. Don’t be afraid of going alone. Don’t let not having experience stop you. Don’t let not having money stop you. Don’t make up excuses. Read up on trails, hikes, don’t be afraid to ask on social media how conditions are. Be aware of the environment and people around you.

Being an outdoor enthusiast is an expensive hobby. I was a college student with no job when I started to progress from simple hikes to overnight backpacking, mountaineering and rock climbing. I used my school backpack to pack food, water and first aid. I didn’t have any other gear. And I went without a whole lot because I didn’t want not having the right gear to stop me from being outside. 

Yes, it’s important to be safe when outside. Yes, it’s important to have all the right gear. I’m not a great role model, as a lot of things I do would be considered unsafe in the eyes of many people. But I’m that kind of person that doesn’t let anything stop me from doing what I want to do. I’ve accepted the fact that every time I go out, there’s a chance of me not coming back in one piece, or coming back at all. I’m okay with that. 

Learn more about Tara and follow along on her adventures through Facebook and Instagram.


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