Michigan Sport and Fitness - Women's Issue

by Tom Demerly

Cerro Aconcagua
Rasa Poorman does not recognize limitations. High altitude mountaineer and skier, Poorman, 36 of Novi, is the prototype of female athletes. She is well trained, technically proficient, highly motivated and ambitious. Her foray into climbing has been in contrast to the stereotypical male climbing community. While women are common in climbing gyms, it seems that almost every mountaineering expedition has a male/female ratio of almost 5 to 1. While Title 91 brought growth to women's sports in the last decade, mountaineering has remained mostly male.

There is no Title 9 at 20,000 feet. Only two thirds less oxygen, hurricane force winds and sub zero temperatures that freeze flesh in seconds, not to mention avalanches, crevasses, storms and other objective hazards like high altitude pulmonary edema. And almost no chance for rescue or survival when things go wrong.

The hazards of mountaineering are indiscriminate: They do not recognize gender. Skilled and lucky climbers live, the untrained may escape with their lives, the unlucky and untrained have a short life span.

Rasa on Kilimanjaro Summit
Poorman has summited some of the most challenging climbs in the world including Mt. Rainier, Mt. Kilimanjaro and, this January, an attempt on the highest mountain in the world outside the Himalayas-Aconcagua. At 22,841 ft., it is the highest mountain on the South American continent, higher than anything in North America, or anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere.

Rasa Poorman started skiing when she was 8. At 11 some boys dared her to enter a running race. She won. She went on to race on the boys junior high track team for two years, then high school track for four years as MVP of her team. She graduated in 1982 with 9 school records, two of which still stand. She works as a Certified Hand Therapist at the Michigan Hand Rehabilitation Center of Detroit. Her husband, Glenn, is an outstanding musician and Software Engineer for Autodesk, Inc.

"I don't believe gender makes a difference." Says Poorman about climbing. Even when pressed to offer examples of what challenges are unique to females in mountaineering, Poorman offers a long silence and one word answer "...None." She does concede that "Women in general are more in touch with their surroundings. The outdoors are a more visceral experience for us rather than cerebral."

Poorman says her motivation comes from a desire to experience life, rather than observe it. "You can't tell what something is like sitting on the couch watching it on TV." And what separates the spectators from the achievers? "Nothing" says Poorman. "You have to make a personal decision to try something, it has to come from inside. You have to at least try something". "I think anyone can do it, it is so simple". Poorman believes it is misunderstanding that prevents people, especially women, from trying new experiences. "Women should read books by other female climbers. If they just sit down and learn about it they will see they can do it."

Rasa on Elbert Summit
Although Rasa makes light of the devotion required, she has paid her dues in climbing with interest. On a climb in Colorado she was separated from a climbing partner. Alone, without a headlight, maps or other survival equipment, she made her way down blind, in the dark, to a road where she began to organize a search for her missing team mate, who turned up a few hours later safely. On Kilimanjaro Poorman developed a tooth abscess that had to be treated at 16,000 feet on the mountain. In Tanzania, Africa, there are no dentists at 16,000ft. Despite the problem, she went on to summit. Several months ago she fell in a training accident and broke her arm. Still wearing a cast, she was training again in days. Before her trip to Aconcagua in January, she will practice a week of avalanche forecasting, crevasse rescue, glacier navigation and other expedition skills on Mt. Rainier.

To meet Rasa Poorman is to meet a person caught in the current of a life being lived to the fullest. Short dark hair, athletic build, articulate, quick to smile but never to pull a punch, she is what she is. You meet the genuine person when you meet her. If you didn't read this you would never know she was a climber. She is humble with herself but generous with praise and encouragement for others. Her husband Glenn is entirely supportive but does not climb. His time is spent in pursuit of his passion for experimental music and technology. Rasa feels their separate interests only add to their relationship. When Rasa boarded the plane to Africa last year for Kilimanjaro, it was with teary eyes. "I miss Glenn already". The couple kept in touch via a satellite telephone supplied by Motorola to the climbing team.

When you finish talking to Rasa you want to go climb something. You believe you can do it. She has done it, and she says it is easy. So try. Even though there may be thousands of feet of mountain between you and the top, the biggest step is the one off the couch, according to Rasa Poorman.

1 Title 9 is a federal ban on sexual discrimination mandating equality in federally funded school programs and promoting equality in sports at the high school and college levels.