Woman with altitude: recreating the journey of Alexandra David–Neél

We speak to adventurer Elise Wortley as she takes on the Himalayan trek that changed how women explore the world

As International Women's Day places the spotlight firmly on inspirational females pushing boundaries within the worlds of business, sports, arts and beyond this Thursday 8 March, it's also a perfect time to champion the powerful women who have changed our world for the better. 100 years since the Suffragettes first won women the right to vote, many IWD events are looking at campaigns for furthering equality and opportunity for women around the world – but for some, like adventurer Elise Wortley, celebrating the historic achievements of our forebears is an opportunity in itself.

Beginning her expedition last November, Wortley has set out on an ambitious trek across the mountainous Indian Himalayan region to follow in the footsteps of legendary female explorer Alexandra David-Neél, who undertook a treacherous 14-year trans-Himalayan journey to Tibet in 1924. A former opera singer-turned-independent adventurer, David-Neél became the first western woman to meet the Dalai Lama, and studied his teachings to become a Lama herself. At times during her trip, she had to disguise herself as a beggar or a monk, in order to enter forbidden areas or independently as a woman. 

David-Neél's expedition inspired her to write Magic and Mystery in Tibet and My Journey to Lhasa, two books that have formed the basis of Wortley’s trip. Wortley will trace David-Neél’s journey from Lachen, India to Lhasa, Tibet, splitting the 14-year journey into a demanding trek through each of the countries visited more than a hundred years ago – and taking only the equipment David-Neél would have used back then. Wortley's other motive was to raise funds for Freedom Kit Bags, a charity which delivers sanitary products to women in rural areas of Nepal – helping to end cultural taboos around menstruation. Talking about the charity, Wortley said: “Freedom Kit Bags is amazing at empowering women and I’ve wanted to help since I first heard about the work they do. It’s important that we all talk more openly about menstruation and make it part of everyday conversation. As well as raising money for an amazing women’s charity, I wanted to show that women have always been at the forefront of adventure. I also wanted a focus on female guides around the world as well as trying to inspire as many other women as I can to put themselves out of their comfort zones and take on a challenge.” 

Here, Wortley exclusively tells Tempus about her preparation, starting the journey in Sikkim and the daring woman who started it all…

What was it about Alexandra David-Neél's journey that inspired you to want to do the same?
Since reading her book when I was 16 I’ve been mesmerised by her. She must have had so much strength to journey through Asia for 14 years, but even more so to walk away from her life in Europe at that time. 

What do you think motivated David-Neél to undertake such an ambitious and groundbreaking trip?
One of Alexandra’s quotes that has always stuck with me is: “I craved for life beyond the garden gate, to follow the road that passed it by, and to set out for the unknown”. She was determined to change her life and prove people wrong, and I think this is why I was so drawn to her. I’ve always lacked self‐confidence so when I think about other women doing amazing things it inspires me to do the same.

How have times changed for female explorers?
Technology and clothing have made travel easier, but women still face pressures – for instance there are places in the world women can’t go alone, or restrictions on what they should be wearing. Women explorers are never remembered as much as their male counterparts – which female adventurers did you learn about in school, for example? It’s important to show that women have always have been breaking boundaries and, most importantly, inspiring other women as they go. >>

Related: Singing her dreams: operatic star Carly Paoli on preparing for Cadogan Hall

* In November 2017, with an all-female team in tow, Elise Wortley set out into the Indian Himalaya, to follow in the footsteps of legendary female explorer Alexandra David-Neél

Talk us through this part of your journey.
We started in Lachen, Sikkim and trekked up to the Chopta Valley, then went slightly further north to the army area but had to turn around as its restricted from there northwards. We were walking for seven to nine hours a day, covering 174km up steep, slippery mountain paths and altitude. Sikkim is a sensitive state of India, it’s bordered by Nepal, Bhutan and of course Chinese Tibet, which means that it’s covered in army bases. The chief of the main regiment actually invited us in for tea one day which was surreal – I was dressed like Alexandra, drinking out of a china mug with the chief! We then walked back down and headed West, up to the Zumu glacier and Kangchenjunga base camp, before heading round to Lachen where we were in the mountains for just under four weeks. The toughest challenge I faced was heading off into the unknown, I was terrified about what could happen. 

You followed Alexandra's book rigidly, was there a moment during your own journey when you felt most connected to hers? 
Alexandra is famous for spending nearly two years meditating in a freezing cave in the mountains of Sikkim – so I just had to find it. When we finally arrived, I looked out over the same views that she would have over 100 years ago. It seemed totally incredible that I was actually in that same cave that was so important to her. 

You must have trained extensively for the journey. What impact has it had on you? 
When I was back in the real world after the first leg, I found things mentally tough. [While travelling] I had nothing to distract me apart from the scenery and the people I was with, but as soon as I turned my phone back on in Delhi I immediately felt the stress building again. I really miss that feeling of being alone and fully appreciating everything around me. >>

Related: Adventurer Inge Solheim on why extreme trekking is the ultimate healer for the body and mind

* Elise decided to start at the very beginning of Alexandra’s 14 year journey, and with no modern day equipment

What was your most memorable moment?
It was definitely reaching the basecamp of Mt Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain on the planet, with my local female guide Jangu and Emily, who was filming the trip. We were as close to Mt. Kangchenjunga as you can get from the Sikkim side. It’s very rare that local people get to come here due to the permits, costs and amount of time it takes to get there. We stopped as close as we could, whereJangu changed into her traditional clothes to recite a prayer for her late father. It was incredibly moving because we understood what an important role he had played in her life – it was a very significant moment. 

What challenge is next for you? 
I think Mongolia was Alexandra’s next stop. For the next leg of the journey, I would like to go with a larger group of women and have all of us walking with chairpacks and no modern day equipment. 

* Elise’s extraordinary journey has helped to raise money for the charity Freedom Kit Bags
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