Why one woman climbed the Himalayas without technology


Elise Wortley trekking though the Himalayas with her guide and camerawoman. Source: Woman with Altitude / Elise Wortley

OVER 100 years ago, the great French explorer Alexandra David-Néel set off on what would be an epic adventure across Asia spanning 14 years.

David-Néel recorded the later stages of her trip in her critically acclaimed book, My Journey to Lhasa.

She had disguised herself as a beggar to escape the curiosity of soldiers, bandits, and any officials from the British Empire who may have tried to send her home.

Her heroic story transcends a decade of epic tales including a tragic love affair and time spent as a disciple in a remote Tibetan region under the command of a Hermetic master where she learned to speak Tibetan and sought enlightenment.

However, perhaps the most prominent was her journey across the Himalaya’s with a female tour guide and basic equipment.

This was the specific tale which caught the attention of London-based Woman with Altitude‘s Elise Wortley, 28, who recently followed in David-Néel’s footsteps.

“I first read Alexandra’s book My Journey to Lhasa when I was 16, and I’ve just been mesmerized by it ever since,” she told Travel Wire Asia.

“She (David-Néel) must have had so much strength, physically and mentally to journey through Asia for 14 years, but more so to walk away from her life in Europe.”

David-Néel was born into a middle-class family in Paris in the late 19th century and married a French railway engineer in Tunisia in 1904, but for both parties, it was a marriage of convenience.

After a short while, David- Néel realized a life within the parameters of her Europe-centric life were not enough for her.

“I craved for life beyond the garden gate, to follow the road that passed it by, and to set out for the unknown,” David-Néel writes in My Journey to Lhasa.

And it was this very same thought Wortley understood.

“I always look up to women who achieve amazing things through their own sheer determination and will power, it makes me think if she can do it, then so can I, and so can anyone! Alexandra was the role model that I’d never found through my early years of education,” Wortley told Travel Wire Asia.

For many people, just telling others about their new role model would suffice, but Wortley wanted more than this and decided to trace David-Néel’s footsteps across a portion of her Himalayan trek.

“One of my main motivations to do this expedition was to highlight roles of women in adventure travel and to show that women have always been at the forefront of adventure,” she added.

“At the moment, our TVs seem to be full of male adventure role models, so I wanted to counteract this and show that women were, and still are breaking as many boundaries as the men.”

After months of preparation, Wortley traveled to Sikkim to meet with Jangu, her female guide and collected the rest of her travel kit.

“I wanted to experience as closely as I could, how it would have felt for her, and what it would have been like being a woman in the mountains back then. I also wanted to see how I would cope without modern technology or equipment,” said Wortley.

“We all live in a consumer society, especially here in London and I wanted to go back to the basics and see if it changed my outlook at all.”

She took only what David-Néel had available to her a century ago, including a wooden bowl, watch, compass, chopsticks, a pouch for money, two hot water bottles, blankets, soap and a pistol – which Wortley left behind.

Impressively, Wortley managed to recreate the type of wooden-framed backpack and basket David-Néel took all those years ago, simply made from a reconstructed chair and woven basket.

The trek and lack of modern technical equipment certainly took its toll on Wortley as she recalls one blisteringly cold night on the way up to Mount Kanchenjunga, waking to find the hot water bottle she’d gone to sleep with had frozen and frost had crept across her forehead.

“Of course, if you were in modern clothes you would be absolutely fine! I wouldn’t want to put anyone off trekking in the mountains as it’s such an amazing experience,” Wortley said.

“This experience has taught me that no matter how silly you think an idea is, or how unreasonable it may seem, just go with it!”

Despite having no access to modern day technology on her trek and often finding herself in some of the most remote places of the world, Wortley emphasized that the hardest bit about the journey was having to come home and adhere to the fast-paced stresses of 21st-century life.

“As soon as I turned my phone on back in the UK I could immediately feel the stress building again and I really missed that feeling of being alone, fully appreciating everything around you and right in front of you without any distractions or interruptions,” she explained.

However, she didn’t just embark on this journey for self-fulfillment.

“Through this project, I’ve been raising money for Freedom Kit Bags, an amazing charity that empowers women and girls in rural and low-income areas of Nepal by providing them with a reusable kit containing everything they will need during their period,” she said.

Access to clean, menstrual sanitation is still a huge struggle for many women across Nepal and those on their period are often seen as “unclean” which means they have to stop going to school or joining their community when they are menstruating.

A lack of hygienic protection also means many girls and women needlessly suffer from pelvic infections, kidney diseases, and infertility.

Hence, 100 percent of the donations to the Freedom Kit Bags charity will go towards manufacturing and distributing the kits alongside life-saving education for women.

I vow to show what the will of a woman can do – Alexandra David-Néel

If you’re inspired by Wortley’s story, get in contact with Travel Wire Asia via editor@hyrbid.co and we can happily put you in contact with this fear-defying, adventure-seeking, altruistic young woman.