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Adventurer Elise Wortley Recreates the Journeys of Famous Female Explorers | Travel

Claire Turrell

Elise Wortley pulled her yak wool coat tight around her as the mountain temperature dropped to minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit. The fire at her feet flickered underneath her Himalayan rubber-soled shoes. Her canvas tent sat empty, apart from her homemade wooden backpack, as she couldn’t bear to peel herself away from the only source of heat for miles. This is where the 27-year-old slept, until the sun rose and she and her Lepcha mountain guide continued their trek up to the base camp of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, in November 2017.

It was another woman that brought Wortley to this point, the French explorer Alexandra David-Néel, who traveled through the Himalayas in the early 1900s. Wortley’s own journey through the Himalayas would become part of a six-year Woman with Altitude project that has seen her trace the routes of early female adventurers from the wilds of Scotland to the valleys of Iran.

Wortley’s vision began 11 years earlier, when at the age of 16 she first came across David-Néel’s 1927 book My Journey to Lhasa. The teenager from Essex in the U.K. was swept away with the tale of the French woman, who left her husband for a journey across the Himalayas that she said would take 18 months but ultimately kept her away for 14 years. The spiritualist, writer and anarchist meditated in a cave for two years, disguised herself as an old Tibetan woman to enter Lhasa, Tibet (which at the time was off-limits to foreigners), and battled hypothermia in the wild.

David-Néel is a very polarizing figure, explains Marion Dapsance, author of Alexandra David-Néel: Spiritual Icon, Feminist, Anarchist. She’s been criticized for traveling to Tibet to learn Buddhism and then dismissing it as superstition. But the opera-singer-turned-explorer caught people’s attention in her own time. “Her book My Journey to Lhasa established her as a celebrity in Europe,” says Dapsance. “She was a courageous woman with a strong will. People would find her strange and unusual, that’s for sure.”

The French explorer’s travelogue was only 290 pages. “I remember thinking, wow, she has condensed her story into this, but this journey…

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