A month-long trek through the Himalayan mountains would be challenging for even the most experienced and well-equipped traveller; bone-chillingly cold nights coupled with air-thinning altitudes demands sturdy gear and an even more robust strength of will.
So when Elise Wortley stood in her Delhi hotel room last November, dressed only in a thick coat made of purple yak wool and scruffy leather boots picked up by a friend from a market in Leh, it’s no surprise she began to quietly panic.
Inspired by the writings of explorer and spiritualist Alexandra David-Néel, blogger and travel industry professional Wortley was preparing to embark on a journey through the mountains without any modern equipment, travelling just as her heroine would have done more than 100 years previously.
Who was Alexandra David-Néel?
“I first read her book when I was 16,” explains the spirited 28-year-old, who works for adventure company Exodus and blogs as Woman With Altitude. “I was absolutely amazed by this woman and I always thought I’d like to somehow follow in her footsteps.”
And to really do David-Néel justice, Wortley decided to replicate her journey – in terms of both location and travel kit.
My Journey To Lhasa follows the last six months of David-Néel’s 14-year expedition into the Tibetan capital, on a search to find fabled Buddhist doctrines and prove to a stuffy, conservative society that a woman was perfectly capable of travelling this far alone.
Fuelled by David-Néel’s bravery and defiance, Wortleyintended to use her own journey as a means to inspire more women to get out there and explore.
But as she began researching her trip, she soon realised many parts of Tibet would be impossible to access, so she switched to covering the first part of the Belgian-French anarchist’s epic adventure, trekking 174km from Lachen, in Sikkim, to Chopta Valley and Kangchenjunga base camp and back again.
Travelling with no modern equipment
Along with planning a route and securing permits, her preparation also involved in-depth wardrobe research.
“This bit of the journey, she did in 1912, but as it was over four years, I decided I’d use 1920s equipment. She had chop sticks, a bowl, a kettle, cotton undergarments – and a yak coat.”
On her back, Wortley carried a wooden backpack constructed from an inverted chair and a wicker basket.
“I did feel a bit self-conscious,” she admits. “Mainly because I didn’t want people to think I was taking the p***. When we set off, I was dreading walking behind the porters, but after two days, I was absolutely fine.”
The challenges she faced
There was one element of David-Néel’s account, however, which was impossible to master.
“She was an expert in Tummo breathing, where you breathe from your tummy and it warms you from the inside out. I did look into it, but it takes years to master.”
Instead, when temperatures plummeted to minus 15 degrees Celcius at night, Wortley wrapped herself in blankets and slept in a homemade tent. She kept warm by huddling around a campfire and constantly refilling her hot water bottle.
“I like the warm and the beach, so for me, it was unbelievable. I woke up with frost on my forehead one morning.”
Before leaving, Wortley even made a list of all the closest hospitals along the route; in many remote areas, the government prohibits use of SAT phones, so being carried down the mountainside would be the only option.
Who were her travel companions?
Along with a group of porters, Wortley was accompanied by cinamatographer Emily Almond Barr and local guide Jangu Lepcha, who she initially struggled to find.
“Guiding is not a job women do in India,” says Wortley, who hopes the short film being made about her trip will help inspire young girls to get involved in adventure travel.
“I found this incredible woman; she’s a descendent of the Lepchas, the original inhabitants of Sikkim who used to live in the forests and have been forced out to live in villages. She’s trying to set up a guiding school for girls and she loves the mountains.”
Wortley recalls one of her most touching moments on the trip occurred at the sacred mountain of Kangchenjunga, when Jangu changed into traditional dress to say a prayer for her late father.
“It was the biggest respect she could pay him. Hardly any Lepchas can get this close to the mountain because permits are expensive and hard to obtain, so it was partly why she wanted to come.”
Very quickly, Wortley appreciated the patience and support of travelling with female companions. “We laughed so much,” she fondly recalls, reciting concerns only women will understand. “I found mooncups and mountains don’t particularly mix!”
So what’s next?
Now Wortley is toying with the second installment of her journey; David-Néel crossed seven countries in 14 years, so there’s plenty of scope. But this time, the young, ambitious adventurer wants to share the experience.
“I have this vision of a group of women with chair packs, without phones, in the middle of Mongolia,” she muses. “It will be brilliant.”
And as madcap as it sounds, with Wortley and her wild imagination at the helm, it’s probably possible.
Need to know
Follow Elise Wortley’s adventures at womanwithaltitude.com
Through her project, Elise is also raising money for women’s charity Freedom Kit Bags.