Recreate historic adventures in old style gear

Since November 2017, Elise Wortley has been following in the footsteps of some of the greatest female adventurers in history. And to do this, she used the equipment that would have been available to women in her era – right down to itchy wool underwear.

The idea of ​​recreating women’s adventures came to Wortley, a British woman who is now 30, when she read My Trip to Lhasa when she was 16. A classic adventure, the book was written by French Buddhist scholar Alexandra David-Néel and follows her time slipping past armed guards and over snow-capped mountain passes into Tibet. The Tibetan capital was banned from foreigners at the time, so she disguises herself as a local pilgrim and hopes that she will not be discovered. She was 55 when she became the first Western woman to reach the region’s capital in 1924.

As he read, Wortley was amazed at David-Néel’s confidence. If she could go on a boat and in the whole world had no idea what was ahead of her, then I must have that trust somewhere, too, she thought.

After graduating from art school in her early twenties, Wortley started working for a travel company in London. Then she got sick. “I basically felt dizzy for about a year,” she says. She couldn’t take the bus, get on the subway, or go to the office. “Nobody knew what was wrong with me. I had all sorts of tests before a doctor realized it was fear. ”

Wortley was stuck at home and started rereading My Trip to Lhasa set out like David-Néel.

After Wortley found anxiety drugs that worked for her, found sponsors, and saved money for her PR job, she began traveling. First, in 2017 she hiked 110 miles from Lachen, India, near the Tibetan border, west to Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. Then, in 2019, she spent three weeks traversing the granite slopes of the Scottish Highlands, inspired by Nan Shepherd who wrote her ode to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain, in the middle of World War II. On both expeditions, Wortly wore as much equipment as possible that was available to female explorers at the time. (However, it proved impossible to find genuine 1920s sunglasses at a reasonable price.)

But Wortley isn’t done yet. Next she plans trips inspired by the lives of the explorer Freya Stark, the climber Annie Smith Peck and the warrior Ani Pachen. “It would be my dream to celebrate and follow all of these steps women make,” she says. “I just learned the basics and realized how little I actually need to go outside.”

Here is the equipment that Wortley undertook on their first expedition to the Himalayas after David-Néel.

Chair backpack

(Photo: Elise Wortley)

Backpacks from the early 20th century cost anywhere from $ 327 to $ 393 on eBay and aren’t cheap. So Wortley decided to do upcycling and do them himself. She found an abandoned chair on the street in the London suburb of Brixton, chopped off its legs, framed it, and brought it to India in her luggage. When she got to the northern city of Gangtok, she put up a wicker basket that she had bought at the market for the equivalent of $ 4. And the “chair backpack” was born, rope straps and everything.

The backpack was sturdy and surprisingly well-built, but the same couldn’t be said of Wortley’s shoulders. “They were pretty raw raw,” she says, “but I started using my woolen gloves under the ropes to give some protection and that worked well.”

Yak wool hat

Wortley hat(Photo: Elise Wortley)

In My Trip to Lhasa, David-Néel describes wearing a “greasy fur hood” that she had found abandoned on the trail. Wortley didn’t go quite that far. This was hand knitted by her mother.

When the wool came in the mail from an Etsy seller, it was so thin that several pieces had to be woven together to make a decent strand. It was worth the effort, says Wortley: “This was the warmest hat I’ve ever had.”

Faux fur boots

Wortley boots(Photo: Elise Wortley)

“I got the wrong ones because I didn’t really want fur,” says Wortley, who is a vegetarian and avoids animal products when she can. These cost around $ 20 from the market in Leh, India, and were similar in style to the boots David-Néel would have worn. They were “amazing,” she says. “I didn’t get a single blister.” The only problem with them was on the slippery, snowy parts of the hike. The rubber soles didn’t grip, and sometimes she felt like climbing a mountain with two Uggs. But that didn’t discourage Wortley. After all, “Alexandra often mentioned her slippery boots with rubber soles in her letter.”

Yak wool coat

Wortley coat(Photo: Elise Wortley)

Wortley bought this for about $ 26 in the same market as the boots. With a wool sweater and underwear underneath, “it was really warm,” she says. However, the bags were tiny and therefore unusable. “You were good for a handkerchief, and that’s about it!”

The coat was also a little too long for her body. “I really should have taken it to a tailor when I picked it up,” says Wortley, “but I was a little nervous and convinced I didn’t have time. So when I went uphill I would step on the ground and trip or pull my neck. “

When asked if she wears the coat regularly at home in London, she replied with an emphatic no. Since the Himalayan trip involved nightly gatherings around a hearth, she says, “It smells like a campfire.”

Wooden stick

Wortley mittens(Photo: Elise Wortley)

When there’s little to do other than sit by the fire and look up at the stars every night, it can be a game changer when you have something to keep your hands busy – like a wooden stick for carving -. A wooden stake is also a piece of equipment that can legitimately be used as fuel. Last night, “Sticky” was burned in an “alcohol-, altitude-induced ritual,” says Wortley. You probably wouldn’t want to do that with your $ 180 branded trekking poles.

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Main photo: Elise Wortley

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