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Why this woman recreates the journeys of history’s greatest female explorers

By Lilit Marcus, CNN

Elise Wortley didn’t set out to be an adventurer. After moving from the Essex countryside to busy London in 2017 when she was in her late 20s and being diagnosed with anxiety, she started going on walks as a way to calm her mind.

But her small steps gave way to unexpected adventures.

When reading about the French-Belgian explorer Alexandra David-Néel, Wortley kept obsessing over the details of her groundbreaking Tibet travels. Besides hiking, David-Néel camped and slept in caves for two years — all in the clothes of her era.

“A lot of (female explorers) dressed as men because it was easier,” Wortley explains. But others hiked, climbed, biked, camped and more in petticoats — yet another hurdle for these women to have to pass through in order to be taken seriously and achieve their dreams.

In addition to re-creating famous treks, Wortley began looking for the same period-specific clothing and equipment that the women had used as a way of further understanding their mindsets.

“I found that I actually understand their reading and their writing a lot more now that I’ve done it in the old stuff,” Wortley says.

Visiting Iran in the middle of a pandemic is difficult on its own, but tracking down a vintage 1930s Burberry coat to wear for the hike is challenging too.

To follow the footsteps of British-Italian explorer and travel writer Freya Stark, Wortley had to secure visas and accommodations for her visit to Iran’s Alamut Valley, which is often called the Valley of the Assassins.

But she was determined to do it in the same clothes that Stark wrote so passionately about in her trip diaries — namely, a 1930s Burberry raincoat that the explorer wore on her travels.

It took weeks and plenty of emails to antique clothing collectors, but Wortley finally tracked down one of the coats — along with a matching hat — in time to wear it on her trek.

“It does make you feel somewhat insane when you spend a large bulk of your hard earned savings on a 1930s Burberry coat to wear on a crazy trip,” Wortley wrote on Instagram at the time, “but it really felt like the right thing to do.”

That’s not all. For her David-Néel jaunt to Tibet, Wortley not only carried her equipment and supplies with her — she toted a 1920s-style wicker chair just like the one that her inspiration had carried herself.

Where the road leads

Wortley says she has a list of “about 150” female adventurers whose travels she would like to follow. But considering she pays for most of her traveling herself — of late, she has attracted some sponsorships from brands like North Face and Clinique — she has to be judicious about which ones to pursue next.

The pandemic only made that more challenging. One trip closer to home was a hike up Ben Nevis, the tallest peak in the United Kingdom, which replicated a journey of the writer and explorer Nan Shepherd.

Shepherd, a Scottish woman who lived through most of the 20th century, is best known for her book “The Living Mountain,” in which she writes passionately and lyrically about people connecting with the outdoors.

It was Shepherd’s words that Wortley had in mind as she watched day trippers try to get to the top of Ben Nevis as quickly as possible just to say they’d been.

She points out how much of “explorer” literature is about bragging rights, with mostly white men from the West wanting to say they were the first person to go somewhere, climb something, or name a place. In fact, some male explorers would no longer visit an area once women had been, claiming its beauty had been ruined or the thrill was gone.

More feet on the trail

Wortley’s project, Women With Altitude, doesn’t only document her travels.

She reaches out to local women to join her for some or all of the hikes, depending on their comfort level, and raises awareness about the history of female adventurers.

When traveling, Wortley tries to hire a local female guide. That can be daunting, since many of these areas are sparsely populated.

For her India trip, Wortley found local guide Nadia through Intrepid Travel, a UK-founded company she has worked for in the past.

Meanwhile, while planning for her Ben Nevis expedition, Wortley was using Jane Inglis Clark as her inspiration. Clark co-founded the Ladies’ Scottish Climbing Club, believed to be the world’s oldest all-female climbing club in 1908. Wortley reached out to current members of the club — who still organize hikes and walks today — as well as descendants of original members in order to find her travel companions.

Still, the idea of a multi-day hike through the Himalayas with a chair strapped to your back might scare some people off the idea of getting outdoors. Wortley says while she enjoys challenging herself, the most important takeaway from her work is that the world belongs to everyone.

“These women were badass,” says Wortley, “but you don’t have to be fit to get that out of nature or have a little adventure.”

Her goal? To encourage other women to experience nature on their own terms, away from the stresses of everyday life.

“On one trip, I literally only had my notebook to write in. So I just really learned to just sit and be. I’d love to do that, actually — just take a load of people out, maybe people who are obsessed with their phones or social media and things like that, just put all the phones in a box overnight and have people just sit and slow down.”

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