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In the steps of history’s forgotten female explorers

Walking in the footsteps of history’s intrepid women explorers, Elise Wortley hopes to shine new light on these adventurers and inspire a new generation.

In 1911, French former opera singer and Buddhist scholar Alexandra David-Néel promised her husband she would be back in 18 months and embarked on what would end up being an epic 14-year expedition through Asia to the forbidden city of Lhasa, vowing to “show what the will of a woman can do”. She trekked through the Himalayas in the freezing winter, slept in the snow and allegedly ate leather from her boots to stave off hunger, before disguising herself as a beggar to sneak into the Tibetan capital in 1924, aged 55. In doing so, she became the first European woman to enter Lhasa, which was then sealed off from the outside world.

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Yet David-Néel remains a little-known explorer, unlike celebrated adventurers like Ernest Shackleton and Edmund Hillary whose names have been immortalised in history books and taught in schools. Women explorers – including David-Néel, Nan Shepherd and Freya Stark – have largely been forgotten or overlooked, despite achieving feats that even today seem astounding.In 2017, when she was 28, Wortley left her home in Brixton, South London, to follow the first part of David-Néel’s journey in Sikkim in north-eastern India. She walked for one month, travelling 750km from Impong to Mount Kanchenjunga along the Tibetan border at altitudes of up to 5,050m. “I retraced her route, reread all her books and made a map,” Wortley said.

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