The women who discovered the world

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Keen to recreate David-Néel’s experience to the fullest, Wortley pledged to only use equipment available to the French woman in the 1920s – including a yak wool coat, a wooden backpack she made from a chair she found on the side of the road in Brixton, a basket that she tied together with rope and even 1920s underwear. She slept under an old canvas tent and only used her emergency sleeping bag once when the cold got too much – temperatures reached -15C at night. “The yak wool coat was thick, but at night it was absolutely freezing,” she said.

To keep warm in the 1920s, David-Néel practised tummo breathing, an ancient technique that heats the body from the inside out. But since the method takes years to master, Wortley instead relied upon two hot water bottles – minor luxuries that David-Néel also had – that she filled with water heated over the fire to survive the cold. “I pretty much just spent the nights refilling them. I wasn’t sleeping much,” she said, laughing.

Did she ever regret her decision not to use any modern equipment? “There were times when I regretted it, definitely. But I wanted to experience what she would have experienced, and the only way to do that, and to properly understand how tough it would have been for her, was to do it with only what she had,” Wortley said. She added that “researching all the clothing and equipment turned into one of the most interesting parts for me.”

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Wortley recruited an all-women team for her journey: filmmaker Emily Almond Barr; and Jangu, a female mountain guide descended from Lepchas, the original inhabitants of Sikkim. Both opted for modern clothes and used modern equipment.

Travelling as a woman has obviously improved significantly since the 1920s; however, Wortley said “we still face a lot of the same things, like unwanted attention.” In her book, David-Néel wrote about the undesired attention she got during her trips; other female explorers of the time who faced the same issue ended up dressing like men.

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