Women Travelers: A Century of Trailblazing Adventures, 1850-1950, by Alexandra Lapierre and Christel Mouchard, hardcover, 240 pages, list price: $45.00
Fanny Bullock Workman: Above All, Unrivaled
In 1898, Fanny Bullock Workman launched her assault on the Himalayas. Hanging from the handlebars of her bicycle was a tin teakettle. Her pith helmet harbored the badge of the Touring Club of France. A final accessory, one that never left her side and was scarcely less indispensable than her teakettle, was her husband.
It had been nearly ten years since the two Americans — she now aged thirty-nine, he forty-two — had set off to cycle around the world. Since 1889, to be exact, the year they crossed the Atlantic for a cultural tour after poor health obliged Dr. Workman to go into early retirement. Cycling must have been just what the doctor ordered for this sickly physician, because the couple successively visited France, Italy, Spain, Algeria, and Morocco, steadily adding to their cycling equipment such items as a whip (to drive away the dogs who chased Mrs. Workman's skirts), a pistol (for any men similarly inclined), and a Kodak camera.
In 1898, the couple landed at Cape Comorin after having visited Ceylon. Their goal was to travel up the length of India right to the Himalayas, the "Roof of the World." This itinerary meant cycling one thousand five hundred miles — the longest single leg would be eighty-five miles — on trails sometimes sandy, sometimes muddy, in temperatures over 100° F. We do not know how Dr. Workman's allegedly poor health stood up to it.
By summer, the couple reached the foot of the mountains. They abandoned bicycles for alpenstocks, and set off on their first trek, from Srinagar to Ladakh via the Karakoram pass. It was a revelation. After one more cycle tour-of Java-they were convinced that a chapter was coming to a close. Having traveled all those miles, they decided that the human spectacle was rather disappointing compared to nature's dramatic show. Henceforth, the Himalayas would be their realm of conquest.
The Roof of the World, as it is sometimes known, was still poorly mapped and eminently hostile at that time. It called for boldness and endurance. The Workmans would henceforth spend all their time in the Himalayas, except when reporting on their latest discoveries to the Royal Geographical Society. Delivering these reports was itself a new barrier to be overcome, for even at the dawn of the twentieth century Britain's gentlemen geographers hesitated to open their doors to ladies. But this particular lady had no intention of letting her husband speak on her behalf, even when it involved challenging the discoveries of their predecessors or correcting poorly calculated altitudes — in short, attacking the scientific community. In a sign that the times were changing, however, the Society listened to her. In fact, the Workmans' expeditions represented a bridge between the new century and the old: they embodied the twentieth-century spirit of organization, logistical support, use of professional guides, careful photography of all exploits, and sense of publicity, yet they retained nineteenthcentury attitudes when it came to sherpas — "coolies" in their parlance — who were viewed as beasts of burden rather than admirable mountaineers, to the lofty lyricism of their descriptions of nature, and, above all, to the indescribable blanket-like dresses that Fanny insisted on wearing whatever the altitude, snow conditions, or distance to be covered in a day.
The list of their achievements makes the head spin. It is hard to imagine how Fanny and William found the time to have a child — a little girl named Rachel — in the course of their frenzied career.
1899: three summits conquered and duly measured during a single voyage.
1902-03: exploration of a glacier some twenty-five miles long (Chogo Lungma, in the Karakorams). This expedition enabled them to correct maps of the region, which they felt were inaccurate, although it would in fact turn out that the Workmans, not their predecessors, were mistaken — from which it emerged that they had not climbed the right summit (itself an amusing accomplishment, since the ascension was an exploit nonetheless).
1906: exploration of Nun Kun range, after which they once again wrongly claimed to have scaled its highest peak (the highest, Nun, would indeed be climbed for the first time by a woman, but not until 1953, by Frenchwoman Claude Kogan).
They nevertheless continued to add to their list of "firsts":
1908: the Hispar glacier;
1911 and 1912: Siachen, a glacier over forty miles long. This expedition would be their last, and also the one that specialists agree was truly exceptional. Yet this time Fanny herself, contemplating the raging snowmelt rivers she would have to cross, admitted that she was on the point of giving up. "'No, I won't come again,' I said as I sat snowed up in my tent for two days ... in September 1911. But no sooner had I turned my back to the [glacier] ... than my mountain-ego asserted itself, saying 'tant pis' to the obstacles, 'Return you must.'"
This final, brilliant expedition also provided the opportunity to stage a memorable image: a woman in the snow holding a sign dearly reading, "Votes for Women." To judge by the hat and dress, it might look as though the photo was taken during an outing on the Mer de Glace just above Chamonix, France. But Fanny was actually in one of the most dangerous mountain ranges in the world, and she had to hold her sign with both hands to prevent high-altitude winds from whipping it away. This picture makes it easy to forgive her for having been an occasionally presumptuous mountaineer.
Fanny Bullock Workman, suffragette and pioneer of extreme mountaineering, died in 1925. She left behind a bereft but indestructible husband, who lived for another thirteen years, to the age of eighty.