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Following in the footsteps of the great female pioneers

Tracing the path of writer-explorer Nan Shepherd, adventurer Elise Wortley went back to the 1940s for a trek in the Scottish mountains

Big adventures: Elise in her 1940s Scottish attire in Cairngorms National Park
Big adventures: Elise in her 1940s Scottish attire in Cairngorms National Park

By Elise Wortley

It was 4am. The noise was so deafening, I hadn't slept again. As the roaring wind whipped up my 1940s canvas tent, I spread my body out, hands and feet in opposite corners, clinging down onto my only shelter for the next 17 nights. Shivering in the pitch black, dressed in my 1940s Scottish attire, I was ready to admit that this wasn't the relaxed journey I'd had in mind.

This wasn't the first time I'd been in an uncomfortable situation since I started following in the footsteps of history's forgotten female explorers. The last time was in the Indian Himalayas, dressed in a 1920s yak wool coat, carrying a wooden backpack I'd made out of an old chair. Night temperatures were dropping to -15C, and as I lay in my tent, with frost on my forehead, my yearning for home was stronger than ever.

My interest in these women started at 16, when I discovered French-Belgian explorer Alexandra David-Neel's memoir, My Journey To Lhasa. The book recounts the final stages of her 14-year journey through Asia into Lhasa, the forbidden capital of Tibet.

Alexandra's book had a profound impact on me, and for the next 12 years, I often thought about her. After a bout of crippling anxiety throughout my 20s, I decided to re-read My Journey To Lhasa, attempting to find some of Alexandra's strength in myself. This woman was fearless, and I wanted to be too.

I decided to follow in her footsteps, trekking through the Indian Himalayas towards Tibet. To understand what Alexandra would have really experienced, I dressed in her 1920s clothing, carrying only what was available to her at the time. This meant no modern equipment whatsoever.

After returning home to London, I began to research other women like Alexandra. And this is how I ended up face down in a cold wet tent, following in the footsteps of Scottish explorer Nan Shepherd. Part funded from my own pocket, with sponsorship from adventure company Wilderness Scotland, I set off to discover Nan's mountain world.

Her book, The Living Mountain, is a masterpiece, but surprisingly (even though she's the face of the new Scottish £5 note), she's widely unknown.

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Written during the last years of the second world war, The Living Mountain is Nan's homage to the Cairngorm Mountain range in northern Scotland. The book was very much ahead of its time, in terms of structure and style, which is perhaps why - after being turned down by one publisher - Nan left the manuscript untouched in a drawer for over 30 years.

Kitted out in 1940s equipment mostly from eBay, I set off to Aviemore, a small town south of Inverness. I was wearing a vintage tweed coat, leather boots, a cotton blouse and an itchy pair of high-waisted pants with a rather fancy rocket bra. My old army backpack was loaded with a heavy canvas tent, war-time food rations, blankets and emergency dry clothing.

Joined for the first part of my trip by camerawoman Emily Almond Barr, we walked from Aviemore, through thick pine forests leading up to the border of Cairngorms National Park. We had to keep walking, and headed towards a large valley below the peak of Cairn Gorm, with the hope that we would be sheltered from the worsening weather. For five nights we stayed there, fighting with our tents in the wind, walking when we could, hoping to see and experience some of the places Nan mentions in The Living Mountain.

Draped in half of my tent, which also doubled up as a 'waterproof' poncho, I wandered for hours through the mist and rain trying to reach places Nan talks about in her book. The weather, mixed with my old equipment, massively slowed our progress. It was frustrating to feel like we weren't experiencing Nan's whole journey, but after a few days, I realised that this was all part of understanding what she would have really gone through.

Before I knew it, it was time for Emily to go. I was apprehensive about being alone for the next 12 nights, but as I waved goodbye to my friend, the skies were beginning to brighten. When the sun was out, and the wind just a breeze, the mountain paths were glorious. I walked for hours up to the top of Ben Macdui, the highest peak at 1,309m, along the epic Lairig Ghru valley towards the Pools of Dee, the freezing water bubbling up from the ground, just like Nan described in her book.

There were magical moments, like when the wind would suddenly drop, and there would be complete and utter silence. Surrounded by giant mountains, hidden deep in the plateau, I tiptoed my way into the freezing cold water, thinking of Nan's words: "Gazing into its depths, one loses all sense of time."

Elise on her trip to the Indian Himalayas
Elise on her trip to the Indian Himalayas

I learnt to be content on my own, without my phone or modern equipment for distraction. I would write in my journal in the evenings, cook my wartime rations (potato and carrot stew) and read, falling asleep when the sun went down.

Canongate recently republished The Living Mountain, but there are so many other female adventurers like Nan whose stories are being forgotten. This project enables me to get as close to these pioneering women as I can, to continue learning from them and telling their stories through platforms they never had. These women are gone now, but their voices can still teach us so much, and must continue to be heard.

Wilderness Scotland (wildernessscotland.com; 01479 898707) offers the High Points of the Cairngorms trip from £1,525pp sharing, including six nights' all-inclusive lodge accommodation, transfers and guiding. Departs June 20, July 11, August 22 or September 12, 2020. To follow Elise and her project, visit womanwithaltitude.com.

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