Travels with

Pushing the Boundaries with Mountaineer Fanny Bullock Workman

Retracing the travels of Fanny Bullock Workman, who never stopped forging ahead, whether summiting peaks or campaigning for women's rights

Fanny Bullock Workman was a complicated and restless woman who defied the rigid morals of her time, finding them as restrictive as a corset. Instrumental in breaking the British stranglehold on Himalayan mountain climbing, this American woman climbed more peaks than any of her peers. She became the first American woman to lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris and the second woman to address the Royal Geographical Society of London. Her books, co-authored with her husband, were replete with photographs, illustrations and descriptions of meteorological conditions and glaciology.

Born on 8 January 1859 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Workman came of age in a most patrician household. In 1876, her parents sent her abroad to study. She returned home in 1879. Two years later she wed William Hunter Workman, a physician 12 years her senior. The two often climbed New Hampshire’s White Mountains and then, shortly after the birth of their first child, they decamped for Europe to begin a lifetime of exploring.

Left: Author’s collection -Cathyrn J Prince; Right: Bianchetti/leemage/Getty Images

I imagine joining Workman in 1906, when she climbed Pinnacle Peak, the third highest peak in the Nun Kun massif. She first set eyes on the area in 1898 when she and Hunter had fled the incessant heat of the Indian plain for the cool reaches of the Himalayas. By now she had conquered the Alps and cycled tens of thousands of kilometres through India, Algeria and present-day Vietnam.

We met in Srinagar, India, where we hired porters and procured additional supplies. Climbing gear, food rations and medicine in one pile; heavier equipment was carried by porters or by mules and yaks. Then on to the Ladakh region. There we found the Suru river nearly impassable. We waited until dawn to cross on a goatskin raft.

At base camp, 6,500 metres, our green canvas tents stood in neat lines. On the morning of the final push to the summit, Workman – wearing her ubiquitous wool skirt – was ahead of me on the rope, ice axe in hand.

The night before, over cups of whisky-laced tea, Workman, 47, noted how ‘the absolute silence that reigned during the watches of the night, in the absence of sleep, proved almost as nerve-wearing as an excel of noise’. In truth, little frayed her nerves – not the altitude, not the cold, nor the prospect of plummeting into a bergschrund (crevasse). Her calm helped her negotiate the male-dominated world of alpine clubs and adventure societies as nimbly as she negotiated the crevasses and icy granite walls of the Himalayas.

Finally we stand on the 7,000-metre-high summit. We don’t linger. The descent waits. That evening we remark on Workman’s triumph – she holds the altitude record for women. The record stood for another 28 years. She’d return to the region several times to explore the Chogo Lungma and Siachen glaciers. In 1910 she stood atop another Himalayan peak and unfurled a newspaper reading, ‘Votes for Women’.

As she once said: ‘When, later, a woman occupies her acknowledged position as an individual worker in all fields, as well as those of exploration, no such emphasis of her work will be needed, but that day has not fully arrived, and at present it behoves women, for the benefit of their sex, to put what they do, at least, on record.’ 

Cathryn Prince’s book Queen of the Mountaineers: The Trailblazing Life of Fanny Bullock Workman is out in May

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