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Queen of the Mountaineers: Fanny Bullock Workman

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With her frizzy brown hair tucked under a topee, Fanny Bullock Workman was a force on and off the mountain. Instrumental in breaking the British stranglehold on Himalayan mountain climbing, this American woman climbed more peaks than any of her peers and became the first woman to map the far reaches of the Himalayas. Author and journalist Cathryn J. Prince brings Fanny Bullock Workman to life, revealing how she negotiated the male-dominated world of alpine clubs and adventure societies as nimbly as the deep crevasses and icy granite walls of the Himalayas. Queen of the Mountaineers is the story of one woman’s role in science and exploration, breaking boundaries and charting frontiers for women everywhere.

Enjoy the following excerpt from Queen of the Mountaineers, available now!

Queen of the Mountaineers: The Trailblazing Life of Fanny Bullock Workman, by Cathryn J. Prince.

Like a gem cutter, Workman guided her ice ax. If she struck too hard, the blade might pop out and hit her in the eye. Or worse, splinter off a slice of ice and send it careening down on the porter below. It was all about precision and patience.

Even with the sun shining, the day held the cold. Workman tied her neckerchief a little tighter. She curled and uncurled her toes inside her boots. The cold burrowed inside her bones and she worried about frostbite. Now at 21,300 feet, the team was engaged in what Workman called high “snow-work.”

At the new campsite, empty tents sat in straight lines. Several of the porters were on their way back down to the previous campsite to retrieve the remaining supplies. They planned to rest a bit and then return before nightfall. Then the snow came.

As the line between earth and sky blurred, it dawned on Workman that she and Hunter would pass the night here alone, without guides or porters. “The absolute silence that reigned during the watches of the night, in the absence of sleep, proved almost as nerve-wearing as an excess of noise. The feeling of having completely no touch with the material world and the imagination uncontrolled . . . runs riot,” she wrote.  Hunter agreed.

Only a thin skin of canvas separated the couple from the blizzard. The tent shook and shuddered. The wind gusted through the camp, threatening to send the tent sliding across the mountain like a skiff. Fanny shivered in her sleeping bag. She was so cold she thought her teeth might shatter. Her throat was aflame and her head pounded. Sleep stayed away.

Photo: National Library of Scotland.

Wide awake, she prepared letters to send to Pioneer magazine about their work thus far. Hunter tried to write in his journal, but he couldn’t keep his thoughts in order, all the while hoping the gale wouldn’t lay waste to the camp. The snow piled up on the roof, which sagged under the weight. Once or twice they ventured outside to clear it away lest their tent become a snow crypt. It was mercilessly cold, even inside the tent. Their hands cramped and their fingers turned ghostly white. They took turns massaging each other’s hands and feet to stave off frostbite. The hours dragged.

Finally the light streamed through the green tent, casting supernatural shadows on their faces and hands. Hunter reached for his water. There was none to be had; the water in the flasks was frozen solid. Try as she might, Fanny couldn’t pull on her boots. They, too, were frozen stiff. She looked at her husband and suppressed a smile. Ice flecked his push-broom mustache.

[Also Read Hhermann Buhl: Plaster Casts and a Hint of Spring]

“On putting our heads out of the tent-flaps we were greeted by Savoye and two porters, who, with red eyes, purple faces, and moustaches fringed with icicles, looked as if they had fought a hard battle with the elements,” she noted.  There wasn’t really anything funny about it, but she chuckled to herself all the same. A release from the stress. Some climbers considered themselves tough if they spent the night in a rustic but warm hut before making an ascent, she mused. They should try spending the night in a frigid tent on the snow, waking in below-zero temperatures, boiling coffee over a Primus stove that, because of the rarefied air, takes five times longer to light, “and, last but not easiest, wrestle with frozen boots.”

After Workman bid Savoye good morning, she ducked back inside the tent to begin melting snow for tea. Preparing food, or tea or coffee, on high-altitude glaciers was just as tedious a process as when they had first started exploring the Himalayas six years earlier. First they had to gather snow. If it was the first night in a new camp, they had to assemble the stove. Then they had to heat the snow so it melted. If the bottle of water froze, they would immerse it in the warm water to melt that as well. Today there is far less actual mountainside cooking; dehydrated precooked meals and energy bars for nourishment are widely available.

She and Hunter nibbled a few kola biscuits and shared a tin of room-temperature tongue. Workman always found it tasty and easy to digest. The meager meal finished, they layered themselves against the cold and stepped back into the thin air to assess the scene. Black rock and blue ice as far as the eye could see. The snow danced about like will-o’-the-wisps. It was time to climb.

She, Hunter, Savoye, and two other guides roped themselves together and started upward. In truth, neither Fanny nor Hunter felt entirely up to it; three sleepless nights on the mountain hadn’t been exactly restorative, though as the sun warmed Fanny’s neck she felt her muscles wake up and her energy return. They maneuvered up the incline. Savoye led the way, cutting steps when needed.

A constant, cold breeze blew down from the heights with chilling effect. Their feet suffered most, and Workman was anxious that one of them would get frostbite. They wore fleece-lined rubber mittens to keep their hands warm. All the same, the cold chewed Workman’s bones. She windmilled her arms and clenched and unclenched her fingers. She wriggled her nose and stomped her feet. Nothing worked. Her blood was turning to ice. Her cheeks burned from the cold. She glanced at Savoye, hoping to commiserate. Yet, other than the puffs of air when he exhaled, he seemed resistant to the frigid air. Mind over matter, mind over matter, she repeated, lifting one foot after another.

“It would be a boon to mountaineers if someone would invent a certain means of keeping the feet warm at 20,000 feet. Some of us were scarcely conscious of having any feet by the time we reached that height, but by beating them vigorously with our axes until they tingled sufficiently to denote safety, we were spared the extreme exertion required in the rarefied air of taking off boots and rubbing our feet with snow,” she would later write.  They had tried fur-lined boots and plain leather boots and Norwegian goat-hair boots . . . Nothing worked as well as she would have liked.

Photo: Cathryn J. Prince Collection.

Cold wasn’t their only adversary. Altitude sickness stalked the expedition. Altitude affects people differently, regardless of their physical condition. Some experience appetite loss. Others feel nauseated. Rapid heart rates and insomnia are common. In rare cases, cerebral edema and death can occur. Even the simplest of actions, “which one recognizes as of great importance and which at ordinary altitudes are not difficult processes become bugbears. . . . One has therefore, often to call the will into play to its utmost power to force oneself to carry out what has been proposed. Those who are destined to raise the mountaineering altitude-record much higher than it now stands will undoubtedly be persons of strong will and self-control,” she wrote.

When they reached 22,720 feet, Hunter stopped to photograph the landscape while his wife went on with the other two porters to complete the ascent, attaining an altitude of 23,300 feet. When Hunter hen caught up with the trio, he reached into his pack and traded his camera for his notebook and pen. Then he set up the hypsometer. He and Fanny took altitude measurements to prove this was “the highest point up to date, to which tents have been taken and occupied, and the highest measured point at which mountaineers have passed the night.”  As was their practice in all high camps, peaks, and passes, they took hypsometric observations and compared their readings with the lower station mercurial barometer readings, which a government official in Skardu took thrice daily. The calculations were then measured against three different tables, and the average was the figure the Workmans accepted as the true height. They also brought along two Watkins patent aneroid barometers, graduated to twenty-five thousand feet, and checked those daily using boiling point as a reference.

Several hours later, after finishing the work, the couple stumbled into camp. Fanny sank to her knees, grimacing; her alpenstock fell out of her hand. Her entire body ached, but she did not want to stop the expedition. She still felt unwell several days later. She “suffered much the last few days from headache and backache and pains in limbs. Cough nearly gone. I think the marching exhausts her and she has not her former energy,” Hunter wrote in his journal.  He was worried. He didn’t know what ailed his wife. All he could do was give her analgesics, tell her to rest, and hope it wasn’t anything too serious. If she were gravely ill—if anyone on the trip fell gravely ill—there was nothing to be done. They were thousands of miles and weeks away from adequate medical treatment.

Fortunately, Fanny rallied. Outside the tent, no one knew she was unwell. As the lone woman on the trip, she had to be twice as stoic and twice as resilient. If she weren’t, the porters and guides would snigger about the too-weak woman who fancied herself an explorer.

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Reprinted from QUEEN OF THE MOUNTAINEERS: THE TRAILBLAZING LIFE OF FANNY BULLOCK WORKMAN by Cathryn J. Prince with permission from Chicago Review Press. (c) Copyright 2019. All Rights Reserved.