Into the Valley of the Assassins with Explorer Elise Wortley
Tracing the footsteps of history's female adventurers and bringing their underrepresented stories to light, Elise Wortley is redefining what it means to be an explorer. We caught up with her on the eve of her third expedition, to Iran’s Valley of the Assassins.
27 April, 2022
On Elise Wortley's first expedition, she wore a yak-wool coat and used a backpack made from an old chair. Traversing the Himalayas, the British explorer traced the footsteps of her childhood hero, Alexandra David-Néel, completing 174km of the 14-year journey the 20th-century explorer undertook. Two years later, Wortley wandered through the Scottish Highlands in the company of Scottish poet Nan Shepherd's ghost. For each trip, she wore the same clothes the explorers would have worn in their day: faux-fur boots on the trail from Lachen to Mount Kanchenjunga, as mapped out in David-Néel's book My Journey to Lhasa; petticoats and a distinctly un-waterproof trench coat for skirting lochs and rugged crags with Shepherd.
Her reason? She wanted to highlight the bravery of history's forgotten female explorers. At the beginning of May, Wortley will begin her third Woman with Altitude expedition, walking through Iran's notorious Valley of the Assassins. Just as the adventurer Freya Stark did in the 1930s, Wortley will be heading deep into the desert beneath the Alborz Mountains. Stark ventured there to find the castle ruins of an 11th-century Persian sect known for their prowess with knives. There were few maps of the former fedayeen (known also by the derogatory term "hasisi", which the English word "assassin" originates from) strongholds in the early 20th century, so Stark set off with a mule to create her own. Her book about the trip, The Valleys of the Assassins, became a bestseller. Stark is the first explorer in whose footsteps Wortley has walked to have enjoyed any contemporary success. Wortley heads there not in search of the ruins, but seeking those same landscapes Stark encountered.
During the journey, Wortley will make a documentary, blog about her experiences and complete volunteering activities. She will also eat similar meals to those her hero ate, foregoing modern equipment in favour of historically authentic gear, and sleeping, as Stark did, at family farms and homes along the way. In her bag will be a mosquito net, a copy of Marco Polo's Travels, a compass, a blanket, a bar of chocolate, a tin of sardines, soap, a camera, a torch, quinine and mapmaking materials.
She hopes that her adventures will highlight the stories of these forgotten female pioneers and encourage others - particularly women - to be brave and venture beyond their comfort zone. SUITCASE caught up with Wortley on the eve of her desert odyssey.
In the footsteps of women: a chat with unexpected adventurer Elise Wortley
How did you become an adventurer?
I never set out to be one - it was a bit of an accidental venture. When I was 16, I read a book by the female explorer Alexandra David-Néel. I thought explorers were always men. I'd never been taught about anyone like her. She trekked through Asia for 14 years, attempting to reach the capital of Tibet. She was the first western woman to meet the Dalai Lama.
Then I went to college and got a job and forgot all about it. In my late 20s, I began to experience severe anxiety and, during that period, read her book again. I kept thinking how brave she would have been, and decided to follow in her footsteps.
Why did you decide to highlight the expeditions of female explorers?
When I returned from my first trip, I started doing research and put together a spreadsheet of hundreds of women explorers I'd never heard about. Many of them hadn't been taken seriously as writers or explorers in their time. I realised I needed to make their stories more visible. If you think of a famous explorer, it's often a guy that comes to mind. I wanted to break through that and show that women have always been out there and, actually, are still out there.
Tell us about your next expedition to Iran…
Freya Stark set off on some incredible adventures. The one I'm following is charted in her book The Valleys of the Assassins. The Assassins, who lived in the desert in 300 BC, were a Persian sect known for their knife-wielding warriors. They were formidable, and have become legendary.
We're flying into Tehran and I've made notes of all the key parts of Stark's journey so we can match her route exactly. It's very remote - in the middle of nowhere. I'm being supported by a female-run tour operator, Laleh, and I'll also be accompanied by Nadia, a female guide from Intrepid Travel. Two female filmmakers will travel alongside me, but it's just me wearing the gear Stark would've worn.
What's in the wardrobe for this trip?
Stark is famous for always having worn a Burberry coat. It's hard to get hold of an original 1930s trench, but I've found one that's suitable, and it comes with a matching hat, too. She also wore a traditional style of Persian clothing, which is essentially a long black tunic. I'm looking to source a similar one through a vintage Middle Eastern clothing shop. I'll have 1930s boots, as well, and a sheepskin waistcoat.
Edmund Hillary famously stated that he was climbing Mount Everest "because it is there", but the female explorers you follow largely eschewed record-breaking in favour of exploring. Did these women travel differently?
Definitely. They integrated themselves into the communities they visited, and they stayed for extended periods. In her book The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd explained that it's about experiencing the landscapes as a whole, rather than conquering them.
Do you feel an affinity with the female adventurers when you walk in their footsteps?
Yes, I do. I take their books and read them as I go, and it gives a whole new perspective being - quite literally - in their shoes, in the places they went, wearing what they wore. It brings a new meaning to their narratives.
What's the ethos behind a Woman with Altitude expedition?
I always say that you don't have to walk through the Himalayas to have an adventure. You don't have to do what I'm doing, or what those women did. You can take their spirit and what they were about and use it to start your own little adventure. There was a time when I would never have been able to do this.
The whole explorer "space" is very inaccessible for lots of people, but if these women could do it back then, then you can have your own adventure, whatever it is.