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Hiker to Recreate Historic Ascent Up Europe’s Deadliest Peak in 19th-Century Gear

As part of her Woman With Altitude project, Elise Wortley recreates historic accomplishments of female adventurers — her next mission, up Mont Blanc, might be her wildest undertaking yet.
Elise Wortley mont blanc henriette d'Angeville(Photo/Elise Wortley)
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She summited some of the tallest peaks in the Scottish highlands wearing full Edwardian gowns. She retraced mid-century explorations in vintage tweed coats and “itchy high-waisted pants.” She even traversed Iran’s Valley of Assassins wearing a 1930s Burberry Mac trench coat and hobnail boots.

But when Elise Wortley heard about Henriette d’Angeville’s historic ascent up Mont Blanc in 1836, she became obsessed. Nearly 2 centuries ago, d’Angeville hiked all the way to the mountain’s summit, climbing it with nothing more than a walking staff, 18 bottles of wine, 26 roast chickens, 3 pounds of chocolate, a feather boa, and a lot of other gear that might make modern mountaineers scratch their heads.

Wortley knew right away this was her next project. She was going to recreate d’Angeville’s epic expedition up Mont Blanc — Europe’s highest peak and one of the deadliest mountains in the world.

However, to the 34-year-old outdoor adventurer, the allure of recreating d’Angeville’s climb has less to do with conquering the 15,766-foot alpine objective and more to do with what she’ll be wearing when she does it.

“It’s crazy,” Wortley told GearJunkie. “There weren’t outdoor clothes for women back then, so [d’Angeville] actually made it herself. That’s why it’s quite ridiculous.”

When Wortley departs Chamonix on foot on September 1, 2024, bound for the summit of Mont Blanc, she’ll be wearing a nearly identical version of the 26-pound wool and cotton outfit. If everything goes according to plan, she’ll summit the mountain on the same day d’Angeville did 188 years ago.

Her goal in doing this is to draw attention to history’s female adventurers and to inspire the next generation.

Elise Wortley: Climbing Mont Blanc Like Henriette d’Angeville

Around 20,000 people attempt to climb Mont Blanc every year, making it one of the most popular peaks in the Alps. It is also one of the most dangerous (in the world, in fact), claiming around 100 lives a year. It is notorious for frequent and sudden weather changes that catch climbers off guard.

Wortley hopes to follow the same route as d’Angeville for this upcoming Mont Blanc recreation. However, climate change has made some routes too dangerous for passage during certain times of the year. So, she may have to take the standard route because of restricted access.

Elise Wortley mont blanc henriette d'Angeville
(Photo/Elise Wortley)

Still, she’s doing it authentically. Wortley said most people will take a cable car from Chamonix to the trailhead. She’s hiking straight from town to the mountain’s summit — just as d’Angeville would have in 1836.

Standard climb times are typically between 1 and 2 days. However, because of the way she’s doing it, Wortley expects it will take 4 days for her party to reach the summit.

“The plan is to try and summit on the same day [she did] … the fourth of September,” Wortley said.

When d’Angeville reached the summit, doves were released, and her 12 male helpers hoisted her up onto their shoulders, cheering. As they returned to Chamonix, the party was greeted with celebratory cannon fire.

Elise Wortley mont blanc henriette d'Angeville
(Photo/Elise Wortley)

Wortley isn’t expecting that level of fanfare should she be successful. She is, however, planning on releasing a film documenting this wild adventure and all of the preparation, planning, and costume-making that has gone into it.

Recreating a 188-Year-Old Custom Mountaineering Outfit

Assembling a period-accurate climbing ensemble that a specific woman made for herself in the 1800s has been no easy task. Wortley said it presented her with challenges she hadn’t encountered before. So she enlisted help from a local fashion college, a clothing historian, and a costume maker who works on movie sets.

“It’s a big collaboration. We’ll see how it comes together,” she said.

The materials the ensemble will be made with — leather, cotton, and wool — are a far cry from the down insulation and polyester used in the outdoor clothes we wear today. Wortley is sourcing all of the wool locally from a regenerative farm near London. And while she tried to source vintage-era shoes, she had trouble finding any that fit her.

“I swear, women had much tinier feet back then,” she said. “Any of the actual vintage [shoes, weren’t] going to work.”

Instead, she’s having a pair custom-made with the same materials and in the same style as d’Angeville’s. She’s even going so far as to wear the same kind of underwear — cotton bloomers — that d’Angeville wore.

Elise Wortley mont blanc henriette d'Angeville
(Photo/Elise Wortley)

Unfortunately, Wortley said she’ll probably leave the 26 chickens, 18 bottles of wine, and most of the other supplies at home. That’s partly because she’s vegetarian and partly because d’Angeville had six porters, five guides, and a friend to help carry everything for her. By contrast, Wortley will only be accompanied by one guide and a filmmaker.

“Well, I might take one bottle of wine, actually,” she added as an afterthought.

Henriette d’Angeville on Mont Blanc: The Full Gear & Supply List

While Wortley won’t be bringing more than what she’s wearing, the full list of clothing and gear that d’Angeville’s 13-person party took with them is impressive. It comes from her book, “My Ascent Up Mont Blanc.”

Why did they bring so much food and supplies?

Wortley points out that they didn’t have weather forecasts back then, so they had to prepare for the worst from the get-go. If the weather turned and they got stuck, they’d have enough to eat and survive. As they climbed, some party members would break away and descend with unnecessary supplies.

As for all the booze?

“I don’t think they really drank water back then because it was quite often dirty,” she said. “They just drank wine, instead.”

Here is the full list of apparel and gear outlined in d’Angeville’s book, courtesy of Wortley.

Henriette’s Clothing

  • Bloomers
  • 1838 hobnail boots x2 pairs
  • A men’s shirt
  • A cravat
  • Silk stockings x2
  • Wool stockings x2 pairs
  • A pair of woolen trousers and blouse
  • A leather belt
  • A feather boa
  • Fur-lined wool gloves
  • Bonnet
  • Straw hat
  • A black velvet mask
  • Plaid (dress)
  • A pelisse (a thicker overdress)
Elise Wortley mont blanc henriette d'Angeville
(Photo/Elise Wortley)

Food and Drink

  • Legs of mutton x2
  • Sides of veal x2
  • Roast chickens x24
  • Loaves of bread x6
  • Bottles of Saint Jean wine x18
  • One bottle cognac 
  • One bottle vinegar 
  • One bottle fern syrup 
  • Lemons x12
  • Sugar, 3 lbs.
  • Chocolate, 3 lbs.
  • Prunes, 3 lbs.
  • Blancmange dessert
  • A flagon of barley water 
  • A flagon of lemonade 
  • A pot of chicken bouillon 
Elise Wortley mont blanc henriette d'Angeville
(Photo/Elise Wortley)

Other Gear

  • Large flat straw basket 
  • Vial of vinegar salts 
  • Vial of cologne 
  • An enormous fan 
  • A folding pocket knife
  • A shoehorn 
  • A small spirit kettle 
  • Flask of alcohol 
  • Composition box of tea
  • Box of cucumber pomade
  • A tinder box 
  • Thermometer 
  • Telescope 
  • Flannel towels x2
  • A friction brush (in case of numbness)
  • A rubber pillow 
  • Notebook and 6 sharp pencils 
  • A small looking glass to examine the skin to see what ravages the mountain air has wrought. 

Honoring Female Explorers: Woman With Altitude

Wortley’s fascination with female explorers began when she was 16. She read My Journey to Lhasa by explorer Alexandra David-Neél, and that sealed the deal.

“I thought it was so amazing that this woman did that,” Wortley said. “I’d never heard of her. And I guess I kind of always had it in my head that I’d follow in her footsteps in some way.”

Elise Wortley mont blanc henriette d'Angeville
(Photo/Elise Wortley)

When Wortley was 27, she did exactly that. She made a wooden backpack out of a disassembled chair, wore the same wool and cotton clothing and leather boots that David-Neél wore, and followed a portion of the same path through the Himalayas.

It was the first time she’d recreated a journey like that. And it was where her Woman With Altitude project was born. Through it, Wortley said she’s trying to spotlight the stories and achievements of women adventurers who have largely been overshadowed or simply forgotten.

It’s also her way of supporting the women working in the outdoor space today and inspiring them as these female heroes have inspired her.

“These incredible women did all this but were never actually given a huge amount of credit for it,” Wortley said.

She wants to change that. Wortley has found over 150 women adventurers whose epic stories she hopes to tell — and maybe, someday, to recreate.

Follow Elise Wortley on Instagram @womanwithaltitude as she prepares to climb Mont Blanc or stay up to date with her Woman With Altitude project via her website.

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