Historical Badass: Climber and Explorer Fanny Bullock Workman

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Fanny Bullock Workman was determined to have an equal voice to men, even in the traditionally male alpine clubs of America and Europe, and was a champion for women’s suffrage. She was once photographed on a high pass in the Karakoram holding a banner reading “Votes For Women.” But even though pantaloons were acceptable sporting women’s dress at the time, Workman wore skirts — while cycling thousands of miles across Europe and Asia, climbing Himalayan peaks, and negotiating crevasses.

Born into a wealthy Massachusetts family in 1859, Fanny Bullock married William Workman, a physician 10 years her senior, when she was 22. When she was 30, he retired, citing health reasons, and they moved to Europe, which began their shared life of adventure — mostly Fanny’s idea. It wasn’t common in the early 20th century for wives to push their husbands to travel to exotic places and climb mountains, and probably less common for young mothers to take off on huge expeditions. But that’s what Fanny Bullock Workman wanted to do. The Workmans’ daughter, Rachel, was born in 1884, and in her pre-school years, her mother climbed the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. By the time Rachel turned 18, the Fanny and William would rack up three epic bike tours (across Spain, across North Africa, 14,000 miles throughout India) and two Himalayan expeditions.

The couple’s first big trip was a 2,800-mile bicycle tour across Spain in 1895. Their bike tires were solid rubber, “safety bicycles” were made of steel, and they carried 20 pounds of luggage apiece. They averaged 45 miles a day, and sometimes rode up to 80 miles per day. She and her husband co-authored a book, Sketches Awheel in Modern Iberia, about the trip. In later tours, the couple carried revolvers. They bicycled across North Africa, publishing a book, Algerian Memories, afterward, and throughout India, writing Through Town and Jungle: Fourteen Thousand Miles A-Wheel Among the Temples and People of the Indian Plain. But once Fanny Workman visited the Himalaya for the first time in 1898, bike touring took a backseat to climbing and mountain exploration. Over the next 14 years, the Workmans would take eight trips to the Himalaya, authoring several more books, the first of which was In the Ice World of the Himalayas in 1900.

When she climbed to the top of Pinnacle Peak in 1906, she set a new women’s altitude record that wouldn’t be broken for 28 years — 22,810 feet. In 1908, Annie Peck claimed a new women’s altitude record by climbing Peru’s Nevado Huarascan, which locals had told her was 23,000 feet. Fanny Workman, who was quite competitive, challenged Peck’s claim, and then sent a team of surveyors to determine Huarascan’s true elevation — which turned out to be 22,205 feet. But the survey cost Workman $13,000, and it only cost Peck $3,000 to climb the peak.

In 1911, Fanny was the architect of the Workmans’ most significant expedition: an exploration of the Siachen Glacier, the longest in the Karakoram at nearly 45 miles. The Workmans spent more than two months on the glacier, taking along a surveyor and two mountain guides, mapped the region, and climbed and named several peaks over the course of the trip.

Throughout her life, Workman battled a male-dominated, sometimes chauvinist climbing and exploration community. She earned medals of honor from 10 European geographical societies and was a member of the Royal Asiatic Society, Club Alpino Italiano, Deutsch Österreichischer Alpenverein, Club Alpin Francais, and one of the founders of the American Alpine Club. She was the second woman — Isabella Bird was the first — to address the Royal Geographical Society — and she also was the first American woman to lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Fanny Bullock Workman died in 1925 in Cannes, France, after an illness. In her will, she left money to four colleges. One of those endowments established the Fanny Bullock Workman Traveling Fellowship at Bryn Mawr College, still awarded annually to a Ph.D. candidates in Archaeology or History of Art.

Badass.

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  • KatieSue

    I read a book recently called Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering by Rebecca Brown that talked about Workman and many many other badass old time women climbers and I was in awe the whole time reading it. Any mountain climbers back then with their heavy gear and candle headlamps totally impress me, but in a skirt!!!??…awesome book and totally amazing women. Sweet pictures too.

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