Posted by: ktzefr | January 23, 2011

Women Travelers in the Ice and Snow: Tibet to the Rockies

An invisible zone circles the earth like a belt just north of the equator where there is very little wind.  It’s called the “equatorial calms” or the doldrums.  In the old days sailing boats could be trapped in this zone for weeks unable to power their sails.  For me, the period between mid-January and mid-February is the doldrums, a time when I sometimes find it difficult to power my own sails.  The weather is gray and cold and the trees are lifeless.  I dream of warmer climes.

At lunch with friends the other day we talked about travel and how a trip can be one of the best antidotes for a variety of ills, whether you’re feeling tired, angry, down in the dumps, or simply frustrated with the world.  One friend was headed off to Spain and Portugal and North Africa, but the rest of us will have to deal with the doldrums and wait awhile to hear about her adventures.

I love to read travelers’ tales —  not those that are merely compilations of places to stay and eat and play in the world, but the literary tomes that pick you up and plop you down in the place and time and psyche of the traveler.  I like to hear about journeys in the modern world, but I also enjoy stories told by the travelers of a hundred years ago and more.

I would trade the cold for a place in the sun any day, but I decided today to grab a cup of tea and an extra sweater and write about the tales of two women who chose the ice and snow…

My Journey to Lhasa: The Classic Story of the Only Western Woman Who Succeeded in Entering the Forbidden City by Alexandra David-Neel.

Ms. Neel was born in 1868 and lived to be almost 101 years old.  In 1923 she was the first Western woman to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa.  She studied the Tibetan religion and perfected the ancient practice of thumo reskiang (the ability to raise body temperature through meditation).  Her study and practice came in handy when she (at 55 years old!) made the pilgrimage through treacherous mountain passes in freezing weather and deep snow to reach Lhasa.

The tale is one of incredible outward and inward strength and determination.  The author was at turns worried, exhausted, and/or terrified, and she and her traveling companion were alternately hungry, lost, and almost frozen to death.  Yet, after hiking in knee-deep snow and the cold for 19 hours one day, she was “wonderstricken” by the incredible natural beauty of her surroundings.

“Think of an immensity of snow, an undulating tableland limited far away at our left by a straight wall of blue-green glaciers and peaks wrapped in everlasting, immaculate whiteness….  The scenery was grand beyond all description…. The moon rose as I looked around in a trance of admiration.  Its rays touched the glaciers and the high snow-robed peaks, the whole white plain, and some silvery unknown valleys…the impassive landscape of the day seemed to awaken under the blue light …sparks glittered to and fro, and faint sounds were wafted by the wind.  Maybe elves of the frozen waterfalls, fairies of the snow, and djin-keepers of mysterious caves were to assemble and play and feast….”


A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains by Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird left Britain and came to America in 1854.  She was twenty-two years old and had always been a sickly child, but she longed to travel.  She would spend her life embarking on one journey after another and was almost always ill when at home in Britain and in the best of health when she traveled.  This book contains the letters written to her sister during her six months of travel through the Colorado Rockies in 1873.   She, too, writes about the beauty of her surroundings.   In 100+ years some things are bound to change; perhaps some don’t…

“Yesterday morning the mercury was 20 degrees below zero.  I think I never saw such a brilliant atmosphere.  That curious phenomena called frostfall was occurring, in which, whatever moisture may exist in the air, somehow aggregates into feathers and fern-leaves, the loveliest of creations, only seen in rarefied air and intense cold.  One breath and they vanish.  The air was filled with diamond sparks quite intangible.  They seemed just glitter and no more.  It was still and cloudless and the shapes of violet mountains were softened by a veil of the tenderest blue.”


I had never heard of frostfall until I read this passage.   I googled but didn’t find it.   Is this a word locals gave to the phenomena?  Has anyone heard of it or had a similar experience?  It sounds lovely.  Any info, please comment.


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