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Fanny Bullock Workman (1859-1925)

Crossing the Saser Pass in Ladakh in 1898 Fanny Bullock Workman noted in her diary: “a grand view of a snowy range of god like peaks fr. 23-25000 ft. high….All a wonderful wilderness of ice & jagged rock on an enormous scale beyond anything to be seen in Alps of Switzerland…It is the grandest wildest pass we have seen & on a scale to be found nowhere else but in these immense Tibetan mountains.”

Fanny and husband William Hunter Workman, wealthy New Englanders and expatriates living in Europe, had arrived in Ladakh as a break from touring much of South Asia by bicycle. They had pedaled from Rawalpindi to Srinagar and then to Leh where they arranged a pony and yak trip as far as the Karakoram Pass.

“Wilderness” and “wild” inspired Fanny. She and Hunter would become the first to systematically explore glaciers and peaks of the Karakoram, adopting a pattern of months-long expeditions with scientific objectives. They were ever quick to claim a record climb, a first ascent, the first to view, first to photograph, first to note, and unhesitatingly corrected what they perceived to be mapping errors made by predecessors.

Before the Karakoram, they had hiked in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and made guided climbs in the Alps in the 1890s. In 1892 Fanny named Austria’s Wildspitze as her first “snow mountain,” and went on to climb the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc, whose beauty and challenge inspired her with “snow and ice fever.”

After Ladakh in 1898 and for the next decade, Fanny, a graduate of Miss Graham’s in New York City, asserted herself as a geographer and mountaineer, earning recognition as a founding member of the American Alpine Club, Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, Officer de l’Instruction Publique et Beaux Arts de France, as well as member of the Royal Asiatic Society, the Club Alpin Français, Italian Alpine Club, and the Ladies’ Alpine Club.

For a woman who grew up in a mansion on Worcester’s Elm Street, she had acquired a taste for the unknown. Diary entry: July 14, 1912, Siachen Glacier: “The vastness of huge long gls & immense pks. & miles of long snow & rock ranges N. S. E. & W. here, is beyond anything we have seen in Asia, Biafo Hispar & Chogo Lungma are bagatelles with the Siachen & affluents.”

At the end of her career, Fanny described herself as “a doyenne explorer and lecturer” in Two Summers in the Ice Wilds of Eastern Karakoram (1917). She looked to the future and wished women well: “They will have to toil and overcome, but by persistent effort they will achieve, not all they desire, but much knowledge, and, on the trail to still untrodden heights and lands, enjoy to the full the most glorious and freest of lives, in comparison with which all ordinary so-called civilized existence is of the deadliest commonplace.”

 Profile by Sallie Greenwood, 2/26/2018