There is a black-and-white image in the vast archives of the US Library of Congress that shows a woman standing on the nearly 21,000-feet-high Silver Throne Plateau, southwest of the Siachen Glacier. The woman is dressed in contemporary hiking gear, her trousers peeking from below her outer skirt. An ice axe stands planted near her in the snow. Her face is not entirely visible – partly because the picture taken in 1912 is hazy and partly because she is in profile. What is clear is the newspaper she is holding up and its headline in big type: Votes for Women.

The image is the perfect summation of the life of Fanny Bullock Workman. A mountaineer, cyclist, traveller and writer, she dedicated herself to adventure and while at it, espoused vocal support for women’s causes, be it the right to vote or greater access to higher education.

With her husband William Hunter Workman, she cycled across north Africa, India and Java, and climbed daunting peaks. Together, they made as many as six expeditions to the western Himalayas and the Karakoram mountains between 1899 and 1912. They welcomed every challenge, endured travails, lectured to diverse audiences, and wrote prolifically.

Fanny Workman on Silver Throne Plateau. Credit: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

Shared passions

Fanny, born in 1859, was the youngest child of Alexander Bullock and Elvira Hazard. Her father, once the mayor of Worcester, served a term as the Republican governor of Massachusetts from 1866 to 1869. Her mother hailed from a rich family that had made its fortune producing munitions and gunpowder. The parents educated Fanny privately, before sending her to finishing schools in New York, Dresden and Paris.

Fanny married William, the son of a well-known physician who had himself studied medicine at Harvard University, in 1882. She was 23, he was 35 – but they shared the same passions. Their daughter Rachel was born in 1884.

The couple’s adventures began with exploration of the peaks of New Hampshire. After they moved to Germany in 1888, they gave themselves up entirely to a life of travel. By this time, adventure travel had become relatively safer: the older high-wheeler bicycle was on its way out and replacing it in popularity was the “safety bicycle” with its even-sized wheels.

Their move to Europe led to a burst of adventures. The couple first explored the Alpine peaks and then cycled down the Iberian peninsula to north Africa. Two quick books came out of these travels: Algerian Memories: A Bicycle Tour over the Atlas to the Sahara, and Sketches Awheel in Modern Iberia.

Fanny and William Workman. Credit: The Call of the Snowy Hispar/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

In the first book, there are several passages on northern Algeria, where French imperialists were putting down resistance with brutal force. The Workmans adapted to local perils quickly, which served them well later too. Chased by packs of stray dogs, they equipped themselves with pistols and dog whips. As they noted:

“It has been our experience that horses, oxen and mules are much more liable to be frightened by a woman on a bicycle than by a man. Dogs also bark at the former more frequently. It may be that dogs, which seem to regard themselves as a sort of special police, consider women out of place on a wheel, and in need of correction.”  

Toward the end of the next decade, the Workmans travelled to South Asia. First sailing to Sri Lanka, they reached Tuticorin in south India in January 1898. And from there began their 14,000-mile journey across the length and breadth of the country.

Travel stories

As always, the Workmans followed up on their travels with a long-titled book – Through Town and Jungle: Fourteen Thousand Miles A-wheel Among the Temples and Peoples of the Indian Plain. The book is packed with observations about life in India, some of which sound dated today, although the language remains startlingly fresh. The Nilgiris, they wrote, for instance, are “theatrical, resembling well-painted stage peaks yet possessing the one thing, that the best but tawdry work of the artist cannot reproduce, the soul of nature”.

At places, the book is sullen or caustic. The husband and wife get frustrated when they are given wrong directions, taking them miles away from their intended destination. Or when it takes several men, more than is required, to help them ford a river. Or when waiting rooms at railway stations and inspection bungalows are dismally under-furnished. Or when district officials are oblivious about local conditions, their excuse being they had just been transferred. Or when the generous use of “red pepper” makes their food almost inedible. Or when the menu is jammed with chicken, like the time when their four-course meal is made up of chicken soup, chicken cutlets, chicken curry and rice.

Fanny Workman with pilgrims travelling to Jagannath Temple. Credit: Through Town and Jungle.

Their most pressing problem, however, one that runs like a refrain through all their subsequent books, is the difficulty in securing dependable assistants, coolies and porters. They complain that coolies could not be relied upon to deliver goods on time even when sent ahead and not to strike work when conditions became hard.

Despite the inconveniences, Fanny and William Workman made sure to check off iconic sites off their list. During their time in India, they took detours to see the temples in Mahabalipuram, Somnathapura, Khajuraho and Puri; the monuments in Bijapur, Hyderabad, Agra and Fatehpur Sikri; the palaces in Jaipur and Udaipur; and the Ajanta caves.

The Taj Mahal they didn’t like much: they said it had been overpraised and the “modern balloon-like, narrow-necked excrescence that crowned it” was “unsightly”. About the Ajanta murals and the friezes at Chalukyan temples, their verdict was mixed:

“It is Eastern, barbaric if you will and perhaps foreign to Western ideas, but no one, who has studied temples in various parts of the world, will deny the architectural refinement and fantastic beauty of this temple at Somnathapura.”  

Challenging climb

Between 1899 and 1912, the Workmans made as many as six expeditions to the western Himalayas and the Karakoram region. At the time, it was a relatively unknown area, whose mystery was drawing explorers from all over. The sparsely populated region, often called Little Tibet, was also where the Great Game for the control of central Asia was playing out between Russia and Britain.

The Workmans’ explorations of a region now off-limits to many are recorded in five books they co-wrote. With their minute focus on geographical details and topographical features, the books can be a revelation for the modern reader, even if the couple’s readings and calculations were contested by later explorers and geographers.

Their first expedition to the western Karakoram was in 1899. Four years later, they went back twice and tracked the Chogo Lungma Glacier, which now falls in Gilgit-Baltistan. A subsequent trip took them to the Hispar Glacier, part of the world’s largest glacial region outside the Poles, and the Nun Kun range.

Fanny Workman, on back of a man, crossing a river near center of Siachen Glacier. Credit: Library of Congress [Public Domain].

From the books it appears that their most exciting expedition was to Siachen in 1911-1912. Everything was meticulously planned for it. Tents and clothing were bought in England, shipped to Bombay and then transported overland and across camps. A small battalion of coolies, porters and supervisors was hired for the trip. Of these, two hundred porters were sent to the glacier ahead of the couple.

In a book, Fanny Workman calls Siachen Glacier the “Rose Glacier”, saying it was the local name – Sia-chen translating to “having rose bushes” in Balti language and Tibetan. For her and her husband, hiking the 47-mile stretch of ice and snow was challenging: she was 52 years old, he was 64, the days were shorter, weather variable and the conditions frosty. The upper Nubra valley at the base of Siachen, she wrote, had treacherous amounts of water and quicksand was a constant threat.

After the Workmans’ safe return, they wrote yet another book and went on a successful lecture tour. In 1905, Fanny became the second woman after Isabella Bird to lecture at the Royal Geographical Society. In 1913, when the Society finally amended its admission rules, she was one of its first woman members. In the West, this was an era of reform, especially in women’s rights. Activism was conjoined with newly popular sports such as cycling and mountaineering that promised freedom of movement to women as well as access to spaces that were long closed to them.

The Workmans’ articles establishing their discoveries were welcomed by magazines like the Alpine Journal and The Scientific American. However, at times there was pushback too. Their naming of seemingly “undiscovered” landmarks drew the ire of British surveyors who insisted priority be accorded to local names. There was also malicious gossip on the Workmans’ overuse of local resources and their imperious treatment of coolies.

Fanny Workman with climbing gear. Credit: Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain].

World War I delayed the publication of their last work, Two Summers in the Ice-Wilds of the Eastern Karakoram, which finally appeared in 1916. By then, the Workmans had retired to France, where Fanny died in 1925. In death, she left behind funding for scholarships at several prominent women’s colleges, such as Smith, Wellesley, Radcliffe and Bryn Mawr. William passed away several years later in Newport, Massachusetts, aged 91. In The Ice World of the Himalayas (1900), Fanny gave a realistic assessment of her abilities:

“I am not a lightweight and am a slow climber. Still my powers of endurance on long days of climbing and in weeks of continued cycle touring have for a number of years been good. I had been told in England and India, that I should not be able to cycle more than one cold weather in the plains and certainly should not be fit for much in the mountains after a long season of exposure to the sun in lower altitudes. But my hardest and highest mountain work was accomplished after two seasons, of six months each, cycling in Ceylon, India, and Java.”  

This article is part of a series on notable Americans who visited India before mid-20th century. Read the rest of the series here.