It may surprise you to learn, that trekking without any modern day clothing or equipment isn't actually all completely horrendous. In fact, I would go as far to say that in some aspects, it's just as good, if not an improvement. Obviously, my 1900s equipment wasn't going to be as smooth, flawless and comfortable as its modern equivalents, but I have to say, I really was surprised how well it all worked, how sturdy it was, and how much I appreciated not having any modern technology to distract me.
I made the decision that in order to do Alexandra David-Neel's journey justice, and prove how difficult her epic adventure would have been, I needed to do it exactly as she did. So, this meant carrying, wearing and using only what she would have in the early 1900s. No modern equipment whatsoever... Not even a lip balm!
I wanted to fully experience what it would have been like for her, being a woman in the mountains all that time ago. I also wanted to see how I would cope. We all live in a consumer society, especially here in London and I wanted to go back to the basics. I found that I listened more intently to people, and fully appreciated my surroundings. I know that my memory of this trip is so much stronger than any other I’ve been on recently, mainly because I wasn’t reaching for my phone all the time. I could take everything in without the distraction of pulling my phone out to take a photograph or being interrupted by it buzzing.
So, lets start from the bottom...
You won't believe it, but not one single blister appeared on either foot the entire trip! Not one. These boots were light, warm, and molded comfortably to my feet after a couple of days. But it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows. Slightly waterproof is probably an understatement, so I suffered a bit in the wet and pruned feet area, which isn't good when your continuously walking long distances. To dry my feet and boots each night, I took to lightly smoking them by the fire, which dried them a treat, but also meant I smelt like a bonfire for the entire trip. If you know me, you will of course know, that I would much rather smell like a bonfire than be cold, so this was just a minor sacrifice in my eyes.
The last and biggest issue with these boots was the lack of grip, which I've learnt the hard way, is actually quite essential for mountain walking. See image below for a full explanation:
The Yak Wool Coat
When I first set eyes on this majestic garment, I was horrified. It was big, purple and slightly smelly. I was dreading the moment I had to remove my lovely soft RAB jacket, and don the yak wool. However, after the initial nerves were over, I got used to the smell and started to become quite attached to my coat. I felt bad I had been so mean. This coat was surprisingly warm, and even more of a surprise - it was waterproof against both the snow and rain!
There were however, two major flaws to this beautiful beast:
1- there was a lot of it, so it was heavy.
2- it was too long. I was forever tripping over the front of it especially on inclines. I would put my foot up a step, but not just on the floor, also onto the coat and before I knew it my neck would jolt downwards and I'd be face down in the dirt.
My homemade backpack was made out of an old chair, and was my attempt at recreating Alexandra’s wooden backpack. It became fondly known as Chairpack, and you can see what I did there. Obviously, Chairpack wasn’t going to be as comfortable as it’s modern day equivalents, but considering it’s bulky nature, and the fact that it was attached to my shoulders by a thin rope doubled up a few times, it didn’t hurt nearly as much as I imagined it would. With the use of some mittens (see below) for extra padding, Chairpack’s straps were sturdy, comfortable and held everything in place. The basket also doubled up as a useful structure to hang things off that our local guide picked up, such as “antique” yak bells, necklaces, scarves and bits of tree that looked “pretty”.
Unfortunately, my dear old Chairpack was not without fault. The weight of the basket sat in an odd place on my back, and I started getting aches in places I didn’t even know existed. On top of this, there wasn’t anything to hold all by bits and bobs in the basket, so when I bent over to pick something up or slipped over on my backside, which was often, everything would fall out with me. Jangu and Emily would not only have to pick me up, but a never ending clutter of 1900s equipment that had hit the ground as hard as I had.
The Cotton Undergarments
These cotton undergarments were a bit of a murky area before I left. Apart from a cotton dress, "cotton undergarments" were the only other description Alexandra provides on what she wore under her coat. So, I thought the sensible option would be to find 1900s style underwear to wear under the shirt. Although the pants were a quite nice high waisted number, they were tight around the thighs resulting in sore patches and rubbing. The bra on the other hand, if a little unflattering, just about held things in place and I barely noticed a difference.
The Yak Wool Hat
This wasn't any yak wool hat, this particular hat was knitted especially for this trip by my very own mother. The yak wool was so soft and delicate, making the hat extremely comfortable to sleep in which I absolutely did every single night. Compared to any modern woolly hat, this one was just as good. Plus, it had Alexandra's initials sewn into one ear flap, and mine in the other! You wouldn't get that down Cotswold Outdoor that's for sure.
Mittens, great for keeping the hands toasty. Also, a brilliant way to stop the rope from a Chairpack rubbing. Sometimes in life you have to make choices and this was my mine: does the rope, that's now rubbing away my shoulder skin from the weight of my wooden backpack that I made out of a chair, bother me more than having numb cold hands?
Can't fault sticky. Just as good as any walking pole, even those extendable metal ones. Plus, you can't burn your shop bought walking poles on the last night in a strange alcohol/altitude induced ritual as I did with sticky. If I couldn't keep him, no one could.