In the fourth of our monthly series of Leading Ladies we trek to the giddy heights of the Himalayas and honour women who have traversed these peaks. Women like Alexandra David-Neel whose pioneering determination led her to Lhasa and Edurne Pasaban who has scaled all 14 ‘eight-thousanders’ on earth* *mountains on Earth that are more than 8,000 metres (26,247 ft) high above sea level. Women like our very own Zara Fleming who was moved at age 7 by stories of the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile and later became a travel guide and led her first British tour to Tibet in 1981. Who would your leading lady of the Himalayas be?

Ahead of her time

Currently hitting heights

Alexandra is best known for her daring journey to Lhasa over the Trans-Himalayas in midwinter 1924. Accompanied by her adopted son Lama Yongden she disguised herself as a beggar/pilgrim to elude soldiers and officials. In doing this she became the first European woman to reach Tibet’s forbidden capital. Born Alexandrine Marie David, she began her early career as an opera singer and a feminist writer. In 1904 she married Philip Neel (thought to be a marriage of convenience for both parties) and soon took off for India.  A significant love affair with Sidkeong Tulku, the young and handsome Maharaja of Sikkim ended tragically when he was poisoned in 1914. For solace and enlightenment she turned to Gomchen of Lachen, the Hermetic master of a small monastery in a mountain village near the Tibetan border. Apparently locals believed she could fly, kill men by a glance and command demons. She learnt much from her stay here, including Tibetan and tumo – a breathing technique to create heat and ward off the piercing cold of this snowy region. Living simply in a sparsely furnished cave near her master along with her adopted son she agreed to become Gomchen’s disciple. For two years she studied tantric Buddhism.

On her trek to Lhasa she believed she received messages “written on the wind” from her guru. The tumo breathing certainly helped her at age 55 reach Lhasa. Her life after this triumph continued in a remarkable way.  She wrote may books on Eastern themes and at 100 renewed her passport planning a trip across Russia. She died just before her 101st birthday and her legacy endures in her books which have inspired many.


Currently hitting heights


“I feel free without any pressure of any kind…I am in peace with myself” ( when standing on the summit of a mountain) – Edurne Pasaban

Edurne Pasaban is a professional mountainer and the first woman in history to summit all 14 of the eight-thousanders on earth. She recently climbed Everest without the aid of oxygen.

During her younger years Edurne’s natural talent led her to look for peaks beyond the Basque Country and the Pyrenees. She started rock climbing at age 15 with her cousin (and future partner for several eight-thousander climbs). Just a year later she climbed Mont Blanc. Her challenge to conquer all 14 eight-thousander peaks in the world would take 9 years and 20 expeditions. In 2010 she achieved her goal, becoming the first woman to do so.

Edurne has founded a non-profit foundation Edurne Pasaban Mountaineers for the Himalayas Foundation to bring together mountaineers with a desire to help others and children from the mountains of Nepal, Pakistan, Tibet, India and Bhutan with the aim of providing them with an education. We are delighted that Edurne will be speaking at our Beyond Festival of Travel this September. Please see our events listing below to find out more.


One of our own


Zara Fleming is an independent art consultant, researcher and exhibition curator who has specialist knowledge of Buddhist art. She first visited Bhutan in 1976 and has been returning ever since. She has been responsible for the Tibetan and Nepalese collections of the Victoria & Albert Museum and Assistant Director in Europe for the Orient Foundation.

We asked Zara to share her thoughts on what motivates her to do what she does, who inspired her, which place she is happiest, her best travel advice and more…

What was your earliest or childhood ambition?

I am not sure which came first to become a farmer (as I was brought up on a farm and loved looking after the animals and living the outdoor life) or to travel to Tibet and the Himalayas. From the age of 7, this was my ambition (I had a teacher who told us about the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile which had happened that month (March 1959) and according to my teacher I was very moved…….and got the school to raise money for refugee children. We also had a colouring book with a picture of the Himalayas and a Tibetan lady with a yak and I knew then that this was the place I really wanted to explore.

What motivates you to do what you do?

The joy of living and the pleasure I get from sharing my love of the Himalayas and Buddhist culture with others. This could be through travelling, lecturing, organising exhibitions or researching a client’s Tibetan object. I also love initiating or contributing to small scale health and education projects in the Himalayas, to give something back to my friends in the Himalayas – who have given me so much.

Read our full Q & A with Zara here



Join other leading ladies


Join Gina Corrigan for an insight into a traditional way of life and ancient traditions as you travel through the province. The mountainous scenery is exhilarating and visiting the small villages in the hills gives an insight into a culture and a lifestyle sadly diminishing.

Votes For Women


Who has inspired you? Cast your vote as to who we should feature next. Send your suggestions to