(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005)

It’s been a long time since I’ve kept a grade book, but I can never entirely stop being a teacher. I write partly because I want to add to the names found on book shelves and lists. When my readers hear the word “explorer,” they may envision a big bearded guy, but they’ll also know explorers can be slight women like Dr. Sylvia Earle, a marine biologist who broke diving records, or Ann Bancroft, the first woman to cross ice to the North and South Poles. I hope they’ll think of Jeanne Baret, who left France in 1766 to become the first woman to sail around the world, or Junko Tabei, the first woman to summit Mount Everest. The four-feet-nine-inches tall Japanese woman went on to reach the highest peaks on seven continents by 1992. Junko Tabei presently aims to climb the highest mountains of every country in the world.

All of the women in HOW HIGH CAN WE CLIMB? followed dreams, faced dangers, and made amazing discoveries. Some remained single, such as Annie Smith Peck, a woman born in the Victorian period who was annoyed when people made more fuss about the trousers she wore than the mountains she climbed. Others were mothers as well as explorers. Arnarulunguaq not only trekked thousands of miles across Arctic North America in the 1920’s, but made part of the trip while pregnant, then while carrying a baby on her back. Five pregnancies limited how often caver Elisabeth Casteret could squirm through narrow tunnels hundreds of feet below the earth. Only females faced such obstacles, but the explorers in this book viewed these as being smaller than challenges posed by the world’s highest mountains, thickest forests, or deepest parts of the oceans.

While researching, I realized that all the adventures I learned about couldn’t fit in one book. I aimed for geographic diversity, choosing to focus on twelve explorers whose work taught us more about all seven continents and the sea. Their names are printed in capital letters in the following timeline, along with those of explorers left out of the book. Of course this list still doesn’t represent everyone. Women keep setting out on harrowing new journeys, and discoveries of past feats continue to be made. Feel free to contact me on-line about explorers you think should be added. Let me know if it’s all right to quote you and use your name. Thanks!

Women Explorer Websites

Female Explorers

Distinguished Women of the Past and Present: Explorers and Adventurers

Women Explorers


1767 JEANNE BARET works as a maid for Dr. Philibert Commerson, a botantist for the king of France. Jeanne disguises herself in men’s clothes and follows him aboard a ship. Years later, Jeanne becomes the first woman to circle the globe when she returns to France. The thousands of plants Jeanne Baret and Dr. Commerson had preserved and labeled were recognized as one of the most important collections of the time.

1770 Isabel Grandmaison y Bruno Godin sets out from Peru, where she was born, to travel down the Amazon River. She becomes the first woman to cross South America.

1805 Sacajawea, a young Shoshone woman, helps guide explorers Lewis and Clark across six thousand miles of western North America.

1861 FLORENCE BAKER and her husband, Samuel Baker, leave Cairo, Egypt. Four trouble-filled years later, they find one of the sources of the four thousand mile long Nile River. Samuel’s passion kept them going through dangerous forests, deserts, and crocodile infested rivers, while Florence’s good sense helped keep them both alive.

1868 Marianne North becomes serious about oil painting, then carries easels and canvas to six continents to complete more than eight hundred paintings of plants and landscapes.

1871 Lucy Walker becomes the first woman to climb the Matterhorn in the Alps. She made ninety-eight mountain expeditions, while wearing petticoats and long skirts.

1891 Kate Marsden drives a dogsled two thousand miles across Russia hoping to find an herb thought to cure leprosy.

1892 Isabella Bird Bishop, who spent more than thirty years traveling to Austrailia, Tibet, China, Hawaii, the Rocky Mountains and many other places, becomes the first woman to speak at a meeting of the Royal Geographical Society in London, England.

1892 Gertrude Bell becomes the first European woman to travel in Iran as well as other parts of the Middle East. Her work exploring, mapping, and excavating ancient ruins merits a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society.

1893 Mary Kingsley leaves England for the first of three trips to Africa, where she studies plants and animals and gathers specimens for natural history museums.

1893 JOSEPHINE DIEBITSCH PEARY gives birth to the first non-Inuit baby in the Arctic. During the twenty-five years in which her husband, Robert Peary, attempts to reach the North Pole, Jo sometimes joins him. In 1955, the National Geographic Society awards her its highest Medal of Achievement.

1908 ANNIE SMITH PECK becomes the only woman to reach the peak of a major mountain before a male climber when she reaches the summit of Mount Huascaran, a 22, 205 foot mountain in Peru.

1923 ELISABETH CASTERET begins exploring caves with her husband, Norbert Casteret, as well as his mother and brother. She makes her way through many of the deepest caves then known in France, a country which claims many of the world’s deepest caves, before she dies while giving birth to her fifth child.

1924 Louise A. Boyd leads the first of seven Arctic expeditions she made to explore and map the coast of Greenland, where she found some ice two miles thick, and glaciers made navigation dangerous. She discovers an undersea mountain range that is now called the Louise A. Boyd Bank.

1924 Frenchwoman Alexandra David-Neel journeys to Asia, where she disguises herself as a monk, dusting charcoal and cocoa on her face, and hiding maps and a compass under her robe. She becomes the first European woman to enter the forbidden city of Lhasa in Tibet.

1927 Ynes Mexia travels through remote parts of California to collect 33,000 plants, including fifty new species. Later, she traveled three thousand miles up the Amazon River and collected over 150,000 plants, more than any other woman botanist.

1933 Anne Morrow Lindbergh co-pilots a small plane on a five-and-a-half month trip across and around the Atlantic Ocean. Her husband, aviator Charles Lindbergh, considered this journey the most useful and dangerous flight of his career.

1936 Ruth Harkness spends months trekking through dangerous mountains and bamboo forests in China before returning with the first giant panda ever seen in the West.

1947 Barbara Washburn becomes the first woman to summit Mount McKinley, (often called by its Athapaskan Indian name, Denali) the highest peak in North America. Later, she and her husband, Brad Washburn, mapped the Grand Canyon and Mount Everest.

1948 Mary Leaky, as an archeologist working in Africa, discovers the oldest fossilized primate skull yet found.

1957 Jane Goodall first leaves England for Africa, where she’s spent almost half a century studying chimpanzees and showing how their lives and fates are linked with that of humans.Her work inspires more primatologists to step lightly, watch intently, and listen closely to other animals.

1963 Dian Fossey first sees a wild mountain gorilla. Her close attention to these shy animals makes her aware that each has a distinctive nose print, a revelation akin to that of scientist Cynthia Moss, who noticed the particular notches in the ears of African elephants.

1969 During the first year that women were allowed on military planes bound for Antarctica, geochemist Lois Jones organizes an all-women research team to go to the frozen continent. Lois Jones, four other scientists, and a reporter link arms to become, six at the same time, the first women to stand at the South Pole. Since then, other women scientists have gone to Antarctica to climb into active volcanoes, dive through holes in the ice, study the distinctive calls of seals, and collect meteorites which may hold clues to life on other planets.

1974 In the rainforests of Asia, Birute Galdikas begins her longterm study of orangutans’ eating and bedtime patterns, play, self defense, and other behaviors they may have used for fourteen million years.

1975 JUNKO TABEI becomes the first woman to reach the top of Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world. When someone suggests that she would have been better off at home with her husband and children, a comment few male mountain climbers heard, Junko said, “Scaling Mount Everest was easy compared to overcoming discrimination in Japan.”

1979 DR. SYLVIA EARLE sets a record by diving 1,250 feet into the ocean without a tether to the surface. She has spent more than 6,000 hours beneath the sea, studying plant and animal life. In 1990, she was the first woman to be named as chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She continues working to understand and protect the oceans, which she thinks of as her home.

1988 KAY COTTEE returns from her trip around the world in a sailboat with wiring put in by her father, walls painted by her mother, and which friends helped supply with a First Aid kit, six months worth of food, and plenty of books, audio tapes, and chocolate.

1988 Stacy Allison becomes the first American woman to reach the top of Mount Everest. Before she began the even more dangerous hike down, she left a list people who helped her get on the top, a chunk of turquoise from a Tibetan yak herder who lived at the base of the mountain but had never dreamed of climbing, and a Susan B. Anthony silver dollar.

1990 SUE HENDRICKSON excavates small fossils and the largest, best preserved T-Rex which was named Sue in her honor and is now displayed in the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois. Sue Hendrickson now hopes to travel to the coldest regions of Russia to search for the remains of a wooly mammoth trapped by ice, which may teach us more about the age of the earth and its future.

1994 Barbara Anne am Ende goes to Mexico to explore and map an approximately six-mile-long underground river in Huautla, one of the world’s deepest caves.

2005 Mission Commander Eileen Collins takes her fourth flight into space, where she manually steers the Discovery into an elegant backflip so that photographs could be taken from the International Space Station. The shuttle soars past more stars than can be seen from the earth, promising worlds still to be explored, before safely reaching home.

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