113. Elise Wortley: Finding inspiration in nature

In this episode, Elise Wortley joins Sue Stockdale to discuss her adventure in the Canadian wilderness for the Channel 4 TV show “Alone”. She shares her experience being dropped in the middle of nowhere and having to fend for herself in the wild. Elise reflects on the challenges and rewards of immersing herself in nature, including hunting for food and building shelter for the first time. Elise also talks about how reconnecting with nature can have a positive impact on our wellbeing and why she was inspired to start a project to follow in the footsteps of forgotten women adventurers.


About Elise Wortley

Elise Wortley is an adventurer, writer and presenter, on a mission to redefine what it means to be an explorer. Her on-going project, Woman with Altitude, has received widespread media attention and her writing has featured in outlets such as The Guardian and The Telegraph. Lise has presented on primetime BBC TV, is a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and recently starred in Channel 4’s new adventure series ALONE, becoming runner up in the ultimate test of endurance and ingenuity, in one of the most beautiful but challenging landscapes on earth.

Connect with Elise Wortley on website and Instagram

Key Quotes

  • “One of the reasons I did Alone was to become fully immersed in nature and to just leave modern day life behind.”
  • “ I decided to take a team of women with me to Asia because I wanted the trip to also show other women that you can go on these adventures.”
  • “ I used to see rain as horrible, but now I realise that it has a place in the ecosystem and I know how it feels to get as wet as the plants.”
  • “ I learned that when I was in nature in the mountains or anywhere, even the park, I felt so much better.”
  • “Nan Shepherd is all about not getting to the top of the mountain and just rushing to summit it, but experiencing it as a whole. The beauty that you can get out of just immersing yourself in nature.”
  • “Sitting, doing nothing, we don’t really do that in our normal lives.”
  • “ I’ve learned to be a lot calmer because in London, everyone’s rushing around.”
  • “ I just want to inspire other people to go on adventures and get out there and not necessarily think you have to live by the normal ways.”

Time Stamps
[00:00:22] Alone in the Canadian wilderness.
[00:02:44] Being kind to yourself.
[00:05:02] Managing anxiety.
[00:11:31] Female explorers and empowering women.
[00:14:58] Nan Shepherd and The Living Mountain.
[00:19:18] Mental health and work-life balance.
[00:22:34] Who or what inspires you?
[00:24:04] Women with Altitude.

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Elise Wortley Transcription

Sue Welcome to the podcast, Elise. It’s lovely to speak to you today.

Elise Ah, thanks Sue. Thanks for having me. Great to be here.

Sue I love speaking to fellow adventurers, if I dare call you that. And you’ve certainly had an adventure of late out there alone in the middle of the Northwest Territories in Canada, I understand.

Elise Yes. It’s quite funny actually you say adventure, because I always call myself a bit of an accidental adventurer. Like I never really meant to get into all this, but it’s now become my life and I love it. Last year, actually, I was in the Canadian wilderness. It was for a new Channel 4 show called Alone. So yeah, I was dropped in the middleof nowhere in the middle of Canada and had to fend for myself in the wild, which was the most amazing, beautiful, tough experience I’ve ever had.

Sue It wasn’t wonderful all the time, but I suspect if it was challenging, maybe not.

Elise Yeah, so it’s interesting watching it back because obviously on the TV show, they just take out the most extreme bits because they want the show to be dramatic. So it was a bit funny watching it because I did actually, for the most part, have the most wonderful, immersive, great time. I mean, obviously I was hungry because I’d never hunted or caught fish before or anything like that, but I knew that would be part of it. But that was one of the reasons I did it really was to become fully immersed in nature and to just leave modern day life behind. So it was a really wonderful experience. But yeah, really, really tough at times, especially because I’d never built a shelter. I’d never really used an axe. I’d never been fishing. I mean, I’ve been on lots of adventures, but I’ve never actually had to properly fend for myself and live in the wild before. So yeah, it was it was completely crazy, to be honest, really crazy.

Sue And would you say now that you feel competent to do that in the future?

Elise Yeah, I would love to go and do it again. I’d absolutely love to have the chance. I mean, I’d maybe take a bit more food with me this time, but it was just that whole being there on your own, just listening to nature, just being in nature, you become completely wild. So my hearing got really good. My eyesight got really good. And you just kind of become, you just become part of it. You know, you go to sleep when the sun goes down, you get up when the sun rises and your whole rhythm just changes. And it’s really sad for me now that that’s my wildness has sort of slipped away. So yeah, I’d love to go back and do something similar, maybe somewhere else.

Sue Very often people when they’re in challenging situations, and we’ve had several guests on the podcast who have found that it’s their mindset, what they’re saying to themselves, that really makes a difference. So what were you saying to yourself?

Elise Yeah, over the years I’ve got a lot better at being kinder to myself. I used to be really tough on myself. I used to suffer from really bad panic attacks and anxiety and during that time I was really hard on myself. Sort of, why can’t you just be normal? Why can’t you do this? Why do you have to ruin everything because you feel dizzy or you don’t feel right? So actually over the last 10 years I’ve gone on this journey where I’ve just really accepted I just need to be kind to myself and that really really helped. I think as well it was almost my naivety, I’d never fished before, I’d never made a shelter, I’d never done any of that stuff so I was just like oh well it’s fine you know I haven’t caught a fish today I might just be doing it wrong so I’ll try over there tomorrow, I’ll see if that works. Whereas I think if I’d actually known that I was fishing correctly, you know, and I was in the right place, that would have been more demoralising. So I think it was a bit of naivety, but also that just being kind to yourself and knowing that you’ve done big things before, you’ve, you know, you’ve got through certain things and you can get through this. So, yeah, I think just being kind to yourself is probably the main reason that I got through it.

Sue So I want to just dig a little bit deeper into how you came to realize that you love nature so much. I’m thinking about you when you were a youngster that had an influence on how you viewed nature.

Elise Yeah, I was born in London, but then my parents moved out to Essex in the countryside and actually grew up just always in the dirt, always building dens. We had a little wood behind our house. So I was always in there with my brother. So I had a very, very outdoorsy childhood. And then when I was a teenager, I sort of rebelled against that. And I just wanted to be in the town with my friends. And when I look back, that’s where it started. Yeah, I lost that connection with nature and then Iwent to uni and then I moved to London and it just had completely gone. This is something I’ve realized recently. I’m obviously trying to get that nature back into my life and it’s making me feel so much better. So yeah, so that’s definitely where it came from. I think growing up, growing up surrounded by it and just sort of wanting,wanting that back.

Sue You mentioned before that you had suffered from anxiety and panic attacks. How did you help yourself to get to where you are now?

Elise So it was a really long road for me and actually I was 20 so that was 13, nearly 14 years ago and actually back then I’d go to the doctor and I’d say I’m really dizzy, I’m shaking all the time, I feel like something awful is going to happen and they didn’t really know what to do. I had brain scans, I had blood tests, I had all this stuff and they were like there’s nothing wrong with you and obviously now that would be different because they’d be able to recognise oh it sounds like this is something It’s going on in your head, you know, because that’s one of the things that anxiety, it can make you feel so physically ill and like there’s something really wrong. So, yeah,I think back then it was just a lot of disappointment, not knowing what was wrong. And one of my main symptoms was constantly feeling dizzy. So I’d be looking around and I wouldn’t be able to focus on anything properly. And it was really, really horrible. And I think, yeah, just kind of managing to get through that andeventually I went on medication because I just wasn’t getting better. And it got to the point where I couldn’t go out and I couldn’t get on a bus because my legs would shake so much. I wouldn’t be able to move. It was really, really bad. So it was actually medication and therapy that then got me through. It kind of got me back to my normal self. And then I was able to say, you know, I can be this person. I’m not the old one who’s terrified of everything. And that’s kind of when all the adventuring started happening. And I went on my first trip to India and yeah, and then I’ve just got better and better since then. So yeah, I would say to anyone in that situation that I was back then, your brain can change and you can get better. It’s just, it’s just a process that you have to go through.

Sue And seems like you were prepared to go through that journey.

Elise Yeah. I mean, there’s definitely times where I would think, what’s the point? You know, I feel so terrible. I can’t even leave the house. There was times when I didn’t think it would get better, but I can look back on the last 13 years now and see how far I’ve come. Even just talking to you now on this, I wouldn’t have been able to do this sort of seven, eight years ago with this sort of confidence that I have now. So even the little things in the day as well, like going to work, I enjoy it. I like talking to people and I didn’t used to have that. So. Yeah, it definitely takes time, I’d say. But yeah, definitely.

Sue You also threw into your answer there a couple of countries that you have traveled to, and I think that’s with your project, Woman with Altitude. Is that right?

Elise Yeah, I actually started that when I started to feel a lot better. So when I was around sort of 26, I remembered this book that I’d read when I was younger by a female explorer. And I’d always, always wanted to follow in her footsteps. It was just this idea that I thought was silly for a long time, but she was so inspiring. She was called Alexandra David Neel. And she went on this really long 14 year journey through Asia in 1910, I think she started. She was the first Western woman to meet the Dalai Lama. She studied Buddhism. She lived in a cave for two years, just studying Buddhism and meditation, which sort of in 1910 was really rare for a woman especially to go and do this. And she wrote this incredible book about her experience. And I just remember reading it and thinking, wow, she did that back then. That’s so brave to even go somewhere where you’ve probably only seen one little photograph of. It’s not like today where we can see exactly where we’re going. We know who’s picking us up, that sort of thing. And I just always wanted to follow in her footsteps because her book was just so magical. You know, the people she met, the places she saw. So eventually I went and I did it. But the big twist was I did it in what she had in 1910, because I wanted to really, really experience what she had gone through. And I thought, well, if I’m in modern clothes, I’m not really going to feel the elements and the nature and actually the hardship she went through on that journey. So that’s how it all started.

Sue And did you have an idea then that you would record it on a video? Because you’re in the PR industry as your day job, so you know how important communication is to obviously getting sponsors and so on. So what attention did you give to that as you were dreaming up your journey?

Elise Yeah, so I decided to take a team of women with me because I wanted the trip to also show other women that you can go on these adventures and The other thing was I wanted a female guide. So I worked in adventure travel at the time and I knew that there was a big sort of gap, especially in Asia, between women who do jobs in the adventure world and men, it’s definitely a man’s sort of role. And it is changing a lot, especially in Nepal and India, it is changing. So I found this amazing guide, Jangu, who took us into the mountains and took us on that trip. And then I had Emily come along to film it as well. So just a little group, but yeah, it was this really beautiful group of women and we just sort of went along, but yeah, Emily filmed it and that’s when I sort of started the Instagram and stuff like that. So yeah.

Sue And what did you learn about yourself from that experience, given you wanted to go in somebody else’s footsteps?

Elise So because that was the first one and I’d never done a big trip like that before, I won’t lie. I was really, really nervous. I was panicky. I was still not in the panicky, panicky stage, but I was still coming out of that period. And even sort of getting planes was quite a big thing for me, because it was enclosed space. And it was all very overwhelming. But actually, what I found was when I was there in the mountains, just walking, everything like that went away. And the thing with the old equipment is that you really feel things more. So you feel the wind, you feel the rain. And at first, that wasn’t that nice. But then you start to realize, actually, It was my Scotland trip, which I’m sure I’ll talk about in a bit, that really got me into this. I used to see rain as horrible, but now I realise it has a place in the ecosystem and I know how it feels to get as wet as the plants. It sounds a bit airy-fairy, but wearing that stuff gave it that element as well. I think I just learned that when I was innature, in the mountains or anywhere in nature, even the park, I felt so much better. So that was kind of that first trip. And then I sort of got a bit addicted to it. And then I found all these other women. I started researching female explorers from back in the day who were under-celebrated compared to their male counterparts. I’ve got a list of about 150 now, so that’s how it all carried on.

Sue And given that you were inspired by your own experience and you’ve got this big list now, is it important to you that you experience this or is there something about you would encourage other women to take on some of those adventures and do it as a collaborative? Given that you were on the Channel 4 program called Alone, I’m wondering how much of it is about you on your own versus you with others or other people doing something that’s in service of your mission.

Elise It’s a really interesting question because that sort of reason I started sharing it was to show other women that yes, these women did these things back then and they were so brave to do it, but I couldn’t have done this a few years ago. So even if you’re going to the park or you’re going for a tiny walk, like that’s still a little adventure and you should still really push for that. I’ve thought a lot over the years about doing group trips because I’d love to get a group of people, not necessarily all women either, but everyone to put their phones away and just sit around the fire for 24 hours, you know, something like that, because and I had it on alone as well. There’s something really magical when you do put the phone away and you have no distractions. It’s a bit like meditation. So your whole mind stops. You’re just looking at the flames of the fire or you’re just listening to a bird. We were listening to what someone else is saying and actually in a group setting, that’s a really, really lovely thing.So it’s definitely something I’d love to do in the future is to take a group of women. I mean, they can wear the old equipment if they want. I’m sure people would wantto. But it’s more about that sort of disconnecting from the online world and all the stresses and just playing with fire and sticks and building somewhere to sleep inmaybe. So I would love to. Yeah, I really would.

Sue I’m wondering, and I know from my own experience of some of the polar expeditions that I’ve done, that it can be very hard when you have to just go inside your head and you’ve got no one else to speak to on a regular basis. And I’m wondering, when you were there having to cook for yourself, having to hunt, how did you accept that it was just down to you?

Elise yeah that was hard and don’t get me wrong I sounded very positive about it at the start but there were definitely some darker moments. I just reminded myself the whole time i’d not done this before so everything’s a test for me it was that constant not catching anything sort of another day goes by and you haven’t got any food and another day and then it is really hard I mean i’m sure you know about this you know. When you’re in loads of pain and you just think I don’t think I can do this anymore and then somehow you just carry on and you just get through it. And it’s realising that you can do more than you think, I think is one thing that I really learned from it. And it’s stressful having all that on your own shoulders. You have nobody to lean back on. It’s all on you. And if you think about it like that, it can become overwhelming. So you just need to take it step by step, I think. Think, well, I’ve tried this, I’ve done this, or I’ve got to get to here. I’ve got to keep going for another hour and just break it down into small amounts. That’s sort of what I did on Alone as well. I was like, well, I’ve tried this. I’ve not caught anything here, so I’ll try over there tomorrow. And then at the end of the day, if I don’t catch anything, I don’t catch anything. But I think that’s kind of it, just kind of narrowing it down and not thinking about it too much.

Sue You mentioned Scotland, Elise, around one of your project trips to follow in somebody’s footsteps. Nan Shepherd, I understand. What happened there?

Elise I love Nan Shepard. So I think my mum recommended me her book, The Living Mountain. I’m sure you might have read it. It’s just amazing. And I’d never read a book like it. And it’s actually been described as one of the best books ever written about nature and landscape in Britain. And Nan’s all about not getting to the top of the mountain and not just rushing to summit it, but experiencing it as a whole. The whole environment and the beauty that you can get out of just immersing yourself in it. And she wrote that in the 1940s. And it was such a different book. It’s very short. It’s more like a philosophical text than sort of a normal book. And it didn’t get published at the time. So she just chucked it in a drawer. And for 30 years, it just stayed in this drawer. And then it was published, I think, in the 70s. And it’s just become this sort of phenomenon.

And I think anyone who sort of spends time in the outdoors should read it really beautiful book so I went up to the Cairngorms which is where she lived and where she wrote and I just sort of dressed in what she had in 1945 and I just followed the book around for a month just followed all the places what she talks about. And yeah, it was this really beautiful immersive experience. And I actually always say that really helped me with Alone because I was on my own for the first time just following this book. And it was the first time that I’d actually sort of done nothing, which sounds a bit weird. So like in the evenings, I’m sure you might have had this on some of your polar trips as well. The evening comes and you make your dinner and you’re like, Well, now what? Because I didn’t have any modern technology to distract me. So I just sit there, watch the sun go down. And then I’d be like, oh, I’ll go to bed now. And actually, just that sitting, doing nothing, we don’t really do that in our normal lives. So that really taught me to slow down. And yeah, and to appreciate all the different elements of nature that shewrites about so beautifully and that they all have a place. Like, I don’t mind rain anymore. I used to really not like rain, but Nan’s taught me that it has its place and it can actually be really beautiful. That was an amazing trip.

Sue And did you encounter any midges, which is one of the facets of Scotland?

Elise Yes, I did. But I would say not as bad as I thought they were going to be. But I did always have a fire going. And then obviously after dusk, they sort of go away, don’t they? But yes, I had a lot of bites on my legs.

Sue And for any listener that doesn’t know what a midge is, it’s like a mosquito and they can get very, very frustrating.

Elise Yeah, and they’re quite small and there’s a lot of them, but their bites are awful.

Sue You’re describing to us your life-changing, life-affirming experience in nature on these journeys that you’ve participated in, Elise. How do you bring any of that back into your regular job, your regular life? Because it can seem so different, I imagine, from what you’re doing day to day.

Elise Yeah, it’s a funny one. I actually live in London, so it’s very different to a lot of the places I’ve traveled to. I mean, especially when I got back from alone, it was a big shock. Um, but I just try and I was trying to get to the parks. I always try and put my head out of the door in the morning to get a bit of sunlight. And I’ve learned to be a lot calmer because the thing in London, everyone’s rushing around. You can’t just walk somewhere at normal pace. Everyone’s going a million miles an hour. Everyone just work, work, works, works really late. And I’ve just learned from doing all these things just to sort of be a bit slower so I won’t constantly rush, try and get out into green spaces and it does actually really help me mentally as well. And when I look back to my mid twenties, I was, I just started working. Everyone just works and goes out and drinks and it’s just this constant cycle. And I can really see I was in that and now I’ve taken this big step out of it. And I do a lot more sort of yoga and meditation and walking, a lot of walking. And I also just carve out a bit of time to do nothing. So it sounds a bit weird. And sometimes my boyfriend will come in the room and I’ll just be sat on the bed, just staring at the wall. I’m like, I just needed two minutes of nothing. And I’ve definitely learned that from watching the sun go down and sitting there and just not doing anything. So yeah, little, little elements of all the trips I think I use every day really.

Sue And if there was a leader of one of those large corporate businesses in London where everyone’s rushing about listening to this podcast, what would you say to them that might inspire them to change the working environment for those in the organization?

Elise I think just make sure everyone carves out time for lunch or isn’t always working till 8pm or that sort of thing. Just make sure everyone has a bit of time, even if it’s a coffee break, make that essential. Don’t let people just work, work, work through because I know a lot of people that do or organize staff walks or something like that. We actually have something similar where I work. So there’ll be like a lunchtime walk once a week or something like that. And it’s just really nice. Everyone just leaves their screens and goes and talks and goes on this walk and I think just getting back to nature always seems to help me and it always seems to relax me and slow me down. And I think that’s really key. So I definitely recommend something like that.

Sue So what’s next on your agenda then? Because it strikes me, if you love nature so much, you want to be connected to nature and then you’re still in London. Why London? Or is it in your plan to move elsewhere so that you can be surrounded by nature more of the time?

Elise Yes, definitely in my plan to move. I think it’s just, work and all that sort of thing. I’ve just sort of ended up here. All my friends are here, so it’s quite a big thing to move. But I literally am constantly looking where to move to. Yeah, I think maybe soon. And then I’ve got lots of plans for trips in the future. So in December, I’m going to go to the Lake District and do a little trip following in the footsteps of Dorothy Wordsworth, who was actually one of the first women on record to start writingabout nature and mental health. and how it can actually help us get out. So I’m going to go and experience that. And then one of my big things I want to do next yearis climb Mont Blanc, but as Henriette Dongeville did in 1870, I think it was, and I think her outfit that she did it in is still in the museum in Chamonix, so I want to tryand get that. I’m not sure they’ll give it to me, but I’ll try. So that’s the plan.

Sue And how do you expect or hope to fund those things?

Elise Yeah, so I’m starting to look now.It’s definitely got harder, I’d say, over the last few years to get money from companies, but I think when you get press and things like that, it’s a really good thing to go to companies with and show them. And I’ve got a few that I’ve been writing to, so just have to wait and see. And sometimes it’s about using a few differentcompanies and they will give a small amount, but I think with something like Mont Blanc, it’s maybe worth finding a company that already takes people to climb it and then trying to work through them. So, but yeah, it’s like a whole other job on the side. I mean, I’m sure, you know, from your polar trips, it’s a big commitment to organise these trips, especially because it’s usually just me. One of the things I would really love is to get commission from a TV channel. And that would be a really great way to fund it. But obviously, that’s very difficult. But we’re trying, so we’ll see.

Sue Well, if you can achieve all the things that you have done so far, then I’d absolutely see there’s no reason why you can’t accomplish these things that you’re hoping for as well in the future. Given we are the Access to Inspiration podcast, Elise, Who or what inspires you?

Elise Oh, that’s a really hard one. Well, I obviously have all these women from the past that inspire me, but I think as well, I’ve met so many people through this project as well. And people like my guide, Nadia, who was my guide in Iran and these female guides in the world that are really in a man’s world. It’s not usual in a lot of countries for women to be adventure tour guides. So it’s meeting people like them actually. So Nadia and Jangu. people that I’ve actually met that are just doing so much for their communities and it’s very humbling to see and it makes me want to be a better person when I meet people like that.

Sue My final question for you, if you’re fast-forwarding in your life and saying okay looking back at all the things that you have done and I’m imagining you hope to do,what do you ultimately want your legacy to be from all of these projects?

Elise Gosh, I’ve never thought about that, but that’s a really good way to look at things, isn’t it? I just want to inspire other people, I think, as well, to say, you don’t have to sort of climb the biggest mountain in the world or do whatever to have an adventure. Anything’s possible. So I get a lot of people saying, oh, I could never do it in the old stuff. And I just think, well, you’ve not tried. I’m sure you would be absolutely fine. So I just hope that it inspires other people to go on adventures to get out there and not necessarily think you have to live by the normal sort of ways that people do, I suppose. But yeah, it’s a really tough question that because it’s hard to sort of put yourself as that person.

Sue Elise, if people want to find out more about you and follow your adventures and get in touch, how might they do that?

Elise Yes. So I’ve got Instagram, which is womenwithaltitude and then the same for my website. So womenwithaltitude.com. and I’m always up for a chat so feel free to message.

Sue Wonderful, I really wish you well in your future adventures as part of this Women with Altitude project and no doubt you’ll go on to even better and bigger and more impactful things in the future too. Thank you so much. It’s been lovely to speak to you, thank you.

Elise You too, thanks so much Sue.

Sue Thanks to Elise Wortley for her inspiration and reminder about the important connection between nature and wellbeing. We are now taking a break and will be back early next year with more episodes to keep you inspired.  Until then keep connected with us on social media, or sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our future plans. You can do so at the foot of the home page. Thanks for your support, and keep letting us know what you enjoy about these episodes.

Credits: Sound Editor – Matias de Ezcurra   Producer – Sue Stockdale