Most of us yearn, at moments in our lives, for untrodden wilderness paths and the lure of the unknown. A few hardy explorers actually fulfill those fantasies. But if totally uncharted territory has diminished, we can still experience the excitement the first Himalayan adventurers felt; this autumn, Explorers Treks will follow in the footsteps of the Westerners who first made their way into remote areas of India and Nepal. And one of those first explorers is of particular interest to the trek leaders, and to many who might join them.
In 1924 a remarkable Frenchwoman, Alexandra David-Neel, walked over 2,000 miles through some of the most rugged terrain of China and Tibet to reach Lhasa, the forbidden city. To elude border guards who had already blocked her way, she disguised herself as a local peasant or beggar woman, and avoided the easier, well-traveled trading routes over the mountains, choosing instead the most difficult, remote way across unmapped wilderness. With unshakable determination, she climbed snowbound passes and followed plunging rivers toward the destination she had dreamed of for so many years. When she came to villages, she spoke the local dialect, pretending to be from some other village just remote enough that any slips in language or behavior would not be detected. She triumphed in reaching her goal, the first Western woman ever to do so.
She was 56 at the time, a startling fact in itself; she lived on to be almost 100 years old, wrote 22 books and hundreds of articles on her five expeditions to remote regions of China and Tibet, and was awarded scores of honors. Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969) was an explorer, scholar, writer, lecturer, and journalist. And yet she is virtually unknown; almost none of her fascinating books are in print.
But now a small group of women, seasoned explorers and mountain climbers themselves, are equally determined to correct that oversight of history, while pursuing Himalayan goals of their own, and bringing to light the many other unsung women explorers and adventurers of the world.
This autumn, in four separate Explorers Treks, you can visit many of the sites ''discovered'' or visited by David-Neel and other early explorers, and view the Himalayas through the eyes of these trail-blazers.
These treks, moreover, will support the private, nonprofit Alexandra David-Neel Expedition, which mountaineer and author Arlene Blum will lead to China and Tibet in 1983. At that time, five women - explorers, mountaineers, specialists in Tibetan and Chinese culture - will retrace even more difficult segments of the David-Neel route and photograph the major sites of her travels, concentrating on those wilderness areas in which she was the first woman explorer. Their specific aim will be to add to our knowledge of her original journeys, to authenticate her own accounts - and to learn through her eyes more of a subtle and complex culture.
''As a beggar woman, she was put in the kitchen,'' says Dr. Blum, ''and so she saw Tibet the way no other Westerner had. Most Western travelers of the time had a superior, condescending attitude toward these people which totally clouded their perceptions, anyway; but even a critical, open-minded Westerner would be looking across a cultural barrier. David-Neel essentially became one of 'the native people.' ''
Dr. Blum is a seasoned explorer in her own right; she led the successful first women's ascent of Annapurna in 1978, and has just completed a 2,000-mile Himalayan trek of her own - leading small groups of trekkers at various points along the way. Alexandra David-Neel is a particular inspiration to Dr. Blum, who , in the course of many high-altitude climbs and her lengthy journey last year, has submitted herself to many grueling physical and mental challenges.
''In our high-altitude expedition climbs, we have sophisticated equipment, and we are all experienced climbers in peak physical condition,'' she observes. ''Most of the women are in their 20s and 30s, and we have been athletes all our lives. I walked 2,400 miles last year. When I think of the physical demands on a 56-year-old woman, it overwhelms me. She had to take the harder, more circuitous routes, to avoid being detected. And yet there's no modern sense of what she - and a lot of other early women explorers - have accomplished.''
There have been at least 100 other instances of women in the Himalayas, Dr. Blum points out. ''When I wrote my book (''Annapurna: A Woman's Place,'' Sierra Club Books, $14.95), people acted as if we were the first women in the Himalayas. There needs to be much more recognition of the great women explorers who have gone before us. Alexandra David-Neel went where no Western maps had even been charted, and along with mapping new territory, she gave us a historical and geographical framework for things we just didn't understand about these cultures.''
David-Neel also inspired another Explorers Trek leader, Luree Miller, a writer who lived with her husband and children for seven years on the Indian subcontinent. Mrs. Miller found one of David-Neel's out-of-print books in a jumbled secondhand bookstore in Bombay in the mid-1960s, read it with growing fascination and ultimately became Alexandra David-Neel's first biographer. (Many years later, she would find that Arlene Blum also discovered David-Neel the same way - in a secondhand bookshop in Kathmandu.)
''It's heartbreaking,'' Mrs. Miller observes. ''All these adventurous women with terrific nerve and courage - and almost none of them committed the unladylike act of writing about their accomplishments. Maybe a few of them published private editions of the travel diaries - for the family only, you know - or a slender volume of letters home to mother.''
Ironically, Mrs. Miller's own enthralling book (''On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet,'' Paddington Press, 1976) went out of print when Paddington Press went out of business. Arlene Blum hopes the Explorers Treks this fall, and the Alexandra David-Neel Expedition in 1983, will generate interest in bringing such books back into print, as well as further work translating and reprinting David-Neel's original works. She also dryly notes that when Mrs. Miller published her book on the five women explorers in Tibet, the Library of Congress had to establish a new category; there had been no section for Women Explorers.
Luree Miller describes the trek she will lead in almost irresistible terms. ''Our days begin about 8 a.m. with a hot drink in bed, brought to your tent by one of the porters. The view out beyond your tent flap might be snow-covered Himalayan mountains - the same scene, maybe, that fired Alexandra David-Neel with the desire to get beyond them into Tibet. Or we could be lower in the hills , near villages and monasteries. We'll be walking to Pemayangtze, the foremost Tibetan Buddhist monastery outside Tibet. I was one of the first Westerners to go there (in the late '60s) with the Time-Life photographer Marilyn Silverstone, who took pictures of the three- and four-year-old monks. I'll be taking those photographs back, to find some of those same monks and visit them.''
Mrs. Miller, who was also invited by the Chogyal (''Prince'') and his wife, the American, Hope Cook, for a visit with them in Sikkim in the 1960s, adds: ''It's really a going-home for me and my daughter, Stacy, who will be co-leader of the trek. It will be a completely unhurried trip, with a Victorian sense of pace - stopping to look and sketch or photograph.'' Stacy Miller, who has studied art in London, Paris, and Washington, and who teaches art at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass., will give sketching lessons to those with Victorian inclinations, while porters and cooks minister to the trekkers' more basic needs. (Trekkers, as is the custom on all of these jaunts, carry nothing but a light day pack with sweaters, cameras, and other day-gear).
The treks are open to all interested parties, but of course one should be basically fit and capable of a brisk walk at varying altitudes. (Age is no barrier; Arlene Blum recalls a 62-year-old woman who hiked over a 17,000-foot pass near Annapurna.) No technical climbing skill is required, just interest and enthusiasm.
The Explorers Treks this autumn are now accepting reservations, and there are four treks from which to choose:
Arun to Everest: Oct. 10-Nov. 10. Land cost, $1,942.
Trekking up to the warm Arun Valley of Nepal to Khumu, the Sherpa heartland at the base of Mt. Everest, is led by Mimi Church, an authority on Buddhist religion and culture who has lived in Nepal for the last six years.
Solu to Everest: Nov. 25-Dec. 24. Land cost, $1,975.
The classic route followed by expeditions to Mt. Everest takes the trekker through some of the most magnificent mountain scenery in the world. Arlene Blum, trek leader, previously followed this route as a member of the 1976 expedition that climbed Mt. Everest. The trek passes through Solu, home of the three Nepalese who accompanied Arlene for six months on the Great Himalayan Traverse.
Darjeeling-Sikkim Historical Trip: Nov. 28-Dec. 17. Land cost, $2,082.Visits to the Victorian hill stations of Darjeeling, India, Sikkim, a Tibet Buddhist state, the Pemayangtze Monastery and Kalimpong, terminus of the old trade route from Tibet, will be led by Luree Miller, an author and historian. Co-leader Stacy Miller will offer drawing lessons on a leisurely six-day walk out of Darjeeling along the Singalila Ridge.
Kathmandu-Pokhara Nepali Language Trek: Dec. 12-Jan. 3, 1983. Land Cost, $1, 575.
This trek offers a rare opportunity to combine a learning experience with an exposure to some of the most breathtaking mountain scenery in the world.
For information, contact Lute Jerstad Adventures (LJA Inc.), PO Box 19527, Portland, Ore. 97219; (503) 244-4364.