Other Annapurnas in the lives of women

A bigger challenge than mountaineering for Arlene Blum was overcoming gender discrimination

Arlene Blum last month at Vajra in Kathmandu where both her books are available. Photo: BIDUR DANGOL

The last sentence in French climber Maurice Herzog’s mountaineering classic, Annapurna, after his first ever ascent of an eight-thousand metre peak in 1950 was: ‘There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.’

To this, Arlene Blum would add: ‘… and women.’

Blum led the first all-women expedition to the world’s tenth highest mountain in 1978, and as she recounted in two books, Annapurna: A Woman’s Place and Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life, getting to the top was only a small part of the challenges women still face in life as well as in mountaineering.

Breaking Trail was Blum’s frank and introspective memoir in which she weaved circumstances of growing up in a Russian Jewish émigré family in Chicago with experiences of her mountaineering career. A bigger challenge than climbing, it seems, was overcoming sexism. 

Blum was accepted for a PhD at Harvard, but dropped out after its mountaineering club said it did not accept women members. She went to MIT instead, where her first research adviser in molecular structure refused to admit her because he did not “take girls”. 

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She finally ended up at a Berkeley lab, and escaped frequently to climb in the Sierras, the Andes and Mexico. But when she wanted to join a trek to Nepal, the professor leading it said no because they did not have a separate tent for a woman. Another expedition to Afghanistan turned her down because a female climber would create ‘excretory’ complications at high altitude.

The American Alpine Club (AAC) denied her all-women expedition to Denali. (“Chicks? Climb Denali? No way dames could ever make it up that bitch.”) But Blum went anyway, and also joined women climbers in British Columbia, the Pamirs and Kashmir. 

The first-ever female ascent of Denali was ignored by America’s climbing community, and Blum writes: ‘It was too early for the idea of an all-women’s team to capture public attention.’ Indeed, it was not enough for women climbers to be as skilled as men, they had to be stronger and more experienced than their male colleagues to be accepted.

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Travelling through India on an expedition to Trisul, Blum was shocked by the poverty and decided to change the trajectory of her research away from theoretical science to ‘help solve the planet’s problems’.

After joining the American Bicentennial Everest Expedition in 1976, Blum returned in the autumn of 1978 with a group of 12 female climbers to take the route up the same face as Maurice Herzog had 28 years earlier on Annapurna I.

But first, again, she had to fight an AAC decision not to endorse an all-women team, and one led by her. Finally, the American women arrived at the north base of Annapurna I in October 1978. The peak is 800m lower than Everest, but sections are more technical and avalanche prone. Four in every ten climbers on Annapurna has not made it back alive.

The feminist movement brought change, but mountaineering still had a glass ceiling for women. The Annapurna expedition was as much an adventure as a statement highlighted in its cheeky t-shirt motto: ‘A Woman's Place Is On Top’.

Arlene Blum

In her 1980 book Annapurna: A Woman's Place, Blum admits that had she known of the post-monsoon avalanches on Annapurna she would have gone to another mountain. As leader, she also had to constantly balance the need to be a decisive leader, while taking decisions democratically. The expedition faced a strike by Sherpas, and perhaps they did not like taking orders from a woman leader.

Eventually, after more storms, avalanches, and personality clashes, four members made it to the summit: two women and two Nepali male guides. Blum’s attempts to train Sherpani cooks to also climb were unsuccessful. Two other women climbers tried to make a second summit bid, but were killed near Camp IV. 

The deaths marred the expedition’s triumph, and there were naysayers dismissing the women’s achievement because Nepali male guides helped them reach the top. All-male expeditions are seldom judged like that, and even 45 years later, the controversy has not completely died down. 

After Annapurna, Blum returned to do the Great Himalayan Traverse from Bhutan to Ladakh in 1982 at the end of which she met Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in Delhi just months before she was assassinated. She has since lived in Nepal for a year and visits often to hike. 

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“Nepal has changed a lot, it is more prosperous with farmers talking on mobiles,” she said last month after doing the Millennium Trek south of Pokhara. “It is also more crowded. When we bicycled along the Ring Road in Kathmandu back then, we used to think why did the Chinese build a road so far from town?”

Blum has gone back to research that will make a difference to people and the planet, and heads the Green Science Policy Institute. Her findings made California ban fire retardant chemicals from children’s clothing and furniture because they can cause decreased IQ, infertility and thyroid problems. Blum’s activism also led to 30 countries banning harmful chemicals in the electronics industry. 

“I attribute our success to mountain climbing determination,” Blum told us recently in Kathmandu. “There are indeed other Annapurnas in the lives of women. There are now more female-led expeditions, half the students at MIT are women now. And you have women running your newspaper.”

Annapurna A Woman's Place
Breaking trail