Alpine mountaineering is a pretty exclusive club. But Berkeley climber
Arlene Blum, blessed with gumption to spare, became a pioneer for female
mountaineers at a time when women were a rare sight above the timber
line. By 25, she had led the first all-female teams to conquer Alaska’s
20,320-foot Mount Denali, and 26,504-foot Annapurna in the Himalayas.
She also found time to earn a Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry and to teach
at Cal, Stanford, and elsewhere. Blum’s written a memoir about
her climbing experiences and less-than-ideal childhood, Breaking Trail–A
Climbing Life (Scribner, 2005). I caught up with her recently for some
pointers on perseverance.
Paul Kilduff: Each chapter of your book begins with some childhood memory–like
that was driving you. Do you think somebody who wants to be a mountain
climber has to have something like that driving them?
Arlene Blum: I did once interview a lot of famous women mountain climbers
and they had, with one or two exceptions, pretty tough childhoods. I’d
say on average that having a tough childhood makes people more determined
and determination is what you need.
PK: Is your daughter a mountain climber?
AB: My daughter has no interest in being a mountain climber. I’m
thrilled. If you look at the obituaries in the American Alpine Club Journal,
that’s the premier climbing book in the country, about half the
people die climbing at an early age and the other half die in their 90s,
because it’s a very healthy life having all that exercise.
PK: But it’s extremely dangerous.
AB: The reason I wrote Breaking Trail was to explain why I did these
life-threatening things, because I thought it was pretty strange. I’m
a cautious, careful person. I don’t ride my bike on the road, because
it’s too dangerous. I just ride on trails. I’m not somebody
who pushes the limit and breaks rules. So it really seemed aberrant to
me that I did this climbing over and over again. Part of it is because
I’m just curious and because I do care so passionately about things.
The other reason, I now understand, comes from my complicated childhood.
PK: How so?
AB: To be in a smoky, stifling house full of noise and fighting made
me hate being indoors. And in Chicago the winters were freezing cold
and so the colder it is the better I like it. It’s just determination.
I had to do a two-year campaign to be able to take swimming lessons and
consequently I’m really determined. People say women can’t
climb Denali or they can’t climb Annapurna. I was always told "You
can’t," so as soon as I hear that, I immediately think "I
PK: So you started seeing your family differently while writing the book?
AB: One of the biggest learning experiences, and it took a long time
but at least it saved the therapy bills, was to realize that a lot of
the things that I looked at as adversaries actually gave me strength.
Somebody who has a pretty easy childhood doesn’t get quite the
degree of determination that you get from adversity.
PK: Did you make peace with your grandparents and mother?
AB: Yeah, as much as possible. My mom just died in August. She was in
Chicago and I would fly there (in her last year when she was ill) and
read her parts of the book, and she thought it was all true and made
suggestions. So there was something very healing.
PK: Are things easier now for women mountain climbers?
AB: Oh sure. But it’s still a fringe activity–the really
high altitude expeditionary mountaineering which is life threatening
and really demanding. It was believed that women couldn’t do that.
Everything is pretty much open to women now. It’s a huge change.
Back in the late ’60s women weren’t allowed to run marathons.
I remember at Harvard they didn’t allow women into the faculty
dining room. They had to sit at card tables in the vestibule. I applied
to be an astronaut in the ’60s and they sent me a letter saying
women couldn’t be astronauts because of the plumbing issues.
PK: After you and your all-women team were the first to climb Annapurna,
the late Berkeley mountaineer photographer Galen Rowell carped that it
wasn’t an all-women effort because you had male sherpas. Did you
ever resolve that with him?
AB: No, we pretty much avoided each other. I wasn’t going to put
it in the book and then one of his best friends who was helping me edit
thought it was important to the story and so I did.
PK: Why did you become a leader, instead of just one of the climbers?
AB: The Denali thing started because this guy told me that women weren’t
strong enough to climb Denali. In those days they hadn’t dreamed
up pulling stuff on a sled like they do now, so you had to really carry
70-pound loads day after day. I had to find the team and put the whole
thing together. Then our leader collapsed near the summit. We had to
carry her down. I was 25 and suddenly I was the leader of this trip.
PK: Are you still mountaineering?
AB: I’m not climbing 8,000-meter peaks, but I’m working with
a nonprofit in Afghanistan and I do work with Nepal. I started the Berkeley
Himalayan Fair, a huge community event that has been going on for 23
years, and we raise about $30,000 a year to give to orphanages, hospitals,
and schools in the Himalayan regions.
PK: You do a lot of public speaking about your climbing as well as the
environment and world affairs.
AB: I use climbing and adventure travel as metaphors for what people
can achieve. For example, I climbed in the Ruwenzori Mountains on the
border of Congo and Uganda in the ’70s and there were huge glaciers.
Right on the equator. I have these beautiful pictures of these big glaciers
right on the equator and nowadays they’re all gone. This has been
in 30 years and we all know that’s climate change. Through pictures
and stories about my climbing I can help change what people think.
E-mail Paul Kilduff at firstname.lastname@example.org.