Annapurna: A Woman’s Place. by Arlene Blum.
This book is about the 1978 women’s climb to Annapurna I in the Nepal Himalayas. The introduction discusses past and present challenges for women climbers–not the general challenges of a massive mountain climb in the Himalayas, but the intense sexism surrounding the climb. The first chapters discuss some historical high altitude female climbers and then highlight each individual member of the ’78 team, including ten climbers, one base camp manager, and two film crew.
“We did not organize the Annapurna expedition to prove that women could climb high mountains. We knew that before we began. But the publicized success of the venture brought that message to people all over the world.”
The trip took incredible fundraising efforts, including selling some pretty fabulous T-shirts with the slogan, “A Woman’s Place is on Top.” The book chronicles the intense logistical challenges of gear, food, and Nepali staff. The Nepali staff included porters (men and women who carry gear at lower elevations) and Sherpas for the high altitude climbing. Sherpa actually refers to an ethnic group in Nepal. Porters can also be Sherpa people, but not necessarily mountain climbing guides. Most high altitude climbers start as porters. The team originally planned for Sherpanis (female Sherpas) with porter experience, willing to be trained to climb. Unfortunately the women chosen had no porter experience whatsoever and were hired to do camp chores (quite opposite of the team’s intentions).
Women in Nepal today rank 145th out of 187 countries on the gender inequality index (the US rates 5th and we still have a long way to go). On a positive note, this year a group of Nepali women became the first all-women team to summit the highest mountains on all seven continents.
The ’78 team actually had multiple issues with the Sherpa staff. Language barriers, culture, sexism, and class privilege seemed to be contributing factors. Although none of the team climbers were wealthy and fundraising was their main source of finances, each climber was able to travel to Nepal and have the experience. Blum seems incredibly conscious of the team’s privilege. The Sherpas were often ill-equipped, and still doubted the foreign women’s ability. In all fairness, many men in the US doubted the women team’s ability as well, and the American Alpine Club (AAC) was quoted as saying, “We’ve got to be more careful approving a women’s expedition. There would be a lot of bad publicity if things didn’t go well.” Many strides have been made since 1978, but women today still only make up about 5% of high altitude climbers.
The book then details the laborious challenges of coordinating all staff at Base Camp, and then establishing camps I, II, IIIa, III, IV, and eventually V. There are multiple trials, including massive storms, avalanches, Sherpa strikes, and group disagreement regarding planning. Each page contains incredible descriptions from Blum, and excerpts from other climber’s journals, describing the overwhelming scenery and demanding technical ice climbing. This piece from the climber, Piro:
“…Irene led out on a nasty, steep traverse on rotten snow, and came to a very awkward corner of steep ice deeply covered with powder…The chimney had vertical walls of hard blue ice and a sloping back. Irene put her crampons into the back and used her hands on the sides to jam and slither up to the top. She tried to put in an ice screw, but the ice was too brittle. Finally she got a sling around an icicle for protection.”
Base camp manager, Christy, also describes the colossal avalanche that swept into Base Camp:
“…The first blast picks me up from flat on the glacier and carries me twenty feet through the air. Next come tons of snow and ice driven by eighty-mile-an-hour winds…The power of this mountain overwhelms me.”
This book is both a devastating and triumphant account of the ’78 expedition. The writing is superb, fast-paced, and reflective. Even if you have zero experience with high altitude climbing (or any climbing), this book is a beautiful and harrowing adventure story sure to impress.
(Note: This expedition was the first US expedition to successfully summit Annapurna I).