Note: I know many of you have been asking questions about Nepal (especially this “little” earthquake business). I promise all of that is coming. A book review seemed much more manageable and realistic to start!
Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life by Arlene Blum (author of: Annapurna: A Woman’s Place).
Blum is an author, climber, and has a PhD. in biophysical chemistry.
This is not an “average” climbing book with only cold, technical details. This climbing book is also Blum’s memoir. Each chapter begins with a glimpse into Blum’s dysfunctional childhood in a Jewish family in Chicago. Blum was not allowed to do many child activities and later happened upon mountain climbing as a 180 change from her “safe” childhood. The chapters continue on to chronicle various climbs including the first all-women’s expedition up Denali.
Blum became the default expedition leader on Denali at age 25 when the leader developed severe altitude sickness. Blum coordinated the incredible rescue of the teammate (she survived). Denali is one of many climbs discussed in the book. Climbing adventures vary from Peru to Africa to Iran to the Himalayas. Stories vary from a more “familiar” expedition up Everest to a climb in the obscure Pamirs in the former USSR. An excerpt from the Annapurna expedition is also included.
In between climbs, Blum made pivotal discoveries regarding protein folding. She was a main researcher proving that Tris (a flame retardant chemical in children’s pajamas) was carcinogenic and helped push this item off the US market. She managed to coordinate research with long-term periods of travel and climbing.
Blum lost many close friends, boyfriends, and acquaintances in climbing accidents and due to other traveling and high-altitude related illnesses. Blum eventually quit high-altitude climbing due to the remarkable danger and focused energy on her “Grand Himalayan Traverse.” No worries. The trekking storytelling is certainly not dull (as any trekker will tell you!)
During all of Blum’s incredible climbing expeditions and doctorate research, she encountered phenomenal sexism. This being the 60s, 70s and beyond, many men in the climbing world were threatened by female climbers and chemists. A nasty editorial letter in Outside magazine blamed women for failures (including teammate deaths) in climbing. Blum responded by writing,
At the time, there was an unwritten code that when men die in the mountains, no one is blamed, even in cases of egregious negligence. Apparently the rules were different for women.
Through and through, Blum proved she was a capable leader, climber, and scientist. She handled the sexism and anti-Semitism with grace and perseverance. This is highly evident in her writing. At one point she met with then prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi. They discussed women’s rights. Blum quotes Swami Virekenada after her conversation with Indira Gandhi and multiple interactions with women from other cultures.
In 1895, Swami Virekenada wrote: “The most important thing for the welfare of the world is to improve the status of women. A bird cannot fly on only one wing.”
This section of the book rang very true during my own time in Nepal. The women do much of the hard work with very little opportunity for education, especially in rural areas. Obviously this is a pattern in many cultures, and my view is similar to Blum’s (from a Western, privileged viewpoint). Blum keeps conscious of her perspective during her travels.
She becomes involved with starting the annual Berkeley Himalayan Fair which raises money for “environmental groups, community development projects, women’s groups, health clinics, orphanages, and schools in the Himalaya.” This fair continues today!
Blum also had a daughter at 41 years old and took her on a “conservative” route through the Alps as a baby. She had already stopped high-altitude climbing at this time and stopped researching to “make a practical contribution toward solving global problems.” Blum discovers for herself that research was and is incredibly practical. She had already made incredible contributions–in fact, her protein-folding research is “the basis for current important research on cures for heart disease, cancers, and AIDS.”
Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life is an inspiring and well-written memoir packed with adventure. This was a perfect (and obviously pertinent) read during our Nepal trek. This book has both personal and memoir aspects with romance and heartbreak and the technical aspects of intense ice climbing and chemistry.
I’m not sure if Blum defines herself as a feminist or an activist. To me, she is a shining example of both. More about Blum, including her current projects and happenings, can be found on her website.