Except for the sound of avalanches it was very still. Then one day some geese flew over honking. That’s pretty remarkable considering we were already above 20,000 feet.
There was, in fact, very little that was not remarkable in Arlene Blum’s journey to the Himalayas. In September the 33-year-old University of California biochemist led the first all-woman expedition up Annapurna, an icy Nepalese peak that, at 26,504 feet, is the 10th highest in the world. Only four teams (out of 13) had ever reached the summit. But for Blum, her team of nine climbers and six male Sherpas, their triumph was shadowed by death.
The difficulties started early. First a rain-swollen river had to be bridged so the 200 porters could carry supplies to the first camp. Then monsoons triggered heavy snow and biting storms. Vertical ice walls 500 feet high blocked the climbers’ progress, and avalanches roared past them continually. “It was extremely dangerous,” says Blum, “and we were really worried.” A crevasse suddenly opened up at 17,000 feet and swallowed a cache of supplies.
Despite delays (including a strike by Sherpas for more money), the party reached the 24,200-foot mark on Friday, the 13th of October—seven weeks after starting. Two days later Irene Miller, a 42-year-old IBM physicist from Palo Alto, and Vera Komarkova, a 35-year-old Czech-born plant ecologist from Boulder, Colo., struggled to the summit with two Sherpas. They planted Nepalese and U.S. flags, as well as a banner with the slogan “A woman’s place is on top.” Pinned to it was a Save-the-Whales button.
Forty-eight hours later the second assault team—strong British climbers Alison Chadwick, 36, and Vera Watson, 46—insisted on going ahead although their Sherpa was ill. They set off alone and the other team members followed their progress through binoculars. Then the light faded, supper was called and the watch ceased. Chadwick and Watson were never heard from again. Three days later Sherpas spotted Chadwick’s red parka more than a quarter of a mile down the mountain. Hidden in a crevasse but still roped to Chadwick was Watson. They had apparently slipped on an ice wall and plummeted 2,000 feet. Critics in Great Britain have suggested Blum should never have allowed the two women to climb unassisted.
Leaving the bodies behind (“It would have endangered the entire expedition to get them out,” says Blum), the party returned to the base camp, where the names of Chadwick and Watson were carved on a large rock beneath those of nine others who have died on Annapurna’s north side.
“A fall like that can happen to anyone, anywhere,” says Blum stoically. “We are very saddened, but you must remember the important thing. We climbed a mountain. And we’re delighted.” She never went above 21,500 feet herself (“I spent most of my time on the radios and organizing things”), and shows no desire to return to the Himalayas. Her next project: studying fish behavior on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.