The idea came to Arlene Blum during a conversation with another climber six years ago in Afghanistan: to put a woman on the summit of one of the “eight-thousanders,” as the 14 mountains in the world over 8,000 meters (26,247 feet) are called.
It finally happened in 1974 (the climbers were Japanese), but for Blum the quest did not end there. Today she is pursuing a dream far grander than she could have imagined in 1972. Next month the 33-year-old University of California biochemist will lead the first all-female American Himalayan expedition up the northeast face of 26,545-foot Annapurna.
Since Annapurna was first climbed in 1950 by the French, only three other teams have scaled its icy walls. An even greater challenge to Blum is the fact that only a handful of women—Polish, Chinese and Japanese—have ever reached the top of an “eight-thousander.” After reviewing hundreds of applicants (“mostly unqualified—a couple of masseuses volunteered to go along to give massages”), Blum selected nine climbers, most of them with experience above 20,000 feet. (One member of the team is British.) Ranging in age from 20 to 50, with five husbands and five children among them, the group includes a plant ecologist, a computer programmer, an ophthalmologist (the team physician), a physicist, a physical therapist and an art lecturer. Blum also conscripted two Sherpa women in Nepal to serve as porters, along with four males. The climbers will take with them six tons of equipment and food (from freeze-dried shrimp Creole to glucose tablets).
Blum chose Annapurna because a permit was available—only two parties a year can attempt any mountain during the spring and fall climbing seasons in the Himalayas—and because for Mount Everest (29,028 feet), the logistics would have been much more complicated and expensive. Of the $80,000 necessary for the Blum expedition, National Geographic has contributed $10,000. The rest will come from donations and the sale of T-shirts (“A woman’s place is on top”).
The daughter of a Davenport, Iowa anesthesiologist and onetime climber, Blum discovered mountains when she took a phys ed course in climbing at Reed College in Oregon. In 1971 she received her Ph.D. in chemistry from Berkeley where she helped identify the carcinogenic dangers of Tris, a flame retardant formerly used to coat children’s sleepwear.
Over the years Blum has climbed in Iran, Peru, Russia, India and Africa. In 1970 she was assistant leader of an all-woman climb up Alaska’s Mount McKinley and in 1976 was a member of the Bicentennial American team that conquered Mount Everest. Though she herself did not reach the top, she found that the climb was “not as dangerous as I thought. I realized you could minimize the risks.”
Besides practice climbs with her group in the Sierras, the 5’10”, 150-pound Blum runs six miles a day to toughen up. Already the women are working with a female psychologist to avert personality problems. “At high altitudes people don’t get enough oxygen,” Blum explains. “It makes them moody and difficult.” How will she handle decision making? “I will try to get a consensus, but there won’t always be complete agreement,” she says. “I want to be democratic but I have the final say. They have all agreed to that.”