WHAT WAS A GIRL to do? According to Arlene Blum’s immigrant Russian grandparents, not much. As prohibitive as things might have been for others growing up in the 1950s Midwest, Blum wasn’t even allowed to go to the beach. Horseback riding was definitely out, and as for college, well, what did that have to do with a Jewish girl’s destiny of marriage and children? Just because their daughter’s marriage had ended in divorce a shocking upset didn’t mean their granddaughter had to follow that hardscrabble route.
However, Blum was not one to sit still. And between doctoral studies in biochemistry at UC-Berkeley and her post-doctorate work at Stanford, she climbed mountains in Ethiopia, Kenya, Nepal, Afghanistan and Russia. Then, in 1978, she made headlines when she led 10 other women and six Sherpas on the first American ascent up Annapurna I, a Nepalese mountain that, at 26,500 feet, is the 10th highest peak in the world.
“I think there might be some element of rebellion, ” Blum says with a laugh.
Twenty years later, Blum leads a life a tad closer to what her grandparents had envisioned. Her hillside home embraces Bay views, and the front yard lies a few footsteps away from Tilden Regional Park. She rents in Kensington so that her 11-year-old daughter Annalise can attend the area schools.
Annalise’s birth is what prompted Blum to settle down after years of leading Himalayan treks, including a 2,400-mile traverse which was another first for Americans and for women. These days, she divides her time between lecturing as a motivational speaker, conducting leadership and intercultural training workshops and squiring Annalise to soccer and basketball practice.
At 53, she has the same long curly brown hair, but years of sun and wind have gently darkened and etched her skin, as have the crinkles of laugh lines. Today she’s preparing for a gathering of the people who made Annapurna possible, some of whom she hasn’t seen for 20 years. Of course, she plans to squeeze in a little hike at midday, which will turn out to be an almost two-hour walk up hills, skirting patches of poison ivy.
The impetus for the Sunday afternoon party is the anniversary edition of her book, “Annapurna: A Woman’s Place.” Since its publication 20 years ago, about 70,000 copies have sold. But the generation of women born after the Annapurna ascent convinced her to re-release her account.
She got the idea while visiting Dartmouth for a speaking engagement. There, the women’s crew team led her to their boathouse, stacked with crafts named after philanthropic male donors. They pointed to a forest-green boat with white letters, inscribed: Annapurna.
For Blum, it was an epiphany. “Our climb, ” she says, “spoke to why they rowed.”
The encounter not only made her realize her book still had relevance, but that her experience was still a rarity.
“There haven’t been that many books like it in the intervening 20 years, unfortunately stories of women doing really extraordinarily demanding things, ” she says. “To do the first American ascent of the 8,000-meter peak, you can’t even do that anymore. They’ve all been done. There were a lot more firsts of that nature available 20 years ago.”
Blum hadn’t read her book since she wrote it, so she took it along as vacation reading on a trip to Hawaii with Annalise. As she lounged on the white sands, she relived her ascent on the remote, awe-inspiring and perilous peak above the clouds.
“We were crazy, ” she laughs. “We were young, and we just didn’t believe, we thought we could climb the mountain safely, and we were full of confidence. We just had no idea how dangerous it was.”
Irene Beardsley, one of the four who had reached the summit, had two grown-up daughters, but the other climbers ranging in ages from 20 to 50 didn’t have children. “When you’re a parent, you don’t take those kinds of risks.”
Blum says she and her team members “weren’t extraordinary world-class athletes. We were good solid climbers and we had a dream.” Their lives depended upon one another, but the conflicts of desires, fears and egos could be corrosive to any expedition. Still, she recounts, “Somehow, we had this common vision of climbing this high mountain, and we came together as a team and we did it, and I was amazed at how well we did.”
Before their 1978 climb, only four out of 14 expeditions had reached the top. Out of those teams, eight people reached the peak, and nine others had died in the attempt. At 3:30 p.m. Oct. 15, a summit team of two American women and two Sherpa males reached 26,504 feet – the peak.
Beautiful and volatile, Annapurna is a place of extremes: monsoons follow burning sunlight within a day; rock outcroppings and vertical ice; black crevasses hidden behind a gentle slope of snow. Blum had been a part of the American bicentennial expedition that safely climbed Mount Everest, and is qualified to make comparisons.
“Annapurna is a much more avalanche-prone area, and the avalanches came down night and day, ” she says. “It wasn’t like Everest. It was much more dangerous than Everest.”
It wasn’t an avalanche, however, that killed the second two-member summit team who wanted their go at the peak. It must have been a misstep or an ice or rock fall, it was later determined. Whatever the cause, the result was that the two most experienced members of the group, Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz and Vera Watson, fell nearly 1,000 feet onto steep ice.
Back home, the news of the Annapurna success did not merit front-page news. “The Chronicle put a paragraph on page 8 or something. Herb Caen wrote a column saying, isn’t it a shame that the fact the first Americans to climb Annapurna, this very dangerous and challenging mountain, and the fact that the first Americans to do it was a team of Bay Area women, was on page eight of the newspaper.'”
The deaths, on the other hand, made headlines around the world. Again, no one but Herb Caen seemed to notice the irony. He wrote, “Isn’t it sad the only way to make the front page is to have someone die, ‘” Blum recalls. “And, of course, that’s what happened. There was much greater coverage of the deaths than of the success.”
She also was saddened that certain peers tried to compromise the accomplishment.
“I remember a leading member of the climbing community saying, Well, you really didn’t climb the mountain because you had Sherpas along in your expedition.'” Never mind that the notorious “Into Thin Air” Everest climb had 40 Sherpas. “Nobody for a minute questioned that we had climbed Everest.” The criticism stung Blum enough to lead the first ascent of the 22,300-foot Bhrigupanth in India with the Indian-American Women’s Expedition. No injuries, no Sherpas and, of course, no publicity.
Blum learned about leadership, its contradictions and its loneliness, on Annapurna. “I tend to be very participatory and want everyone to agree, ” she says. However, an unstable physical environment demanded immediate, irrevocable decisions. “When an avalanche is coming down, you have to take a strong stance.”
Her skills on those perilous slopes and on later Himalayan treks have served her well as a leadership consultant. She was surprised to discover that her experience on the mountain parallels the experiences of Silicon Valley executives today
“The issues of a Silicon Valley company are not that different from the issues of leading an Annapurna expedition.”
Her clients range from nonprofits such as Urban Habitat to Silicon Valley customers such as Hewlett-Packard, Hitachi and Sun Microsystems. The latter group can live in a chaotic, closed system, profoundly different from Blum’s outdoor style. Her three-day workshops in the Santa Cruz mountains impose a change of environment and perspective.
“The place where I work, it has one pay phone and cell phones don’t work, ” Blum says, laughing. “So they have to calm down, take a breather, appreciate the beauty of nature.”
Blum is also working on another book, tentatively titled “From Molecules to Mountains to Motherhood.” She laughs as she refers to it as her “therapy book.” It is a look back at how she has gone so far and climbed so high. She has had role models from many places, including her alma mater, Reed College, where she learned a love for chemistry and climbing. Others came from more unexpected sources. Blum’s Orthodox Jewish grandfather, for instance, taught her to read prayers in Hebrew. The prayers, she found out later, were forbidden to girls.
“I think there was a way they raised me to believe I can do things.”
As for the next generation, her daughter has read only parts of the book, although Annalise’s friends have eagerly devoured all the pages. After all, she is just mom, the same mom who took her backpacking as a baby 300 miles across the Alps. And mom’s most important contribution right now is making sure the felt palm fronds for the Halloween costume don’t come unglued.
Mom, though, was quite thrilled by her daughter’s choice of costumes past. “In second grade, she was supposed to dress up as a famous person and decided to come as me. That was flattering.”
From “Annapurna: A Woman’s Place”:
“Avalanche!’ A boiling cloud was rolling down the Bobsled, overflowing the edges, growing larger and larger as it headed straight toward us. We couldn’t hear the roar or feel the wind yet, but after one look at the huge cloud, everyone ran to their tents and zipped the doors tight. We crouched inside, our mind racing with the dreadful possibilities. In the past five days there had been numerous avalanches from the heavy snowfall of the big storm. Until now our camps had appeared safe, but this avalanche was bigger and moving faster than any of the rest.
“Finally we heard the roar and felt the wind driven by the gigantic mass of flying ice. Pellets of spindrift rained down, but the tents protected us. Alison (Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz) crouched at the back of the tent with her pocketknife open, ready to cut our way out of the tent should it begin to get buried. For an eternity of less than a minute we waited for the buffeting to end.”
This article originally appeared in the Contra Costa Times Sunday Features