Friday, February 3, 2012

Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life, by Arlene Blum

Arlene Blum, climber, expedition leader, research chemist, and trekking guide, writes her autobiography in Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life. Blum is most famous for having lead the successful 1978 women's climb of Annapurna. In Breaking Trail, we learn about the rest of her life, including her sheltered upbringing, her personal tragedies, her breaking into the boys' club of organic chemistry, and her many adventures. Throughout her life, she struggles with gender stereotyping, in her work, her family, and her climbs, but she remains true to her dreams and often overcomes the barriers placed in her way by others. She intersperses the narrative of her youth throughout the book, reflecting how her upbringing had an enduring effect on her life as an adult. It works well, showing how bold mountaineer grew from a meek Midwestern Jewish girl. She details a number of climbs, including women's ascents of McKinley and Annapurna, and climbs with friends in the Cascades, British Columbia, Africa, Peru, the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, and the Himalaya. She spends an "Endless Winter" climbing around the world over the course of a year and makes a traverse of the Himalaya, from Bhutan to Pakistan, and also makes a number of first ascents in India.

On Everest, Blum participates in the 1976 American Bicentennial Everest Expedition. She helps organize the team, finding a number of climbers to accompany the three amateurs who had secured the permit. There's a lot of tension on the team, and the presence of a film crew does not help the matter. She comes down with dysentery, and really only starts feeling better as the summit climbs begin. She makes above Camp III on the Lhotse Face, setting an American women's altitude record (that lasted until her Annapurna expedition), but does not achieve her goal of climbing to the South Col due to "logistics." She had spent most of her time climbing with Bob Cormack, who makes the summit, and she believes that based on her performance versus his, she could have made it to the top as well. You can read an extended account of this expedition in Rick Ridgeway's The Boldest Dream.

On a side note, I was a bit troubled by the disparity between the depictions of Blum's Annapurna expedition from this book and from Ed Viesturs' recent book, The Will to Climb. I think that Viesturs was being unfair, since he earlier states that each climber needs to set their own standards for their climb, but then rails against Blum's team for hiring five Sherpa climbers. Blum states that the women did the leading and much of the load carrying. Viesturs seems to think the Sherpas climbed the mountain for the team. He's usually a good researcher. I wonder where he got this idea.

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