Annapurna—A Woman’s Place, by Arlene Blum. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1980. 256 pages, black-and-white and color photos, maps, bibliography. Price $14.95.
This account of the 1978 American Women’s Himalayan Expedition to Annapurna I is actually two books in one. It can be read as the story of a mountaineering expedition with all its concomitant trials and trib- illations or as an account of a women’s expedition which was organized to give women the opportunity to demonstrate their ability in the high mountains.
One is taken first through the preliminaries of expedition organization: the selection of team members, planning and fund raising. Following this come the farewells to friends and loved ones and then the long, anticipatory flight from San Francisco to Kathmandu—the transposition from the reality of everyday life to the reality of life at an expeditionary level.
From Kathmandu, where final arrangements are made, the expedition then proceeds towards its objective, Annapurna I. Almost from the outset, the team is plagued by ubiquitous expeditionary problems. There is illness to one degree or another, the food supply proves inadequate, and the logistics of transporting supplies and equipment hang heavy over the enterprise, as does the willingness of the porters and, later, Sherpas to cooperate. In short, this is the usual expedition scenario.
Once on the mountain, plans are formulated, camps are established and supplies are transported. The physical demands of the mountain are dealt with as the climbers gradually make their way upwards in the face of bad weather and severe avalanche conditions. When the summit is finally reached on October 15, by Vera Komarkova and Irene Beardsley, one shares in the general rejoicing. Later, following the abortive summit attempt by Vera Watson and Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz, which led to their deaths, one also shares in the grief at the loss of friends and the sobering impact this loss has on the expedition. It is triumph tempered by tragedy. In the end, however, the expedition has no choice but to simultaneously mourn its dead and celebrate its victory.
This book, however, goes beyond a general expedition narrative in its concern with women climbers and their lack of opportunity to distinguish themselves at high altitudes. The introduction, which provides an overview of women who have been active in mountaineering and exploration, including Fanny Bullock Workman and Annie Smith Peck, is supported by the annotated bibliography. The conversations cited and concerns expressed reflect attitudes that must be perceived as peculiarly feminist. One senses that these women feel deeply the responsibility incumbent upon them—that of showing the world that women can succeed in an area of endeavor which has traditionally been dominated by men. If they fail, it is not just failure but a blow to womankind. If, on the other hand, they succeed, then their faith in the ability of women to perform well on the high summits of the world will be justified.
This book is truly a double-edged sword, and how it cuts will depend very much upon one’s personal bias. Although the style is perhaps more earnest than inspired, Annapurna—A Woman’s Place does give an account of a significant achievement both in the annals of mountaineering generally and of women’s mountaineering in particular. In the final analysis, this is a book which will undoubtedly reinforce the feelings of those who
believe that “a woman’s place is on top.” But it will probably not convert those who believe otherwise.
Patricia A. Fletcher