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Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life

Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life. Arlene Blum. New York: Scribner, 2005. Black and WHITE PHOTOS. 313 PAGES. Hardcover. $27.50.

If ever there has been an iconic figure in the canon of womens mountaineering literature Arlene Blum is she. Blum can be considered a pioneer in women’s mountaineering in line with other great women mountaineers such as Fanny Bullock Workman, Annie Peck Smith, and Isabella Bird. Alongside the earlier female accounts of adventure, in Breaking Trail Blum combines the genres of memoir and adventure writing beautifully. Breaking Trail is a unique and insightful glimpse into the heart, mind, and soul of Arlene Blum, one of the worlds most accomplished female mountaineers.

Arlene Blum was born in the heart of the Midwest to German and Russian Jewish parents. For most of her life she was encouraged to find a nice Jewish husband and settle down into the comfortable and rewarding life of a wife and mother. Through recollections of her past, written as forewords in each of the chapters, her story unfolds. These flashes of childhood memories, that have remained locked up in a heart-shaped secret diary until now, parallel the many adventures, failures, and triumphs alike, that Blum encountered as a woman in education, adventure, and with love.

As an academic, with a PhD in biophysical chemistry, Blum has accomplished many professional firsts. Blum attended Reed College and eventually went on to UC Berkeley to complete her PhD. Throughout her course work Blum tirelessly worked for the betterment of the global community. Through her efforts as a scientist she is one, among several others, responsible for research that exposed the use and implementation of toxic flame retardant chemicals in childrens pajamas. Blum and colleagues demanded the recall of millions of pajamas in the United States and developed a flame retardant to be used that is safe and nontoxic. Academically, Blum was “breaking trail” through her dedication and tireless research.

Throughout her young life and her later adult life as a mountaineer and explorer, she also began “breaking a trail” that had for so many years remained “unbreakable.” Blum was responsible for the first all-women’s expedition to Denali, which was a success despite negative pressure from the male climbing community and the media. Several years later, after having participated in the tragic Pamirs expedition of 1974, which claimed the lives of eight members of the Russian women’s team, Blum was invited to participate in the 1976 Bicentennial American Everest Expedition. Then in 1978 she organized the first all-women’s expedition to Annapurna, the world’s tenth-highest mountain. The Annapurna expedition was significant for many reasons. With a successful summit Blum’s American team members would be the first Americans to climb Annapurna, and even more significant was the fact that this expedition would produce the first women to climb Annapurna. In an effort to raise the needed $80,000 the women participating produced and sold T-shirts that coined the infamous phrase “A Woman’s Place is on Top.” Two expedition members successfully reached the summit while two others died during their attempt. The expedition was both a success and a tragedy, something that Blum internalizes and writes of in this compelling narrative. In the final chapter of Annapurna: A Womans Place she writes: “On Annapurna our entire team took the risk, made the commitment. Only time will reveal its full consequences. As Maurice Herzog declares at the end of his book: ‘There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.’ And in the lives of women as well.” While it is unfortunate that tragedy overshadowed this momentous event (likely more so because it was an all- female team), it can not be argued that Blum was not “breaking new and unexplored trail.”

Blum “breaks trail” further not only through writing of her adventures and successes, but in dealing honestly with her failures as well as her life’s journey, both personally and emotionally. Blum honestly, openly, and effectively confronts the psychological problems she suffered as a result of her troubled childhood. Blum’s mother gave birth to her in the 1940s when the idea of postpartum depression was not understood or verbalized. Her mother underwent shock therapy to help “heal” her disease. Blum’s parents separated before her birth, which left her to be raised by her grandparents. Throughout Blum’s adult life she suffered emotionally and mentally because of the separation that she encountered as a baby and her childhood. This suffering manifested itself often, leaving Blum in uncontrollable states of depression and fear of abandonment. Blum parallels these mental and physical “Annapurnas” throughout her memoir, not only successfully but masterfully.

Breaking Trail is a must read for anyone interested in mountaineering, gender studies, psychology, and memoir, for Blum traverses all these areas as effectively as she has the high places of the world.

Sarah Vause Snow