October 27, 2005
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
"Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life" (Scribner, $27.50).
Arlene Blum describes her new book, "Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life," as an answer to a question she has often asked herself, as she did on Annapurna in the Himalayas: "What's a nice Jewish girl from the Midwest doing at 21,000 feet, going down a knife-edged ridge all alone?"
In mountain-climbing parlance, breaking trail refers to creating a path across difficult terrain. In her climbing and in her pioneering work as a chemist, Blum, 60, has broken much new ground. She organized and helped lead the first all-woman climb up Denali in Alaska -- the highest peak in North America -- in 1970 and was the first American woman to attempt Mt. Everest in 1976. Two years later, she led the first-ever team of women up Annapurna I, the subject of her best-selling book, "Annapurna: A Woman's Place" (Sierra Club Books, 1998)
A Berkeley-based researcher with a doctorate in biophysical chemistry who was one of very few women in the field when she began her career, she is responsible for having several toxic chemicals, used in children's sleepwear, banned.
When I reached her by phone in Maine last week -- she was about to climb New Hampshire's Mount Washington with a group of friends to celebrate the publication of the book at the summit -- and asked her about fear, she laughs and says that she's a person who will only ride her bicycle on trails, not on roads and highways.
"I try to ignore fear," she says. "I'm very goal-oriented. If I want to climb a mountain, I'm so focused on the goal that I don't pay much attention. I will even take risks if the goal is important."
In the book, she links her tenacity to childhood adversity. The child of divorce, which was rare in the late 1940s, she grew up in an overprotected, Orthodox home, where little was expected of her other than marriage. From an early age, she found a haven in the outdoors from the claustrophobic apartment she shared with her mother and grandparents, where the smoke-filled air was full of fighting and the blaring sounds of television. Then, the outdoors meant their Chicago street, and for the young Blum, the colder outside, the better. That was her first taste of freedom.
The first time she climbed a mountain, as a student at Reed College in Portland, Ore., in 1970, she was hooked. She loved the splendor of the high, snow-covered peaks and the serenity she felt. At once, she knew that the mountains were where she belonged.
As she explained recently, she finds clarity and focus on top of mountains and engages in a kind of "extreme meditation." The experience of being up high, "when where you put your foot determines whether you'll live or die," stills her otherwise overactive mind.
But there have been tragedies along the route of her hiking career. She has lost some of her closest friends to avalanches and other disasters. Several times, she vowed never to climb again, but then invitations to places she'd never been enticed her back to the glorious steep slopes. But once she gave birth to her daughter, now 18, she gave up the dangerous kind of climbing for more gentle -- but still arduous and daring -- trekking.
For city dwellers who associate great heights with rooftop terraces and roller coasters, this is an eye-opening book, great armchair reading. Blum is a very likeable and humble guide, with an optimistic spirit. She details her adventures, capturing the natural beauty she encounters, the challenges of climbing with and leading others and cultural exchanges with people from, literally, all over the world. As a woman and also as Jew, she faced episodes of discrimination in the early years in an expedition world that was dominated by wealthy non-Jewish men. She includes photographs (and many more are available on her Web site in color, www.arleneblum.com). Blum may inspire some readers to head to the mountains after a snowfall.
With much candor, Blum looks back at her early life, beginning each chapter with some recollection from childhood, and then leaps ahead to her mountaineering journeys. As a child, she was discouraged from learning to swim but she persisted; she wasn't allowed to accept a scholarship to a private high school that recognized her talent. After being taught Hebrew prayers by her grandfather and able to read better than any of the boys in her class, she stopped going to Hebrew school when she wasn't allowed to read the prayers out loud because she was a girl.
The early memories are told in the present tense. Only later, the author comes to learn about her family's background. Her mother grew up in an affluent home in Davenport, Iowa, with three sisters. She married early, to a German-Jewish immigrant, a doctor, just as she and her mother had dreamed. But their marriage was troubled, in part for the tragedy that befell his family, left behind in Germany. Both of her parents were emotionally unfit for this marriage; her mother suffered greatly and was hospitalized, treated for her emotional wounds in ways from which she would never recover.
When Arlene was a toddler, she and her mother moved in with her grandparents who, out of shame, left Davenport for Chicago. Arlene's father went to New York and she didn't meet him until she was a teenager. In fact, she grew up looking at family photos where he had been cut out. The Holocaust was never mentioned in her home.
Life in Chicago for Arlene was dominated by her grandparents. Her mother really couldn't care for her. Her grandmother had little education, many fears and many strict rules, while her grandfather showed her some kindness.
At a recent reunion of her Annapurna team, she and a friend mused about their painful childhoods and thought that perhaps they were able to take huge risks as climbers because they didn't think their lives mattered that much. It wasn't that they felt suicidal, just unimportant as individuals. It was only after Blum became a mother that she came to understand the difficulties of her mother's and grandparents' lives, and the tragedies her father had experienced. She realized that indeed she had received much love and attention, which, ultimately, gave her strength.
Now, she says, she feels both curiosity and sympathy toward her family, sorry that she didn't ask more questions when she had the opportunity. One of the pleasures of her book tour is that she is meeting many cousins who are able to fill her in on family stories -- and literally fill in the names of a family portrait from 1919 that she is carrying around.
Several years ago, she returned to the Judaism she'd been angry at as a child, attending egalitarian services at Hillel in Berkeley. She was moved by seeing women leading services for the first time, loved the music and felt embraced by the community, which included old friends from her climbing and scientific worlds. When asked to carry the Torah, she was trembling and thrilled. During the Mourner's Kaddish, when the leader suggested that she say the name and a memory of the person she wanted to remember, she spoke of her grandfather.
"I was coming home at last," she writes.
Her daughter celebrated her bat mitzvah, and Arlene remains involved in the Jewish Renewal movement, where she finds "real substance and spirituality" she didn't know in her early years.
"I feel a lot of connection and appreciation for how Jews have traditionally cared about making the world a better place," she says. "I want to be part of that tradition."
Now that her daughter, who doesn't much like walking, is on her own, Blum plans to do more climbing, again leading trips, but not the life-threatening ones. She also hopes to return to her scientific work and public policy work on toxic chemicals, as she is "heartbroken at the destruction of our planet's environment and at the increasing gap between rich and poor."
"I've had success if I dream things up," she says. "I can make things happen."