A life of uphill battles

Times Staff Writer

On the ice wall of Mt. Hood's treacherous north face, gravity is no longer the benign anchor that keeps humans from sailing off into space. It's an assassin, lying in wait for overconfidence, fatigue, a sudden cramp.

Arlene Blum was in its sights as she inched her way up the Eliot headwall some 40 years ago. She should have been belaying up the steep slope, securing her position by tying into pins along the route, but she was new to mountaineering, and her climbing partners, she says, "foolhardy." When the snow gave way under her feet, there was nothing to hold her.

Blum and another climber, roped together, shot head over heels down the vertical face of the 11,225-foot Oregon peak, heading for a huge crevasse. She hurtled in a sliding, scraping, concussive blur until her rope caught on a sérac, a tower of ice sticking up from a glacier. Wrenched to a stop, she dangled over one edge, while the other climber hung suspended on the other side.

"I was still in the stage of thinking climbing was safe, but I really could have died," said Blum, sipping a Snapple before an early October talk at Adventure 16 in West L.A.

She was here to trace the unlikely path that led a girl raised to fear anything outside her Chicago doorstep to scale some of the world's toughest peaks, a story chronicled in her compelling new book, "Breaking Trail."

Blum would claw her way to the top of Mt. Hood and many other peaks, soon putting women's climbing on the map in the early 1970s. She led the first female conquests of Denali in Alaska and Annapurna in Nepal and racked up ascents from Ethiopia to Pakistan and India.

"When it came to climbing mountains, women were definitely second-class citizens" back then, says Matt Stanley, senior editor at Climbing magazine. "Arlene blew the top on that in the U.S."

Persistence in the face of obstacles would become a Blum trademark. Her doggedness plowed new hopes at a time when women were supposed to be too weak to scale high-altitude walls.

The inspiration continued this night as she stood in front of admirers and curious shoppers, reeling off her improbable tale. Blum exudes possibility. This is not Reinhold Messner climbing 8,000-meter peaks solo but a mother of a teenager. She admits to being a slow climber and no fan of the technical bits.

"You don't seem like a climber," a woman in the audience told Blum, 60, who was dressed in sandals and a lavender top and pants. "I would take you for academia." Blum smiled. There were plenty who wouldn't take her for academia, either, before she became one of the few women chemistry professors. But then she's made a career out of underestimation.

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The high life RIDGETOPS aren't the only things elevated in mountain country. Those standing on or before them, lungs and outlook cleared, also feel an uplift. Willi Unsoeld, the first to summit Everest's west face, used to say that the world changed at 10,000 feet. Duty, conflict and distraction lie below the timberline. Above it, higher purpose and unbounded aspiration.

For Blum, too, altitude offered a trajectory out of soulless flatlands. From her first climb, she was hooked on the world above timberline, where she found a beauty and peace that told her, "This is where I belong."

Highflying panoramas were her antidote to a claustrophobic youth. She grew up in an urban sardine can with an overprotective mother and grandparents who smoked, watched TV, squabbled and tried to prevent her from swimming or riding a horse. She overheard an aunt once say about her, "That girl will amount to nothing."

But Blum used the discouragement and dysfunctional surroundings as incentive. "I wasn't supposed to do anything physical or adventurous … so I learned from an early age total persistence," she said. "To do anything, I just had to really push and be goal-oriented. Whenever anybody tells me I can't do something, I immediately try to figure out how to do it."

As a budding climber in a male realm, she had plenty of chances to put that reflex to the test. On Mt. Waddington, a tough 13,000-foot spire in British Columbia, a guide told her there are no real women climbers, declaring that "they either aren't good climbers or they aren't real women." When she applied to join a guided climb on Denali, she was informed that women could go as far as base camp — where they could help with the cooking.

Blum's response was to create and promote her own trips. She dreamed up and led the "Denali Damsels," the first women to scale the highest peak in North America. On $200 a month as a graduate student, she wrangled a 15-month climbing odyssey rambling from Africa's Mountains of the Moon to the Karakoram in Pakistan and logging several first ascents. Later, she wound up a member of the 1975 American assault on Everest. She and teammate Barbara Roach became the first American women to attempt the 29,035-foot peak. While Roach had to turn back at Camp 2, Blum topped out at 24,700 feet.

As someone who suffers from "a busy mind," Blum found climbing "an extreme meditation, because where you put your foot determines whether you live or die. So you're not thinking about the rude thing you said to someone yesterday. You are just thinking about your breathing and your steps. You are present."

Despite her optimism, there's a dark side to tempting gravity at body-slamming heights. On a climb she had to pass up, an avalanche on St. Elias in British Columbia killed her love interest and the man who introduced her to climbing, John Hall, as well as two of her best friends. Her expedition on India's Trisul ended in disaster when ex-boyfriend Bruce Carson walked off a cornice to his death. A monumental storm on Peak Lenin in the Pamirs of Tajikistan killed a Swiss teammate, an American and eight Russian women in a multinational tragedy reminiscent of the Everest debacle of '96.

Each time tragedy struck, "I would decide I didn't want to climb anymore. And then all my friends would be going, and I'd get invited," Blum said.

Unlike many of her peers, Blum is not afraid to admit to the great unspoken on big, vengeful mountains — fear. That's a specialty of the House of Horrors called Annapurna. She led an expedition in 1978 to put the first women atop the fickle 8,000-meter peak. But the mountain's notorious avalanches came down night and day, one just missing Blum and taking out a cache of gear, and another so massive — two miles long, she estimates — that the wind from it blew members of her team across the mountain. "It was terrifying," recalled Blum. "After that I lost my motivation to reach the top. I suddenly realized that Annapurna was way more dangerous than we had anticipated."

She broached turning back, but got no takers. So her goal shifted to logistics — getting someone to the top and down again as soon as possible. Two weeks later four members of her party were standing on the summit. Blum tried to talk a second team out of a summit attempt, but the climbers wanted their shot. Two women who set out for the summit never returned, killed by an avalanche or rockfall.

"I tortured myself with all the ways it could have turned out differently," Blum writes in "Breaking Trail." "I wanted to change the climbers, the mountains, our daring to climb high. And in the midst of my sorrow came anger toward them for leaving us, and then guilt for feeling angry."

The deaths would obscure the triumph of Annapurna and revive criticism about women and climbing. Among her critics was photographer Galen Rowell, who believed that "women did not belong in high places" unless they did it right — a way he never specified, as Blum recounts in her book.

In a bravado-driven world, the strong-willed Blum has clashed with a few male egos, but not by design. In the early '80s she walked away from a successful career as a scientist and chemistry professor at Wellesley, Stanford and UC Berkeley for the call of more mountains, including a 3,000-mile trek across the Himalayas, and motherhood. Today she leads two Himalayan treks a year. They keep her in the climbing family, which, she discovered in the writing of the book, was the driving force behind her years of upward progress.

"I was always looking for a harmonious family that would all be moving in the same direction," she said. On a climbing team "you're all working for a goal, unlike my dysfunctional family."

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Joe Robinson can be reached at joe.robinson@latimes.com.

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