Breaking Trail (2005) is not your “average” climbing book – cold and full of technical details.
Blum’s first book, Annapurna (1980), certainly communicated humanity while detailing the specifics of the climb. But Breaking Trail is Blum’s true memoir.
Each chapter begins with a glimpse into Blum’s dysfunctional childhood in a Jewish family in Chicago. Forbidden from most youthful activities as a young girl, she happened upon mountain climbing years later in a departure from her “safe” upbringing. The following chapters record various climbs completed by Blum, including the first all-women’s expedition up Denali.
Blum became the default expedition leader on Denali at age 25 when the original leader developed severe altitude sickness. She then coordinated the incredible rescue of her teammate (who survived). Denali is only one of many climbs discussed in the book, adventures in foreign locales from Peru to Africa to Iran to the Himalayas. There’s a story of the “familiar” expedition up Everest and a climb in the obscure Pamirs in the former USSR. A brief excerpt from the Annapurna expedition is also included.
Between climbs, Blum made pivotal discoveries regarding protein folding. She was a main researcher who proved that Tris (a flame retardant chemical in children’s pajamas) was carcinogenic and helped push this item out of the U.S. market. She managed to coordinate this research with long-term periods of travel and climbing.
Blum lost many close friends, boyfriends, and acquaintances to climbing accidents and other high-altitude related illnesses. Blum eventually quit high-altitude climbing due to its remarkable danger and focused her energy on a “Grand Himalayan Traverse.” Don’t worry: the trekking storytelling is certainly not dull.
Throughout Blum’s incredible climbing expeditions and doctorate research, she encountered intense prejudice. In the 60s, 70s, and beyond, many men in the climbing world were threatened by female climbers and chemists. A nasty editorial letter in Outside magazine blamed women for failures (including teammate deaths) in climbing. Blum responded:
“At the time, there was an unwritten code that when men die in the mountains, no one is blamed, even in cases of egregious negligence. Apparently the rules were different for women.”
Through and through, Blum proved she was a capable leader, climber, and scientist. She handled sexism and anti-Semitism with grace and perseverance that is highly evident in her writing. At one point in her story, she meets with the then prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi to discuss women’s rights. Blum quotes Swami Virekenada to reflect on this conversation, as well as many other interactions with women from other cultures:
“The most important thing for the welfare of the world is to improve the status of women. A bird cannot fly on only one wing.” (1985)
This section of the book rang true during my own time trekking in Nepal this past April. Women do much of the hard work with very little opportunity for education, especially in rural areas. This is an obvious pattern in many cultures, and my view is similar to Blum’s (from a Western, privileged viewpoint). Blum keeps conscious of her perspective during her travels, just as she did in her first book.
Blum helped start the annual Berkeley Himalayan Fair , which raises money for “environmental groups, community development projects, women’s groups, health clinics, orphanages, and schools in the Himalaya.” This fair continues today.
Blum also had a daughter at 41 years old — and took her on a “conservative” route through the Alps as a baby. She had already stopped high-altitude climbing and stopped researching to “make a practical contribution toward solving global problems.” Blum discovers for herself that research was and is incredibly practical. She had already made incredible contributions–in fact, her protein-folding research is “the basis for current important research on cures for heart disease, cancers, and AIDS.”
Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life is an inspiring and well-written memoir packed with adventure. This was a perfect (and obviously pertinent) read during my Nepal trek. The book includes very personal anecdotes, full of romance and heartbreak, to balance out the technical aspects of intense ice climbing and chemistry.
I’m not sure if Blum defines herself as a feminist or an activist. To me, she is an outstanding example of both. More about Blum, including her current projects and happenings, can be found on her website.
Sarah Sentz is a writer from Montana. You can read more of her work here.