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Interview with Arlene Blum,
author of Breaking Trail

Photo © Arlene Blum

Rappelling down amidst giant icicles.

Q: You’ve climbed many of the world’s highest peaks. What’s it like to stand on top of the world?
A: The summit of a high peak with the clouds below your feet and the other peaks stretching like ocean waves on the horizon is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. You have the satisfaction of knowing that you have used all your abilities to do such a hard thing, and that you’ve worked with your team.

Q: Climbing and chemistry—two of your passions—were male-dominated fields when you entered them, and men actively tried to shut you out of both. Yet you persevered, eventually climbing the highest peaks and pioneering a new area of scientific study. Are the words “you can’t do that” a personal challenge to you?
A: Since my early childhood I was told I couldn’t do things. I have developed a habit of persevering step-by-step toward my goals when I am confronted by challenging situations.

Base Camp
Photo © Arlene Blum

The view from our Annapurna North Base Camp at 15, 000 feet. The summit of the mountain loomed two vertical miles above us.

Q: You joined or led many summit expeditions. What do you think are the key ingredients for a strong and successful team?
A: A shared vision of the goal, persistence, fashion, good communication, and the ability to laugh and have fun together no matter how tough the obstacles.

Q: How did gender prejudices influence your all-women expeditions? In what ways did these expeditions differ from your climbs with men?
A: In the beginning we felt like we were off on our own, like kids without adult supervision. Women often focus more on staying friends, which is as important as climbing the mountain.

Q: Climbing high peaks is dangerous and exhausting—and, tragically, fatal for some. Despite the risks and losses, you kept climbing. What motivates you?
A: The answer is complicated and is part of what led me to spend twenty years writing Breaking Trail. A lot of motivation came from my difficult childhood. In trying to understand my past, I learned how and why the challenges of my childhood gave me the strength to climb mountains and lead scientific research teams.

Another part is vision. Once I have a vision of something I want to accomplish, I tend to slog doggedly toward my goal until I achieve it; this is a skill from my youth.

Q: Your nomadic, high-adventure adulthood directly contrasts with your overprotected, stifled childhood. In Breaking Trail, you include vignettes about your unhappy youth. Did seeing these two worlds side-by-side open your eyes in unexpected ways?
A: As a result of my narrow childhood, I think I was like a compressed spring ready to burst into a world of travel and adventure. It also gave me great compassion for people with difficulty in their lives and made me want to devote my energy to making the world a more just and healthy place for us all.

Peak Lenin
Photo © Arlene Blum

Peak Lenin, 23,406 feet high, is the most frequently climbed 7,000 meter-high mountain in the world.

Q: After the perilous but successful all-women expedition to the summit of the 22,300-foot Himalayan peak Bhrigupanth, you decided to limit your treks to lower ground. Are your climbing days over for good? What adventures spark your passion these days?
A: I still lead a couple of Himalayan treks each year; they can be found on my calendar at www.arleneblum.com. I also aspire to repeat my ten-month-long trek across the Himalaya.

My passion now is to help regulate the toxic chemicals that are accumulating in people and the environment—the chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, thyroid and reproductive problems, and other adverse health effects. The very chemical I helped ban from children’s sleepwear thirty years ago is now used in furniture. I’ve also recently coauthored a bill here in California to take toxic fire retardant out of homes in the state.

I feel like I’m at the base camp just beginning an arduous ascent with the ice falls and avalanches of Annapurna looming above and a stalwart team beside me. The dangers are immense and unknown, but the ascent is vital, and we are committed. Together, we will break trail slowly and steadily to the summit of a safer and healthier environment for us all.

(Note: Photos and text from many of the chapters of Breaking Trail can be found on Arlene’s Web site.)