Twenty years ago, it was big news. A team of 13 American women had successfully climbed Annapurna I in Nepal, reaching the peak (at 26,504 feet above sea level) on October 15, 1978. They were the first women ever to do such a thing.
Today, when women are climbing heavenward everywhere, acquiring Olympic medals like they were costume jewelry, and routinely winning Alaska's Iditarod dogsled race, the news from Annapurna seems a little quaint. But it was big news then, and historically, it's still big news today.
Arlene Blum was team leader on that expedition, and her Annapurna slyly subtitled A Woman's Place, chronicles the team's battles with the mountain and with the mountain of prejudice they had to overcome. In addition to ice, snow, rock, wind, and altitude, they had to sell 15,000 T-shirts just to raise the money to get there in the first place. And there was tragedy as well as triumph. Two of the 13 fell to their deaths on the mountain.
For the Sierra Club's 20th anniversary edition of the book, Blum has added a preface and afterword. The latter is particularly moving. Blum brings readers up-to-date on the lives of the climbers and asks them what the experience meant. One of them, quoting a sign in a casino, observes about the mountain, about climbing, and about life itself, "You must be present to win."
The legacy of Blum and her team's triumph lives on. You'll see it looming in the background of Pamela Logan's recent Among Warriors : A Woman Martial Artist in Tibet. Logan has a doctorate in aerospace science and a third-degree black belt in Shotokan karate. A few years ago she had a powerful urge to go trekking among the wild places and often wilder peoples of eastern Tibet and to seek out the Khampas, "Tibet's infamous race of warriors." While she moved on and upward and dreamed of forbidden Lhasa, she learned a lot about strange peoples, about Buddhism (though not from the monk who wanted to know how much her boots cost), and about herself.
The personal tales of travel in Lucy McCauley's excellent anthology, A Women in the Wild, may be a little tamer, but they are no less vivid. Included are Annie Dillard in Ecuador, Jane Goodall in the Congo, Robyn Davidson in India, and McCauley's own account of climbing a volcano in Guatemala, plus experiences in Iceland and Israel, Kenya and Borneo and Bolivia, and everywhere in between.
I like this book. The selections are good, the writing is bright, and there's local color galore.
Alan Ryan, bn.com
From the Publisher
This is a book about working together under extraordinary conditions where the temperature in your tent can drop to ten degrees below zero and a tiny hole in a glove can mean the possible loss of a finger. It is about making decisions while an avalanche rushes by you with a wind that knocks you over. It is about risking death knowing that you have a daughter, a partner at home . . . the compelling story of thirteen very different women . . . each determined to get women to the top of a mountain. Erica Bauermeister, reviewed in 500 Great Books by Women
Read an Excerpt
In 1994 I was studying for a graduate degree in literature at Colorado State University. My driving passion was climbing, and I was far more interested in glaciers and walls than literary theory. Although mountaineering literature was not in the curriculum, my advisors approved it for my thesis if the project included a comprehensive bibliography of works, and synopses of them, that I considered pivotal to the genre. For a year I pillaged the mountaineering sections of used bookstores in Boulder, fanatically devouring stacks of climbing books. My bibliography started with Dante’s Inferno and ended at Climbing Magazine, and of course it included Arlene Blum’s Annapurna.
A steady diet of expedition accounts left me with an overriding impression that shaped my master’s thesis and every climbing story I’ve written myself. Inevitably, the climber writing an expedition account also created the enduring history of his team members’ actions and motivationsand in a remarkable number of expedition accounts, everyone else on the team was difficult, less competent or at least slightly less heroic. My thesis was called “The Reality of Experience in Mountaineering Literature,” and the premise was that one should not presume to tell someone else’s story or make assumptions about their motivations, and that there are many different truths. Even with a team of two, each climber will have a unique experience on a climb, both internal and external. As a result, it can be a delicate and thorny task for a climber to tell her own story when the story also involves others, especially when the experience is complex, emotionally charged and worth the telling.
Arlene’s writing is so intelligent and fresh that the story of the climb itselfbuilding the team, fundraising, travel, managing porters, choosing the line, setting camps, climbing the mountainsweeps you along as though you were part of the adventure. Although she sets the stage to include the moments of bias encountered by a women’s team going for a major 8000 meter peak in 1978, Arlene clearly views herself and her group as climbers above all. At times it’s easy to forget the dramatically different social landscape surrounding them.
But what sets Annapurna apart are Arlene’s internal challenges as expedition leader and chronicler, offered up honestly and without aggrandizement. She writes candidly about the difficulties of making decisions and handling leadership, complete with missteps and doubts. Both during and after the climb, she analyzes the inevitable conflicts, ponders her own reactions and considers others’ perspectives. Coming back to Annapurna twenty years after the first read, I can see how Arlene became a role model for me at that formative phase in my life as a budding author and climber.
Annapurna: A Woman’s Place, is an enduring book because it resonates on multiple levels. The team made an impressive climb, in conditions which were marginal at best and which never allowed clean decision making for anyone on the mountain. Arlene’s introspective and expansive account of their ascent offers not just a tale of adventure but also a reflection on leadership, responsibility, self awareness and personal strength.