Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life


Arlene Blum defied the climbing establishment of the 1970s by leading the first all-female teams on successful ascents of Mt McKinley and Annapurna, and was the first American woman to attempt Mt. Everest At the same time, her groundbreaking scientific work challenged gender stereotypes in the academic community. With candor and humor, Blum recounts her journey from an overprotected childhood in Chicago to the tops of some of the highest peaks on earth, and to a life lived on her own terms. Breaking Trail is a ...
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Arlene Blum defied the climbing establishment of the 1970s by leading the first all-female teams on successful ascents of Mt McKinley and Annapurna, and was the first American woman to attempt Mt. Everest At the same time, her groundbreaking scientific work challenged gender stereotypes in the academic community. With candor and humor, Blum recounts her journey from an overprotected childhood in Chicago to the tops of some of the highest peaks on earth, and to a life lived on her own terms. Breaking Trail is a testament to the power of taking risks and pursuing dreams.

About the Author:
Arlene Blum has taught at Stanford University, Wellesley College, and the University of California

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Editorial Reviews

Holly Morris
The romantic notion of climbing foremothers with cinched-up petticoats and loads of moxie is not one that applies to Blum. She simply tells her nourishing and deserving story, quietly reminding us that a woman's place is indeed on top.
— The New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
The first woman to attempt an assault on Everest reviews her life to explain why she climbs. With a six-city tour. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
What was a nice Jewish girl from the Midwest doing atop the mighty mountain Denali?In 1970, Blum (Annapurna, 1980) climbed Denali, formerly known as Mt. McKinley, to show just how high a woman could go. She scrambled her way to the summit, leading a posse similarly bent on high adventure. At a time when women first broke through the glass ceiling at work, Blum penetrated altitude levels while leading assaults on Everest and Annapurna. (Her team's slogan was "A Woman's Place Is On Top...Annapurna.") The names of the places to which she went, from Bhrigupanth to Zanskar, Phalgam to the Vale of Kashmir, Kristwar to Trisul, would thrill Kipling. Danger on the mountains-crevasses, avalanches, snow, fog, ice, wind and cold-killed several of her fellow climbers along the way. For some, Blum's mountaineering jargon may be off putting. Of her first climb on Annapura she writes: "Attaching my jumar ascender to the yellow polypropylene fixed rope left by the others, I took a deep breath." Now sixty, a mom and a motivational speaker, Blum also provides glimpses of her childhood in a less than functional family and her day job in biochemistry, in which she attained a doctorate. The prose is occasionally problematic, but Blum's story could appeal equally to armchair alpinists and to veterans of women's lib campaigns. Blum succeeds passably in this autobiography of life and mountain climbing.
From the Publisher
"This splendid book is much more than just a "climbing life." Arlene Blum has the courage — and the literary skill — to aim for new heights. Few such autobiographies have mentioned the fragile relationships that exist among high-level mountaineers, including the sexual conflicts that arise when young women and men get together in the wild. On yet another level, Blum delves into her early life to try to discover what led her to become a first-rate scientist and a pathbreaking mountaineer."
— Steve Roper, author of Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber and other climbing books.

"Breaking Trail is an inspiring and affecting story of struggle and triumph. It is fluent and highly readable and keeps you turning the pages until the very end."
— Peter Gillman, co-author of The Wildest Dream: The Biography of George Mallory

"A warm, sensitive account of an extraordinarily adventuresome life. Arlene Blum's life and her writing are indeed an inspiration to both men and women. This book is a must read for those who wish to reach the highest level of personal fulfillment."
— Helen Thayer, author of Polar Dream: The Heroic Saga of the First Solo Journey by a Woman and Her Dog to the Pole

"Breaking Trail shows that Arlene Blum's persistence and determination over time have won out and opened the way to countless other women to excel at climbing around the world."
—Ann LaBastille, author and ecologist

"I stand in awe, respect and gratitude for Arlene Blum's story as recounted in Breaking Trail. Her memoir is aptly named for her pioneering adventures in the surprisingly recently male-dominated world of high altitude mountaineering. I took for granted my right to pursue my climbing dreams and passions until I read of her determination, struggles, and conquests."
— Sharon Wood, first North American woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest

"This is an extraordinary memoir. I was constantly astonished by Blum's achievements - overcoming a difficult family background to become a sane and compassionate human being; achieving academic success in the girl-unfriendly world of the hard sciences; and making an end run around mountaineering sexism by organizing (among other climbs) the successful all-women conquest of Annapurna, one of the most dangerous mountains in the world. I simply inhaled this book."
— Sherry Ortner, anthropologist and author of Life and Death on Mt. Everest

"Arlene Blum's Breaking Trail is a magnificent and compelling story. Blum's leads the reader into beautiful, exciting, and terrifying world of mountain climbing. Her writing soars. She beautifully conveys the drama, mind set and courage that it takes to go to places where few have ventured, and where fewer have survived. Her story is inspiring. It's as much about leadership, as it is living life fully, and forging through, over, and around obstacles to reach one's goals in life. It's a great book."
—Lynne Cox, author of Swimming to Antarctica

"Breaking Trail is a compelling memoir by one of mountaineering's most remarkable pioneers. Arlene Blum offers a poignant and riveting personal account of a life of adventure and companionship in exploring and summiting many of the great peaks of the world."
— Michael Useem, Director, Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton Business School, author of The Leadership Moment and Leading Up

"Good climbers are rare; good climbing stories are even more rare. So this book is a gem: a pioneering climber tells her story with grace and courage and in it she emerges heroic and utterly human. Gripping and heartbreaking, this is a story that will galvanize every reader. "
—Susan Fox Rogers, author of Solo: On Her Own Adventure

"Breaking Trail follows Arlene's route from her childhood, to the halls of academia, to the roof of the world with insightful and inspirational prose. The reason why we climb is never an easy question, yet Arlene searches her soul for her own motivations and in doing so provides a picture (story) that spans her childhood and career as a physicist."
—Conrad Anker, author of The Lost Explorer: Finding Mallory on Mount Everest

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780156031165
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 3/5/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 358,771
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 10.88 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Arlene Blum is a keynote speaker, leadership and intercultural trainer, mountaineer, biochemist, and author of the bestselling book Annapurna: A Woman's Place. Blum has a doctorate in biophysical chemistry and has taught at Stanford University, Wellesley College, and the University of California, Berkeley. She lives with her teenage daughter in Berkeley, California.

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Read an Excerpt

Under the Porch
Davenport, Iowa, August 1949
The sun blazes relentlessly on me, so I grab my doll and climb into a cool, dark space under the back porch. I prop my doll up for a tea party. Between us I spread a lace handkerchief and lay out the blue glass doll dishes Mommy gave me for my fourth birthday. My aunts Ruth and Shirley are sitting on the porch above and their muffled words drift down. Lulled by the warm day, the drone of my aunts’ voices, and the sweet smell of the rosebushes that surround our house, I begin to doze.
 I hear my name, startle awake, and listen.
 “With parents like that.”
 I strain to hear their words. There’s something about my father, Germany . . . And then:
 “Arlene . . . that child will amount to no good . . .”
 Tears begin to blur my eyes. I curl up on the ground, hug my knees, and shake with silent sobs. I hate my aunt’s words. I hate my aunt. I hate myself. But she is wrong. I’ll show her. I’ll show them all.
A Slide down Mt. Adams
“CAN YOU KEEP GOING?” John handed me his water bottle.
 “I’ll try,” I gasped, taking a sip. We continued upward in the dark, my loud breathing synchronized with the rhythmic tap of our ice axes on the rocky ground, the snow, the ice.
 It was September 1964 and we were climbing Mt. Adams, a stately 12,276-foot volcano in southern Washington near Portland, Oregon, where I was a junior at Reed College. After class the previous day, my handsome chemistry lab partner, John Hall, had asked if I would like to join him and four other guys in an attempt on Adams. The previous spring, John had taken me on my first backpack trip. Ever since I had been eager to climb a mountain and spend more time with charismatic John, so I happily accepted his invitation.
 We had begun our ascent at one in the morning so we could climb the hard snow slopes above timberline before the sun softened their surface. When I first put on my daypack and headed up, I began panting so loudly that John later confessed he had wondered if I would make it out of the parking lot. And now here I was, an out-of-shape nineteen-year-old girl from the flatlands wearing borrowed boots and pack, trudging up a mountain in the middle of the night.
 At dawn, we stopped to get ready to go up the glacier. John helped me strap a pair of crampons—the metal spikes that keep a climber from slipping on ice—onto my boots. He showed me how to tie myself into the braided nylon climbing rope, explaining that it would catch me if I fell into a crevasse. I didn’t know what a crevasse was, but John was so confident I didn’t worry. John tied himself to the front of our rope, I attached myself to the center, and Mike took the end. Fred, Ron, and George tied themselves to the other rope. I liked the secure feeling of this umbilical cord connecting me to these strong, attractive guys.
 We began moving up again as the first shafts of light hit the glacier and the hard white snow glittered as though sprinkled with tiny mirrors. Ahead of us was an icefield sliced by long, narrow chasms with walls of blue and green ice—crevasses! Veils of cloud hung suspended above green valleys far below. Carefully placing my boots in John’s footprints, I practiced what he called the rest step: Step, breathe, relax. Step, breathe, relax. Slowly and steadily, my body adapted to the unaccustomed exertion and I began to feel peaceful and strong.
 Then I felt a tug at my waist, heard the sound of vomiting, and looked behind me to see Mike doubled up over his ice axe.
 “Mike usually starts throwing up when he gets this high,” John said, walking over to me. “He needs to go down—want to go with him?”
 “Down? Me? Why?” I asked. “I love it up here.”
 John told me about altitude sickness, explaining that some people like Mike have an elevation ceiling above which their bodies don’t adapt.
 “So what’s that got to do with me?” I asked.
 “Well, you don’t want to push it,” said John, beginning to look uncomfortable himself. “Your breathing didn’t sound so good in the beginning.”
 “But now I feel great,” I said. “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.”
 “Well, actually, when I asked you to come with us, I thought that by ten thousand feet you’d have had enough and be ready to go down, too,” said John. “That way, Mike would have company.”
 “You invited me to come thinking I couldn’t make it to the top?” I tried to stamp my foot in outrage, but the crampon points stuck in the ice.
 “Ten thousand feet’s good for a first climb,” John said. “I’m willing to go down, but the others haven’t been here before. Do you want to keep going with three guys who don’t know the route?”
 “If it’s that or turn back, I’ll go with them,” I said. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving this gorgeous place I’d just discovered.
 “Okay, okay, I’ll go down with Mike. I’ve climbed Adams lots of times,” said John. “I hate to leave all of you up here, but I guess the route’s easy enough.”
 I untied from John and Mike and attached myself to the other rope.
 John gave us the chocolate bar he’d brought for the summit. Then he led Mike slowly back down the glacier. As he turned and waved, I felt a pang of regret to be going on without him.
 While John had traversed the steep slopes slowly and rhythmically, my less experienced ropemates headed straight up. Before long I was desperate for air, but I forced myself to keep going. Several hours later we reached a rocky point that looked like the top, and I flopped down to rest.
 “This is a false summit. The real one’s just ahead,” said Ron, who had become our de facto leader. “Let’s keep moving.”
 I looked in the direction he was pointing and saw a higher peak far—very far—in the distance. “This is it for me,” I said. “I’ll wait here.” With shaking hands, I untied myself from the rope and the others continued up. As soon as they were out of sight I unzipped my wool dress slacks—the only pants I owned, since, like most women in the 1960s, I usually wore skirts or dresses. I squatted and relieved myself with great satisfaction. I had been holding it for hours, too embarrassed to tell the guys I needed to stop. Then I sank onto a comfortable rock and looked around. The other Cascade volcanoes rose above the valleys like towers above a medieval city. Turning on my side, I watched, fascinated, as an intrepid ladybug crawled toward me, its red and black wings dazzling against the dark basalt rock. It seemed extraordinary to find a small insect high on thisicy ridge, and I realized it was equally astonishing that I was up here. Dozing in the sun, I was content, and not the least sorry that I’d stopped short of the top. Right here were the space and peace I’d craved since my claustrophobic childhood.
 An hour later, Ron, Fred, and George returned, jubilant, from the summit. Standing up stiffly to congratulate them, I noticed the long shadows.
 “If we’re going to get down before dark,” Ron said, “we’ve got to glissade.”
 “Glissade?” I asked.
 “Just take off your crampons, sit on the snow, and slide,” Ron said matter-of-factly. “Use your ice axe to steer, and if you start going too fast, roll over and push the pick of your axe into the snow.” Ron sat down and gave a quick demonstration. Then he, Fred, and George slid out of sight.
 I had no choice but to follow, my heart pounding. I stuffed my crampons into my daypack, sat down with my legs pointing down the slope, and jammed my ice axe into the snow next to me. As I eased it out, I began to slide. Within moments, I was careening downhill, out of control. Terrified, I rolled over on my stomach and thrust the pick of my axe into the slope. I slowed, but continued sliding. I heaved my whole body up over the top of the axe and pushed it down with all my weight. I stopped.
 I grinned into the snow and waited to catch my breath before sitting up and continuing my glissade. Soon I discovered how to use the axe at my side as a brake and a rudder. Glissading was fun! Down, down, down I flew for thousands of feet. At first the rough, frozen snow felt cold and uncomfortable beneath me, but soon I didn’t feel anything.

Copyright © 2005 by Arlene Blum
Foreword copyright © 2005 by Chris Bonington
Afterword copyright © 2007 by Arlene Blum

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be submitted online at or mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

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Table of Contents

1 A Slide down Mt. Adams 
2 A Man and a Mountain
3 Higher and Higher 
4 “A Woman? Never!” 
5 Peru Adventure 
6 Berkeley in the 1960s 
7 Real Women Climbers 
8 The Damsels on Denali 
9 To the Summit of Denali 
10 Out in the Cold 
11 Avalanches 
12 The Endless Winter in Africa 
13 The Queen of Tenacity 
14 The Endless Winter in Afghanistan and Nepal 
15 Peak Lenin Bares Its Fangs 
16 The Maelstrom 
17 Tragedy on Trisul 
18 Seduced by Mt. Everest 
19 Annapurna: Women in High Places 
20 First Up Bhrigupanth 
21 The Great Himalayan Traverse, Part I 
22 The Great Himalayan Traverse, Part II 
23 Coming Home 
24 Across the Alps with Baby 
25 Peace and Love at Last 
 EPILOGUE: Mountains, Molecules, and Motherhood 

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted November 12, 2008

    Awesome Book

    This book took a while to get through, but it really picked up three-quarters of the way through. The childhood memories and the general story seem a little disjointed too, but they finally strike a harmonious note near the end. The story is absolutely incredible and has inspired me on many levels. A must-read for any man or woman.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 10, 2007

    Inspirational adventures / part detective story

    I'm not a huge memoir fan, it takes an outstsanding story to get to me, but I can place Arlene Blum's book Breaking Trail firmly in that catagory. Part narrative and part detective mystery, Arlene's story recaps the inspirational climbs up the world's high peaks and across the world's largest mountain ranges. Woven in between these amazing adventures is the mystery of her family life and it literally unfolds as you read the book. A must read for anyone interested in the natural world, the challenge of high mountain climbing, a women's desire to suceed, all wrapped around a family mystery.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 4, 2005


    Breaking Trail: A Climber's Life by Arlene Blum is a mountaineering adventure and a biography of growing up in the turbulent second half of the twentieth century. Blum takes us to new highs as a most accomplished women mountaineer. Blum brings us back to earth as a women striving in a male dominated society. Breaking Trail: A Climber's Life is the honest and insightful story of uncompromising brilliance and determination overcoming challenge. It is the story of a generation pushing the limits. It is A MUST READ BOOK!

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    Posted October 25, 2011

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