'The Great Himalayan Traverse'
A few weeks from now Arlene Blum, a veteran mountaineer from Berkeley, Calif. , will begin an adventure the hardiest of us just dream about -- a 2,000-mile, year-long trek across the entire length of the Himalayas.
Dr. Blum, who has taught and done research at Stanford University, Wellesley College, and the University of California at Berkeley in the field of environmentally hazardous chemicals, has also taken part in over 15 expeditions in her 18 years of climbing. She was the leader of the record-breaking 1978 American Women's Himalayan Expedition to Annapurna I (first women's ascent, first American ascent, first women everm to climb above 8,000 meters, or 26,400 feet).
Her recent book "Annapurna: A Woman's Place" (Sierra Club Books, $14.95) is a spellbinding account of the triumph and tragedy of that ascent. She has also climbed in Africa, Iran, Afghanistan, Peru, India, Nepal, and the Soviet Union.
After all that, a trek through the valleys and over the lower passes of the himalayas might seem just a casual stroll to Arlene Blum. But, she says in a recent interview, "I've dreamed about it, too -- for years. You see, many people have trekked though parts of the Himalayan range, but no one has walked the whole length of it."
Not her specific route, at least, in modern trekking history. The trail she has planned will lead in a great arc across several countries, vastly different terrain and cultures -- from the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhuta across Nepal. It will wind below the towering peaks of Mr. Everest (which she has climbed to 24,500 feet) and Annapurna, where she and a dozen other women spent those dramatic months of strugge; and on through more villages, valleys, and high meadows peopled with nomadic yak herders, on to the mountain deserts of Ladakh, in Kashmir.
What is particularly challenging about her route is that most treks lead gradually from south to north, up some valley route to the higher mountain passes, and back down again. But Arlene Blum's route is from east to west, against the grain of the land. That is, she'll climb out of one valley over one rugged pass, plunge down into the next valley, then tackle the next ridge leading to another mountain pass beyond. Her trail will lead from tropical jungles and rain forests below 1,000 feet in eleveation to those snowy passes above 19,000 feet, and much of her route will be far off the "beaten paths" that trekkers usually follow.
The most exciting thing about this adventure, to all men and women who are armchair mountain climber/dreamers, is that they can come, at least for part of it. Wilderness enthusiasts are invited to join Dr. Blum and her trekking partner, Hugh Swift, on five separate expeditions from 14 to 24 days in duration between next October and February, 1982 -- prime trekking months in the Himalayas.
There will be no technical climbing for visiting trekkers -- that is, no need for belaying ropes, pitons, ice axes, no climbing vertical cliffs and ice wwalls." Anyone who is really fit and in good health can join us," Dru. Blum explains. "If you can hike at a steady pace up and down hills for six or seven hours a day, with rest breaks -- the way you would on a good, hard backpacking trip -- you can handle this Himalayan terrain."
But trekkers, she points out, won't even have to carry heavy packs. The Nepal treks will be accompanied by experienced Sherpa porters under the direction of a Sirdar, or head Sherpa. Still, the visiting hikers will have to be able to challenge themselves; the better physical condition the men and women are in, the more they'll enjoy their expedition.
The scence she describes of life on the trek sounds irressible. Your alarm clock, about 6 a.m., is a hot drink handed into your tent by a Sherpa, then breakfast while the Sherpas break camp and porters shoulder their loads. A morning's walk might lead along river valley trails and trout-filled lakes, past ancient monasteries, or over grassy hills grazed by wild yak, blue sheep, and musk deer.
Dr. Blum says, "As we hike, you and I will talk with trekkers in the group about whatever interests them along the way -- wildlife, plant life, the history of Bhutan or Nepal. "We'll also meet villagers, and our cooks will be buying fresh produce; so we can all watch the bargaining." Dr. Blum is studying Nepali now, and with Hugh Swift's fluency in five local dialects, they can help trekkers carry on conversations with villagers they meet.
"These hifh mountain people," she said, "are some of the friendliest people I've met anywhere in the world, with a great sense of humor, a lot of dignity -- and a very strong sense of family and respect for elders that 'modern society' seems in danger of losing. On climbing expeditions, we've always had to rush through the countryside. I really look forward to getting to know these people better and looking at the mountains from their perspective."
After a lunch break and rest stop, trekkers will continue for about another three hours, stopping around 4 p.m. when they arrive at the night camp, already set up at some scenic point by the Sherpas and porters who have gone ahead.
But upon arrival at night camp, to revive the weary there are sometimes hot springs for a relaxing soak. On another segment of the route, night camp might be pitched in a high meadow with jagged peaks on all sides. Dinner is served family-style in amess tent, an intriguing mixture of familiar foods -- chicken, fresh vegetables, and fruit -- and high mountain staples -- dal (lentils) and chapatis (wheat-flour pancakes). "When local cheese is mixed into the dough, they're a lot like cheese blintzes," Dr. Blum said with a laugh. And you sleep in solid comfort -- familiar L. L. Bean tents and sleeping bags.
Then it's off, nearly in the morning again, to test newly stretched muscles on the next set of valley trails and passes. Each of the five separate trekking group swill consist of about 10 trekkers (no more than 12), and the individual can be as gregarious or solitary as desired. It's possible to walk alone or in couples, as Dr. Blum encourages everyone to walk at his or her own pace and enjoy the scenery aong the way.
Age is no barrier, either, if the would-be trekker is fit and used to strenouus exercise. "We already have some older people signed up, including one 57-year-old," she says. "I knew one 62-year-old woman who went over a 17,000 -foot pass near Annapurna. I've always felt older trekkers and climbers can have more stamina than younger ones; it's a matter of attitude and developing the patience and determination . . . the sheer tenacity, if you will, to keep going."
"The most important thing, especially for women," she says, "is to discover how much you can really do -- you, yourself, not someone else's idea of how high , or far, or fast you should go." Too often, she adds, women become disheartened if, through disparity in sheer physical strenght, they cannot keep up with men in climbing, hiking, or other sports. But women have their own strenghts and a long-distance stamina; and when that's developed, along with confidence and technical expertise, it results in ever-bolder accomplishments.
Arlene Blum got her own first tast of mountain adventure during her early scientific pursuits. As an undergraduate studying chemistry at Reed College in Oregon, she climbed Mr. Hood in that state, and then the Mexican mountain, Popocatepetl, to collect and analyze the volcanic gases they emitted. She was fortunate, she has said, to study at a college "where nobody ever told me women weren't supposed to be chemists or climb mountains."
She published her first scientific paper in a chemical journal even before completing her BA in chemistry, and after a year at MIT, she studied for her PhD at Berkeley, climbing all the while in the United States and Canada. There followed a postdoctoral global marathon of mountain-climbing, including Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, major peaks in Kashmir and Afghanistan, and the Indian Himalayas. Yet, exposure to the human miseries of Bombay convinced her she wanted to apply her scientific background to the problems of modern industrial society; she returned to do research in the area of environmentally hazardous chemicals.
Among other projects, she and Bruce Ames, an associate at the University of California, discovered that "tris" (short for tris-2, 3 dibromopropyl phosphate) was a toxic chemical; a flame retardant used on children's pajamas, it could be absorbed through the skin. Tris is now banned in the US.
Dr. Blum intends to continue her study of the effects of chemicals on health, and her work in formulating science policy. But for this coming year, she will devote her energy entirely to "the great Himalayan traverse," 2,000 miles from one autumn to the next." Just the other day," she concludes happily, "I was giving a talk in Arizona, trying to summarize the past, explain part of what we were trying to do . . . and I realized all over again -- that you canm do 'impossible' things."
Talking with Dr. Blum, or reading her book on the Annapurna ascent, you realize that she is a remarkable blend of dreamer and capable doer; and, too, that her ebullient yet steady-nerved approach to "the impossible" is quite contagious. It is consciously generous, inclusive, supportive. You find yourself musing, again, about some half-relinquished goal, and what it would take to move to toward it again. Or you might just catch yourself dreaming about hiking in the high Himalayas. . . .
For that,m contact Mountain Travel, 1398 Solano Avenue, Albany, Calif. 94706; phone: (415) 527-8100. For reservations, call toll-free (outside California only) (800) 1-227-2384. The first trek led by Arlene Blum and Hugh Swift will be through part of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan (Oct. 1-22). Reality Step No. 1: You need to obtain visas soon -- about a month before your trek; don't dream too long.
The four other treks are in Nepal: Oct. 26-Nov. 26; Nov. 27-Dec. 17; Dec. 17- Jan. 8, 1982; Jan. 3-20, 1982. Air fares, depending on the trek, run $1,300 to meals, camping equipment and porter services, visas, and trek permits.
Durig this last trek (Pokhara to Tatopani to Muktinath), the intinerary reads: "Just above the forested Ghorapani Pass (9,300 feet) is a magnificent view of Annapurna South and the icy peaks of the Himalayan Range extending across central Nepal. We will descend from the pass into the Kali Gandaki valley and join an ancient trans-Himalayan trading route from India to Tibet that passes between Dhaulagiri (26,810 feet) and Annapurna (26,545 feet).
"At Tatopani, noted for its hot springs, Arlene Blum and Hugh Swift will continue into western Nepal. Before leaving, they will share some of their extensive knowledge of this region. Hugh has trekked here seven times and Arlene traveled this route leading the Annpurna Women's Himalayan expedition to Annapurna I."
This armchair mountaineer just went for a long (slow) run along the local riverbanks, imagining the flash of ice behind the summer leaves. She'd hike a long way, jut to be one of the listeners around the campfire that evening at Tatopani.