Victory on Annapurna proves women capable on dangerous peaks

"People say that women climbers are not as fast or as strong as men," says Arlene Blum, leader of the 1978 American Women's Himalayan Expedition that reached the top of Nepal's Annapurna I, the 10th-highest mountain in the world. These women, in fact, were the first Americans to climb Annapurna and the first women ever to climb above 8,000 meters (26,400 feet).

Miss Blum's recent book, "Annapurna: A Woman's Place" (Sierra Club Books, $14 .95), tells the story of that record-breaking climb. "It's true that women do not climb as fast as men," Miss Blum conceded in a recent interview. "But people often go on to say that because women are not as fast or as strong as men , they should not climb the very highest mountains."

Miss Blum disagrees with the traditional male climber's attitude that women's place is on the ground. Although her expedition's motto was "A woman's place is on top," Miss Blum and the 12 other women who made up the team don't necessarily want women to climb on the top alone. They think that both women and men should have the opportunity to test themselves by reaching the summit of a high mountain -- if they want to.

Whey should anyone, male or female, want to brave bitter extremes of temperature, avalanches, oxygen deprivation, and snow "bridges" that fall thousands of feet straight down on either side in order to be, briefly, "on top of the world"? A high mountain is a challenge not so much "because it's there," as the old bromide has it, but because it's a discrete, attainable goal, says Miss Blum, who does research on industrial chemicals. "When you climb a mountain, you reach a summit -- you are on the top of the mountain. It's not like research in science," she adds. "You can never quite finish an experiment; there's always something more you could do."

But although reaching the summit is a unique achievement, it is also ephemeral. When you reach the top of a high mountain, and everything but the sky is below you, the only thing left to do is get back down as quickly and safely as possible.

"You never conquer a mountain," Arlene Blum writes. "You stand on the summit a few moments; then the wind blows your footprints away."

And sometimes the mountain conquers you. Of the thirteen parties that had previously attempted to reach the summit of Annapurna, only four were successful , each putting a two-man team on top. Nine climbers had lost their lives in the attempts. In Blum's party, two women were killed on Annapurna the day after the summit was reached.

Arlene Blum's team was made up of 13 women (10 climbers, 2 filmakers, and a base camp manager) between the ages of 20 and 50. Some were professionals, others students; some were married, others not; some were childless and others had children. All, however, shared a common goal: to reach the top of Annapurna , "the Harvest Goddess," in Nepal. Along with 235 native Sherpa porters and guides, they lugged 12,000 pounds of food and supplies on their backs for 10 days before reaching base camp.

It took weeks more to organize all the equipment and plan the details for the assault on the mountain. Then came the difficult and dangerous climbs to various camps farther and farther up. On Oct. 15, 1978, two American women, Vera Komarkova and Irene Miller, and two Sherpa guides reached the summit of Annapurna, 26,584 feet high.

Age did not prove a barrier; the two women who reached the summit were 35 and 42 years old. In fact, says Miss Blum, "climbers in their 30s and 40s do even better than younger people. Determination, steadines, and patience are all-important for stamina. The ability to keep going is important than just physical strength."

Although she knows that most people will never attempt to climb a Himlayan mountain, she thinks the expedition's climb is an important symbol of barriers people may be afraid to challenge. "My hope is that some women -- and men -- who thought they weren't strong enough or were too old to climb a mountain would be encouraged by our climb to try things they've always dreamed of doing," she concludes.

Women are often introduced to the mountains and to sports in general by men. Miss Blum points out, which may have something to do with women's lack of confidence in attempting the difficulties of mountain climbing. Since men are generally stronger than women, women lose confidence from the beginning if they can't keep up. "But women should have the confidence to do things more slowly; they can get a lot of satisfaction from, say, hiking or mountain climbing -- at their own speed," she insists. And she feels that the very act of trying to climb a mountain will help build that confidence.

To encourage women climbers, a special fund has been established in honor of the two women who were killed on the climb. A directory of women climbers and a newsletter are also planned. (For more information, write Vera Watson-Alison Chadwick Memorial Fund for Women's Climbing, 900 Darien Way, San Francisco, Calif. 94127.)

Arlene Blum herself continued breaking barriers. She was the leader of the Women's Expedition to the Gangotri Glazier which on June 19, 1980, made the first ascent of Bhrigupanth (22,218 feet) in India. "Women who want to climb mountains should find their own pace," she advises. It doesn't really matter how long it takes a climber to get to the top of a mountain; after all, the wind will still blow his -- or her -- footprints away.

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