Book Review: Arlene Blum “Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life”

If you want to read the chronicles of a true lady badass, look no further than Breaking Trail. Blum, who grew up in a poor Jewish family in Chicago, relives her years in the mountains in this climbing memoir.

The book jumps back and forth between her childhood self, trying to respect and defy her grandparents wishes to find a good Jewish doctor to marry, and the adventurous woman who treks across the Himalaya and organizes expeditions to remote mountain ranges.

After being told women were only allowed to Denali base camp for “cooking chores,” but not allowed to summit, she persisted in gathering a team of women to make the first all female summit. Despite comments like, “No way dames could ever make it up that bitch,” and that they’d “need men to carry the loads,” Arlene found a group of six women, and they dubbed themselves the Denali Damsels. She successfully pioneered the first all female ascent of Denali and commandeered one of the most impressive rescues of her teammate in Denali history.

Blum repeatedly fought gender-based negativity. After applying for an expedition to summit Koh-i-Marchech, a 21,000-foot peak in Afghanistan, she received an apologetic letter saying, “In spite of [your] excellent qualifications, [we’ve] decided that having a woman on the team might adversely affect the camaraderie of the heights and cause a problem in excretory situations high on the open ice.”

When she joined a group of men on an expedition to Mt. Waddington, the highest peak in British Columbia, she was continuously defending herself against derogatory comments:

“As we alighted from the plane, Bill, one of our guides, told us that this was the wrong lake and we’d have to bushwhack around a few ridges to meet up with the rest of the group.

‘And worse luck, we have a woman with us,’ Bill said to the other guide so loudly everyone heard him.

‘What’s the matter with that?’ I asked quietly, feeling I had to say something—especially since everyone was looking at me.

‘There are no real women climbers,’ Bill said.

‘No real women climbers?’ I repeated. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘It means that women either aren’t good climbers or they aren’t real women.’”

Dubbed “The Queen of Tenacity,” Arlene Blum took the constant sexism and scrutiny and turned it into fuel. She managed to get herself onto expeditions even if she was denied the first time. She lead the first all female ascent of Annapurna 1. She lost friends, lovers, and teammates to the mountains and was resilient enough to keep going back.

After watching “The Endless Summer,” Blum created her own mountaineering version with “The Endless Winter.” She climbed peaks in Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Iran, India, Afghanistan, and Nepal over the course of 14 months, with Toby Wheeler and Joel Bown intermittently joining the expeditions.

With the loss of her teammates on Annapurna, Blum decided to take a break from high-risk mountaineering and planned a 3,000-mile trek across the Himalaya. She was joined by Hugh Swift on the east-west traverse. Once finished, she went down to the Great Barrier Reef where she met Rob Gomersall, almost immediately fell in love, and soon after became pregnant with her first and only child, Annalise.

Breaking Trail is full of exciting and tragic stories and is told in a way that will keep every armchair mountaineer engaged and entertained. Arlene Blum left me inspired. Despite constant sexism, often being the only woman on a team of men, and pursuing expeditions no other woman had attempted, she persisted and is one of the OG’s of women’s mountaineering.

You can purchase her book here, as well as the iconic t-shirt used to raise funds for the Annapurna I expedition, which reads, “Annapurna: A Women’s Place is on Top.”

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