When anyone asks me who the most inspirational person is to me when it comes to the outdoors, I say without hesitation, Arlene Blum. Arlene is legendary in the climbing world and beyond. She overcame adversity and defied gender stereotypes as a women in the 1960’s in not one, but two male dominated fields: science and mountaineering. It is trailblazers like her that broke the glass ceiling and led the way for the women of my generation to accomplish anything we put our minds to, unobstructed by the discrimination they endured.
Arlene is best known for leading the first all women ascent of Annapurna which was also the first successful ascent by Americans. Additionally she led an all women ascent of Mt McKinley and was the first woman to attempt climbing Mt Everest. But she was not born a mountaineer. She grew up in Chicago with her mother, grandfather, and a grandmother who told her she was worthless and wouldn’t amount to anything. Instead of believing this, she challenged it. She got straight A’s and fled Chicago to Reed College in Oregon to study biophysical chemistry. When she was not making scientific breakthroughs with her studies she was climbing mountains with the Reed climbers club. As she struggled to fit in with the men in the group she was determined to get in shape and show them she could keep up. She started running everyday in an effort to get the men in the group to overlook her blunders and see her as an equal climber.
My favorite story is about her first climb. In 1964 her friend John invited her to climb Mt Adams with four other guys. When they reached 10,000 feet John explained that one of the climbers tends to get sick at this altitude, did she want to go back down with him? When she said no and that she was having a great time, John confessed that he really asked her on the climb because he assumed she would want to descend early. She refused to retreat and climbed on, keeping up with the others. When they got to the false summit she untied herself and let the others go on ahead only because she had to pee so bad and was too embarrassed to ask the guys to stop. After their summit, the group showed her how to glissade down the mountain in the snow. As they reached the bottom she was horrified to find that the back of her pants and the skin beneath were shredded. As she layed on her stomach in the infirmary that night she wrote to her family, “I just climbed almost to the top of Mt Adams. It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been and the best day of my life. The mountains are where I belong.”
I found Arlene at the best possible time in my life. I had just moved to Seattle after college and started hiking and working at my first job, also in a male-dominated field. She made me feel like I could take on anything. She made me think that if I just started running I could climb mountains, a great lesson in starting small to take on big challenges.
Arlene is currently supporting the Green Science Policy Institute with research that aids in protecting us from harmful chemicals and toxins in our products, especially flame retardants.
Read more about Arlene here:
How I Made It: Arlene Blum from the LA Times
Arlene Blum’s Crusade Against Household Toxins from The New York Times
Bonus Camp Reads!
Breaking Trail by Arlene Blum
This is Arlene’s autobiography where you can read all about her amazing life from her childhood to her groundbreaking scientific and climbing endeavors.
Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack? Backpack
Take this with you for a dose of inspiration anywhere you go.
Annapurna: A Woman’s Place by Arlene Blum
Car Camp, Day Hike or Backpack? Day Hike
This larger sized paperback contains lots of great photos from the expedition.