A quarter century after Annapurna, Blum still
looks hale at 58—her face tanned, her tangle of curls kept in check with a
barrette. Her hazel eyes are warm, with a hint of steel. She jokes that she would
never be mistaken for a thrill seeker.
“Whenever I give a lecture, I get this big, heroic introduction,
and I really just look very ordinary,” she says.
Blum was raised by Orthodox Jewish grandparents in 1950s Chicago.
She describes her early years as lonely and overprotected. Top of her high school
class, she saw going away to Reed as an escape.
attended the college during the early 1960s and remembers the place brimming with
exciting people and ideas. Best of all, it was a school where there was absolutely
never any question that women could do anything that men did.
“Reed was considered a radical place,” she says. “It
was all very mind-stretching and stimulating.”
A crush on her freshman chemistry lab partner, an outdoors
enthusiast, prompted her first climb, of Mount Adams in southeastern Washington.
Too winded to reach the summit, she badly scraped her buttocks on her way down. For
weeks after, she carried a plastic toilet seat to her classes because sitting on
wooden chairs was too painful.
Undaunted, she climbed and trekked throughout college. She
spent many days “buildering”—scaling the walls of campus buildings,
as well as climbing real mountains in the Cascades. She did her senior thesis on
an analysis of volcanic gases on Mount Hood, a topic that allowed her to spend weekends
climbing as part of her studies.
After graduating from Reed, she attended MIT and Berkeley.
She earned a doctorate in biophysical chemistry from Berkeley and did groundbreaking
research into toxic chemicals used as flame retardants in children’s clothing.
But Blum’s soul was in the mountains, not in the laboratory.
After finishing her doctoral dissertation, she undertook a
long expedition she calls her “endless winter.” She spent more than a
year climbing her way across much of the world, scaling peaks stretching across Africa,
Asia, and Oceania.