Although the 1970s represented the height of the women’s
liberation movement, women still did not typically engage in such traditionally
male activities as running marathons or racing dogsleds—or climbing mountains.
Sexism was still rampant in mountaineering circles. Blum was continually turned
down from joining expeditions. Women, the conventional wisdom claimed, lacked
the physical strength and mental toughness for the seriously rugged work of climbing
mountains—unless, that is, they wanted to stay behind in base camp and
help with cooking while men did the “real” work.
Blum set out to prove the naysayers wrong, more to prove
something to herself than to make a political point.
She reached the summit of Denali (Mount McKinley) in Alaska
in 1970 as deputy leader of an all-woman team. She also climbed with the American
Bicentennial Everest Expedition in 1976. Then she set her sights on a new peak—Annapurna
I in Nepal, which had never been climbed by an American team. The year was 1978,
and she was 33.
At the time Blum climbed Annapurna, only eight people (all
men) had achieved its 26,504-foot summit. Another nine had perished in various attempts.
Blum organized a team of 10 women, ranging in age from 20 to 50, who raised money
for the trip in part by selling t-shirts emblazoned with the now-famous double entendre “A
Woman’s Place is on Top.”
Blum ’66 with daughter Annalise in Macchu Pichu, Peru, 2003
In her book, Blum details the expedition step by step,
as the team grappled with an array of obstacles—logistical challenges ranging
from lugging 10,000 pounds of food and supplies up the mountain to finding tampons
in Katmandu. They dealt with striking Sherpas and dissent among their own ranks.
And then there was Annapurna itself—a forbidding monster of a mountain,
filled with treacherous crevasses and plagued by deadly avalanches.
Two team members (Blum stayed behind in camp), aided by
two Sherpas, finally reached Annapurna’s summit on October 15, 1978. Two
other women died two days later on their attempt to make the top, tainting the
accomplishment with sadness.
“It was amazing that we were able to do it, because
it was really a tough mountain,” Blum says. “But losing our friends
was devastating and for a long time overshadowed the accomplishment. . . . Let’s
just say it’s not my favorite trip.”