Arlene Blum: What I’ve Learned

Age 73, Ph.D., biophysical chemist, author, executive director of Green Science Policy Institute.

By Interview by Alison Osius | November 30th, 2018

Arlene Blum in 1976 on the American Bicentennial Everest Expedition. Photo: Arlene Blum Collection.

 

I just got back from Alaska. The American Chemical Society invited me to speak. I said, “I’ll go if I can go to the Brooks Range,” and spent a week in the backcountry.

The most polluted people on the planet are the people in the far north. Pollutants sweep up there in currents of air and water. This is very bad, but it was very good to be able to meet these people and learn their stories.

 

[Also Read Arlene Blum, Early Annapurna Expedition Leader, Enters California Hall of Fame]

 

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My book Annapurna: A Woman’s Place [written as expedition leader of first American/first women’s ascent of Annapurna I], has been around for 30 years. It got reissued in October with a new foreword by Steph Davis. The documentary film came out in 1980.

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[On being turned down for expeditions to Afghanistan and Denali because of her gender] I applied to go on an expedition to Denali and was told women could only go to base camp and help with the cooking. [The leader] said women weren’t physically strong enough or emotionally stable enough to climb mountains like Denali. I told him, “But I’ve been to Peru and climbed higher than that.”

He said, “Were you the only woman?” I said yes. He said something like he wondered if I did my share, and then I wondered, too. … Between Denali and Afghanistan teams, it motivated me to see if a team of women could climb Denali, which was a revolutionary idea back then.

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[On her 1970 women’s expedition on Denali, Blum as deputy leader] Grace Hoeman [leader] collapsed just below the summit right before dark. We hauled her down successfully.

I was 25. That gave me the confidence of being able to deal with difficult circumstances in the mountains. Everybody risked their lives getting her down, which we did. Denali was life-changing for me.

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My next really big trip was “The Endless Winter,” 15 months of nonstop climbing around the world, where we did first ascents in the Kashmir Himalayas and went to Mount Kenya and climbed peaks in the Ruwenzori, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Nepal and New Zealand. A case of dreaming something up and then figuring out how to do it, which started on Denali. We were students who had very little money. It varied between two and 10 people. It was that sense of dreaming up something that seemed impossible but breaking it down into small steps and accomplishing it. … If you think it’s really important and you really want to do it and you find the right team, you can do it.

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On Annapurna, a huge avalanche hit a lot of people but they were miraculously OK. After that, I suggested we should quit because I realized how dangerous it was, but the consensus was to keep climbing, to try our best to do it safely.

Vera [Watson] and Alison [Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz] died in a fall. We think. Or maybe they were hit by a small avalanche. We saw them moving toward the highest camp, and it got dark, and we never heard from them again.

I don’t think I could have stopped them. The thing I might have learned is not to go to that mountain, but it was really hard to know that in those days. There wasn’t much history. I did a recon the year before, but everything was frozen.

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[On her research in the 1970s that helped identify chlorinated tris, a flame retardant in children’s pajamas, as carcinogenic] It was banned in pajamas, but in 2006 I learned that it had not been banned in other products. I thought it might be as easy to change things in 2006 as it was in 1976, but it was much harder. It took eight years. In 2014 the standard was changed so flame retardants were no longer required. That means most homes in America now have less toxic chemicals.

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What I am doing right now feels a lot like climbing Annapurna every day. It’s extremely hard and challenging, and takes every bit of my energy and creativity, but it is reducing harmful chemicals in everyday products that end up in people’s homes and bodies and the environment. I have found my Annapurna. I’ve found something much harder and more important.


 

Also Read

Hilary Harris: What I’ve Learned

Peter Metcalf: What I’ve Learned

Mayan Smith-Gobat: What I’ve Learned

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