Arlene Blum, Ph.D. '71, biophysical chemistry, is one of the world's preeminent mountain climbers. She is also the author of Annapurna: A Woman's Place and most recently, Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life.
Arlene Blum, Ph.D. ’71, biophysical chemistry, is one of the world’s preeminent mountain climbers. She is also the author of Annapurna: A Woman’s Place and most recently, Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life.

One September evening in 1970, working alone in my chemistry lab in Latimer Hall, I was preparing nucleic acid for my final experiments for my Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry. The lab was quiet except for the repetitive tick of the spinning centrifuge. After finishing the purification, to my horror, I knocked the vial onto the floor, where it shattered, the precious liquid lost.
Needing a break, I headed across campus to the Northside Theater just in time for a late showing of The Endless Summer. Watching California surfers frolicking on sunny beaches on every continent searching for the perfect wave, I decided that an ideal reward for completing my Ph.D. would be my own alpine version of their quest: an Endless Winter of climbing around the world in search of the perfect mountain.

I’d transferred from the narrow, sexist corridors of MIT to graduate school at Cal three years earlier. At Berkeley, I discovered an egalitarian atmosphere, great excitement about the new field of nucleic-acid structure, and the opportunity to join the UC Hiking Club for mountain climbing. Ever since I learned to climb six years earlier in my PE class at Reed College, I had enjoyed the personal challenge and problem solving of mountain ascents. Just as in the lab, mountain climbing required discipline — but with more profound immediate risks.

One of the primary challenges, though, was overcoming the stigma that women couldn’t be good mountain climbers, not unlike the stigma women faced in male-dominated biophysics labs. Being told that women lack the strength and skill to climb the toughest mountains provoked me to organize the first all-women’s expedition to 20,320-foot-high Denali (Mt. McKinley), the highest point in North America. The high-Arctic challenge and camaraderie of our Denali ascent was still vivid in my mind that autumn evening at the Northside Theater, and it helped inspire my dream of an Endless Winter.

Returning from the movie to the chemistry library, I happened upon a world globe. Spinning the globe, I realized that by traveling north and south across the equator for a year and a half, I could climb in the world’s highest mountain ranges during the best climbing weather.

Nacho Tinoco, my Ph.D. advisor, was skeptical. I said I needed a break. I promised to return with renewed energy. I would even fly a flag saying “tRNA” on each summit to remind me of my research.

December 10, 1971, the day after I handed in my Ph.D. thesis, I boarded a Pan Am jet with ice axe in hand, climbing rope over my shoulder, and heavy mountaineering boots on my feet. I was on my way to the high Semien Mountains of Ethiopia.

For the next 16 months, I followed my vision from that moment of spinning the globe in the chemistry library. I climbed dozens of mountains higher than 15,000 feet. Focusing on taking one more step to bring me closer to the summit had similarities with the problem solving, diligent labor, and focus of scientific research.

Along the way, in Afghanistan, another dream was born. Only 14 mountains in the world soar above 8,000 meters (26,247 feet). At that time, all the 8,000-meter peaks had been climbed by men; no woman had reached that altitude. On our trip, several women were attempting Noshaq, a 24,581-foot-high Afghan mountain. As I labored up to our 23,000-foot-high camp in lightly falling snow, I met Wanda Rutkiewicz, a strong and beautiful Polish climber, triumphantly descending from the summit. Wanda hugged me and said, “We have reached 7,500 meters. Now we must climb to 8,000 meters, together, all women.”

Her words stayed with me as I completed the Endless Winter. Suddenly I was catapulted into the world of leading high-altitude expeditions, an unusual place for a young woman in the 1970s. After a postdoc at Stanford and a teaching stint at Wellesley, I returned to the Berkeley biochemistry department, where I taught a course on the causes of cancer and did research that led to the ban on chemical flame-retardants in children’s sleepwear. In 1978, while at Berkeley, I realized Wanda’s and my dream when I led a team of women in making the first American ascent of Annapurna I, the world’s tenth-highest and probably most dangerous peak.

Many other ripples have come from my Berkeley procrastination nearly 36 years ago. For example, my experience of climbing in Afghanistan led to my helping found the Association for the Protection of Afghan Archaeology, which currently strives to help preserve the archaeological and cultural heritage of that war-ravaged country.

My advisor Nacho wasn’t surprised when I eventually did leave my job as chemistry professor for a life of exploration and adventure. But during my various careers and explorations, I have been guided by knowledge I gained from living out the dream of the Endless Winter.

Lately, I have begun to dream about returning to campus to resume my research on the regulation of toxic chemicals to protect our health and environment. Climbing this new mountain will be a challenge, but at least the peak is near my own backyard.

— Arlene Blum

Like “being there”? Tag along step by step with Blum on her peak experiences in a life of first ascents in Peru, British Columbia, Alaska, and the Himalayas (including Everest and Annapurna) — blisters, missteps, avalanches, heartaches, conquest, and incomparable vistas.

This article is reprinted with permission from the September-October 2006 issue of California magazine. Published at Berkeley by the California Alumni Association.

 


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