Dodging the Avalanche

Most people never dream of being a revered mountaineer or a trailblazing chemist. Arlene Blum is both.

Arlene Blum could have been doing cutting-edge research. Instead, she was crouched on the side of the world’s deadliest peak, hanging on for her life.

Annapurna I was living up to its reputation. From the start of her expedition, the  mountain churned out avalanche after avalanche, screaming down the slopes and wiping out tracks, lines, and tents. This time, Blum was caught off guard. She plunged her ax into the ice. Try to stay above the snow, she thought to herself. Throw my hand up as high as I can if I’m swallowed up. Moments earlier, when she’d heard her teammate yell, “Avalanche!” she raced down the track until she was out of breath. Thoughts of a close friend who had been crushed in a similar disaster raced through her mind. She braced for the impact. What on earth was she doing dangling from the side of a mountain?

The year was 1978, and Arlene Blum was leading a historic expedition up the Nepalese mountain, dodging avalanches as she attempted to guide the first all-female team to summit the most treacherous of the 8,000-meter peaks. Blum was already an accomplished scientist whose groundbreaking biochemistry research helped save children from cancer by removing a toxic fire retardant from kids’ pajamas. But now she was far from the lab, clutching the handle of her ice ax and hoping to avoid being swept off the frozen peak.

A WOMAN’S PLACE IS ON TOP

Blum got her first taste of mountaineering as an undergrad at Reed College in the early 1960s. A handsome lab partner invited her along on a late-night climb, and though she’ll lean forward, laugh, and tell you that she accidentally embarrassed herself by ripping the seat of her pants, an insatiable love of climbing was born. Blum would later lead the first ascent of the 22,000-foot Bhrigupanth in India. She’d attempt Everest. And she’d hike 3,000 miles along the Himalayas in India, Nepal, and Bhutan, not to mention tote her baby daughter on her back through the European Alps.

When Blum wasn’t climbing, she was making a similarly rapid ascent as a chemist. She earned a doctorate in biophysical chemistry and would go on to teach at UC Berkeley, Stanford, and Wellesley. In 1976, she wrote an article exposing a flame retardant used in children’s pajamas, Tris, as a carcinogen and mutagen. Blum finished the paper while climbing Everest, sending the final galley back to Kathmandu via mail runner from 21,000 feet. Three months after the piece ran as a lead article in Science, the use of Tris in children’s clothing was banned. (Image credit: Cullen 328)

Her next goal was bigger: Taking an all-female team up one of mountaineering’s vaunted 8,000-meter peaks. Summiting any of the 14 hallowed mountains would have been a daunting task for even elite climbers. But Blum didn’t want to climb just any of the “eight-thousanders.” She wanted the scariest peak of them all, Annapurna I.

At 26,504 feet, Annapurna I is the world’s 10th highest peak, but it’s the most dangerous. Annapurna I is prone to avalanches, and it’s also covered with unstable ice cliffs called séracs. When these séracs cleave off the mountain in refrigerator-size chunks, they can take climbers down with them. The potential for freezing temperatures and vicious winds doesn’t make climbing up walls of ice any easier. Maurice Herzog, who in 1950 had made the first successful ascent, described Annapurna I as “Nature at her most pitiless.” Herzog and his climbing partner, Louis Lachenal, both lost their toes to frostbite during that summit, which also claimed Herzog’s fingers.

Not much has changed in the decades since their ascent. According to Eberhard Jurgalski, editor of 8000ers.com, Annapurna I has seen 191 ascents and 61 fatalities as of 2011. Everest is a pleasant day hike by comparison.

In 1976, officials in Kathmandu offered Blum a permit to lead an expedition up the mountain. By contrast, the American Alpine Club refused to give her its blessing. The organization hemmed and hawed, trying to dissuade the female climbers, but Blum was persistent and eventually secured its endorsement. “There would be a lot of bad publicity if things didn’t go well,” the AAC said.

The odds were stacked against things going well. When Blum’s team began its ascent, only four groups had reached the summit. Still, if anyone could make this risky expedition work, it was Blum. She wasn’t the strongest climber or the fastest. But the chemist was steady and logical and had exceedingly good judgment.

Focused on making the trip happen, Blum started fundraising. The crew made $80,000 selling shirts reading "a woman’s place is on top." After two years of preparation, Blum and nine teammates set out for Annapurna I. Six weeks later, Blum would find herself doing what some of the team couldn’t: cheating death.

TOP OF THE WORLD

The avalanche Blum had been bracing for missed, but it wiped out one of the team’s caches of technical climbing equipment and supplies. Blum surveyed the wreckage rising to the top of the shifting ice—a few wands, foam pads, and a hard hat. She worried. We might lose someone, she thought.

The trip had been a disaster from the start. One member of the team got pleurisy, an inflammation of the lining of the lungs that makes it agonizingly painful to breathe or cough. Another had to leave the expedition in order to keep her job. There were food shortages, spats between climbers, and anger among the Sherpas, who wanted more money. One of the team members, a surgeon, froze her finger so badly that she gave up a shot at the summit.

Now, six weeks into the expedition, without these supplies, making the summit seemed out of the question. Even making it off the mountain would be dicey. Blum’s team got a miracle, though. Two of the climbers had stowed and carried extra gear despite their already massive packs. The team had just enough equipment to soldier on.

Blum gave up her own shot at making the summit in the interest of directing two of her teammates’ efforts to the top of the mountain. Her selflessness paid off—Vera Komarkova and Irene Beardsley found the peak. “I was still up at high altitude, so I was very happy—deliriously happy,” Beardsley says. When news made its way back down the mountain to Blum, she sat down and cried with joy, relief, and exhaustion.

(Image credit: Sudan Shrestha)

Two of the team’s other climbers, Vera Watson and Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz, wanted to make a summit attempt of their own. Blum tried to talk them out of the risky climb, but they left against her warnings. They never returned—the pair fell nearly 1,000 feet to their deaths. “A vital part had broken off and would remain on Annapurna,” Blum wrote in her retelling of the climb. “It was hard to accept the terrible blow that the mountain gods had dealt.”

Despite the tragedy, the expedition made history. When Blum and Beardsley arrived in San Francisco in November 1978, the media met their plane. Wearing an Annapurna a woman’s place is on top T-shirt and Nepalese prayer scarfs, Blum confidently told a reporter, “I knew women could climb big, high mountains like this before I went, and this reestablished it.”

IS YOUR COUCH TRYING TO KILL YOU?

After conquering Annapurna I, Blum left science to become an expedition leader, intercultural trainer, and motivational speaker. Then, after a 26-year absence, she found herself propelled back into the world of chemistry. While attending a conference, she learned that the same toxic flame retardant that she’d helped ban from children’s pj’s was now being used in California furniture to treat foam. Blum was going to have to go a second round with her old foe. It’s a war she believes in—Blum calls these carcinogenic flame retardants the asbestos of our time.

“We’re living in a toxic chemical soup. This kind of toxic minestrone is really not so good for our health,” Blum said with her trademark warmth during a recent lecture. Blum’s home state of California requires foam in furniture to weather 12 seconds against a small open fl ame without igniting. The foam in couches is coated in flame retardant chemicals so it can pass these tests. Supporters of the stringent standard claim that its effects are well-studied, and it makes houses much safer, but Blum maintains that these chemicals don’t actually lower the risk of house fires. She also claims they expose people and pets to toxins that have been associated with lower IQs, cancer, infertility, and fluctuating thyroid hormones.

In 2008, Blum founded the Green Science Policy Institute with consultant Michael Kirschner to help solve these problems. “Arlene’s a force of nature,” says Kirschner. “This is a great challenge. And it can have a positive outcome.”

(YouTube link)

Kirschner thinks Blum is driven to some extent by her frustration, believing that Tris-related dangers had vanished for good only to see it return 30 years later. Blum says she just wants to make the world a healthier place. “I just have so much compassion and sadness for all the animals. And you think of one child who has cancer or a couple who doesn’t have kids because of infertility. Those problems are associated with flame-retardant chemicals in animal studies,” she says.

Blum is determined to fight and shows no signs of slowing. It sounds like a David-and-Goliath battle, a lone scientist and her allies facing down the powerful chemical industry. “Stopping the use of toxic retardants in products is more difficult than Annapurna and much more important,” says the woman recently inducted into the Hall of Mountaineering Excellence. “It’ll help the health of the world if we can succeed this time.”

But Blum remains unfazed by the long odds—this isn’t her first time facing an uphill climb. The chemical companies may have millions of dollars, but they don’t have Arlene Blum.

_______________________

The article above, written by Katherine Laidlaw, is reprinted with permission from the October 2012 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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