Foreword to Breaking Trail
By Sir Chris Bonington
Arlene Blum has led a remarkable life. From unlikely beginnings, she became a leader in the breakthrough of women into mountaineering on the world's highest peaks. Hers is a compelling narrative on many levels it is a warm and intimate memoir, an important account of the development of women's climbing, and a dramatic adventure story.
Climbers’ autobiographies and biographies all too often focus on their ascents to the exclusion of anything personal. Arlene, by contrast, is courageously open about her private life. As well as riveting accounts of her expeditions, she shares with the reader her childhood travails, passage through university, discovery of climbing, relationships on and off the hill, struggles with chauvinistic colleagues, and work as a distinguished research scientist.
These all come together in a beautifully crafted book describing a full and fascinating life. I found myself empathising with her, for I also was brought up by a single parentmy motherhelped by my grandmother, with conflict between them. I too was initially awkward in forming relationships with the opposite sex, but was immensely fortunate in finding the woman of my life when I was twenty-seven.
I also share with Arlene the rewards and stresses of leading high-altitude mountaineering expeditions. I have had the same doubts about my ability to lead, hassles with individualistic fellow climbers, and dilemmas in balancing my climbing and personal life. And I too have lost all too many close friends.
The hurdles I faced, however, were much lower than those that confronted Arlene. I’m an Anglo-Saxon male, and this makes things a great deal easier. Arlene started her climbing career at a time when women were perceived as dutiful seconds who held the rope, made the tea, and did what they were told. In trying to climb with men on an equal basis, Arlene suffered rejections both from individuals and the climbing establishment. Yet she persevered, establishing firsts for women and also planning and carrying out a series of unique adventures, including her inimitable Endless Winter.
Her leadership of the American Women’s Himalayan Expedition was an exceptional achievement. Annapurna I is one of the most serious of the 8,000-meter peaks and a desperately dangerous mountain. Arlene set aside trying to reach the summit herself to support the efforts of her teammates. When I led my expedition to Annapurna South Face in 1970, I similarly had to cope with the diverse aspirations of my team and devastating tragedy after success had been attained.
This memoir is gripping throughout and extraordinarily rewarding at the end, when Arlene’s childhood, climbing, and scientific careers come together in a surprising and satisfying manner. I heartily recommend Breaking Trail to both men and women climbers (and to armchair mountaineers) as well as anyone who faces uphill struggles. We learn from Arlene’s story that with conviction and persistence, we can achieve our most challenging and improbable goals.
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