Arlene Blum, a chemist who contributed to the banning of three toxic chemicals, leader of mountaineering expeditions and founder of Berkeley’s annual Himalayan Fair, will appear at two local celebrations of her new book, Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life.
Blum will speak about her book at REI on Tuesday and at Cody’s Books on Sept. 26. Breaking Trail is scheduled to be published by Scribners-Lisa Drew on Oct. 15.
Blum led the all-women expedition to scale Annapurna in the Himalayas in 1978 and wrote A Woman’s Place is on Top about the climb. She said, “I recently learned that it is one of the most difficult and dangerous mountains to climb. That’s not what we were looking for! We expected something easier. My first book, which has amazingly become a little classic, took a year to write. Breaking Trail, in which I ask how and why I, who consider myself a fairly reasonable, not risk-taking person, started climbing, took me 20 years to write.”
Blum said that by the time she was 25, half her friends had died climbing.
“I had to ask these questions,” she said. “And I never found a model in another adventure book in which you could learn about a great adventure as well as the psychological motivations, what goes on inside as well as outside.”
A Woman’s Place is on Top has been named one of the 100 best adventure books ever by National Geographic Adventure magazine and Fortune included it on the magazine’s 75th anniversary list of the 75 best business books.
“The 5 percent of Breaking Trail about myself took the longest to think over and write,” Blum said. “The rest is all adventures. I learned about myself, solved a few family mysteries, and found out something about why people try such hard things and a little about how they succeed.”
Coming from a Chicago family of “people with strong and difficult agendas,” Blum said she had to, “from an early age, be extremely tactful.”
Later, she said, that helped her develop leadership skills for leading expedition teams.
“They made me want to escape that house into the freezing cold,” Blum remembered. “I’ve always gone out into the cold. And I got a lot of flak for doing things girls weren’t supposed to. What seemed like adversities gave me a lot of strength.”
Her remarkable achievements in science and in climbing weren’t made according to a plan.
“I was afraid of science and math,” she explained. “Girls couldn’t do them! Then Sputnik went up, and I had to take them in school. And I found out I loved them. I’ve done theoretical work on the structure of nucleic acids. Then, in Bombay—which is an industrial town overpopulated with very poor people—I had a conversion experience: I wanted my scientific work to help problems like overpopulation.”
She came to realize that such problems are like scissors that cut with two blades: overpopulation in the developing countries and the proliferation and abuse of chemical substances in the United States.
“I wanted to wake people up to how these chemicals in the body, accumulating in body fat, are more dangerous than terrorists from the skies,” Blum said.
She also began a research project on examining fire retardants in children’s sleepwear.
“I found two that did cause mutations, that were persistent organic pollutants, that later were found to be carcinogenic,” she said. “I wrote papers on them, about banning them, and later about an agricultural fumigant that helped caused sterility in workers in Richmond. All three toxic chemicals have been banned.”
Mountain climbing “just seemed to happen,” Blum said.
“I always loved nature and it was the first thing I tried,” she said. “My lab partner in Portland was handsome and a climber, so I went along with him. I did it in spite of the risk, not because of it. I talk in the book about how connections in my scientific work arose in my mind while climbing. That’s part of the reason for climbing, too—it’s an extreme meditation; where you place your hands and feet determine whether you live or die. That empties the mind, makes room for creativity.”
In 1981-82, Blum spent 10 months walking across the Himalaya region, “and fell in love with the people there, so hardworking, incredible and so poor.” Determined to “channel back” something, she remembered “the wonderful music and dancing we saw all the way across the region, and wanted to share it back home.” The Himalaya Fair was the result in 1983.
“We didn’t know if anybody would come; 6,000 people attended that weekend. It struck a chord from the beginning.” The Himalayan Fair contributes about $35,000 a year to charities in the region.
Writing Breaking Trail led Blum to discover “that my family led to climbing, led to liberating myself, to widening horizons,” she said.
Arlene Blum will read from Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life at 7p.m. Tuesday at REI, 1338 San Pablo Ave., and at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 26 at Cody’s Books, 2454 Telegraph Ave. For more information, see www.Arlene Blum.com.e