Preparing to ascend Mount Everest, 1976. Photography courtesy of Arlene Blum.
Ascending Mount Everest, 1976. Photography courtesy of Arlene Blum.
Teammate Chris Chandler on his summit climb, 1976. Photography courtesy of Arlene Blum.
Camp IV tents pitched at 24,500 feet, 1976. Photography courtesy of Arlene Blum.
At 18,000 feet, 1976. Photography courtesy of Arlene Blum.
Annapurna I, 1978. Photography courtesy of Arlene Blum.

Breaking Trail

by Arlene Blum

Biophysical chemist Arlene Blum PhD is founder and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute, an environmental science organization that works with governments, businesses, and nonprofits to reduce the use of toxic chemicals. One of the first environmental health scientists to focus her efforts on reducing harm from PFAS, a class of thousands of chemicals found in a wide variety of industrial and consumer products, Blum is also an accomplished high-altitude mountaineer. In 1970, at age twenty-five, she co-led the first women’s team to climb Alaska’s highest peak, Denali. Eight years later she led the first American—and all-women’s—ascent of Annapurna I in Nepal, considered one of the world’s most dangerous and difficult mountains. Here Blum gives an account of her 1976 attempt at Mount Everest.

By late September, the highest camps were stocked with food and oxygen and the weather was perfect. The time had come for Phil to decide which climbers would be on the summit teams. Although all of us, climbers and Sherpas alike, had worked hard, there was only enough food and oxygen in the High Camps for one or possibly two teams to try for the top. Much of the reward, personal and public, would go to them. Not surprisingly, almost everyone was politicking to be a member of the first summit team.

Phil chose Gerry, whose lifetime dream was to climb Everest; Chris, our climbing doctor; and the Sherpa climber Ang Phurba. The second team was Rick, Hans, and Frank. Bob and I, the slowest climbers, knew we were not under serious consideration. I accepted this, but knowing summit teams can change at the last minute, still cherished a slim hope of getting my chance to try for the top. Indeed, it was up to me if a woman were going to climb Everest on this trip. Barb had lost much of her acclimatization when a severe toothache forced her back to Katmandu for treatment. After her return, she climbed to Camp II and then generously volunteered to go back down and manage Base Camp as her contribution to the summit attempts.

As Gerry, Chris, and Ang Phurba were preparing to leave, a mail runner arrived from Katmandu with my absentee ballot for the 1976 presidential election. I cast my vote for Jimmy Carter from 21,000 feet. I also received the galley proofs of a lead article for Science magazine that Bruce Ames and I had completed just before my departure. Our paper detailed the dangers of flame-retardant additives in sleepwear and suggested alternatives. Scientific articles traditionally present results without prescription for social action, so I was pleased to see that the subtitle we had given our article had been left in: “The main flame retardant in children’s pajamas is a mutagen and should not be used.”

Working on the paper gave my spirits a much-needed lift. Although I’d not been included in a summit team, I hoped to carry a load up to Camp V, the South Col, at 26,200 feet. From there, at just 8,000 meters, I could fulfill my dream of looking across to the high arid mountains and brown hills of Tibet. The South Col would be my personal summit.

Feeling strong and healthy, I offered to carry a load up to Camp V. At first Phil thought this was a good idea, but then he changed his mind, worrying that if I had a problem during the carry, it would jeopardize the summit attempt. I was disappointed, and wondered if the decision would have been the same if I were a man. The crevasse between the team and me grew wider.

Phil did agree that Joe and I could carry loads up to Camp IV at 24,500 feet. The next day we moved steadily upward, higher than I’d ever been. I entered a place of brilliant white and deep blue, a stark world dotted with the gaudy specks of orange, purple, and green of our climbing team. The higher we went, the more spectacular and unearthly the views became.

As we approached Camp IV, I was in a meditative state and found myself thinking about my grandfather. I wished he—the person in my family who most encouraged me to aim high, and not let my being a woman interfere with doing what I wanted—could see his granddaughter heading toward the top of the world. I didn’t think I would have gotten to Everest without his belief in me.

Finally we were at Camp IV, three small tents pitched on platforms chopped into the ice clinging to the steep Lhotse face. I wanted to go higher, but this was the point at which the summit team needed oxygen to aid their sleep at night, and all the oxygen at the camp was for their use. Joe and I would have to head back down to Camp II.

But first I needed to say my farewell to the high slopes of Everest, and to my hopes of reaching the top. Alone, I headed up a few hundred feet above Camp IV and looked longingly up at the South Col, a mere 1,555 feet above me, outlined against the navy blue sky. I could visualize myself at the Col, looking down on the brown hills of Tibet, but I knew it was not to be. I consoled myself with the thought that 24,700 feet was an altitude record for me. For these brief moments, this beauteous place was my private domain. But soon, whether or not any of us made the summit, we would all leave. The wind would scour away our footprints, the snow would fall, and there would be no trace of our ever having been to Mount Everest.

From Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life by Arlene Blum, published by Scribner (2005).