When Arlene Blum was growing up in an Orthodox Jewish household in Chicago, she never dreamed she’d someday become the first woman to attempt the summit of Mt. Everest. “My family was so fearful and over-protective, I wasn’t even allowed to ride horses, or go to the beach,” she says.
But when a handsome chemistry lab partner in college invited her to climb Mt. Hood, she was too smitten to confess that she knew nothing about the outdoors. “When we set out for that first hike, I was wheezing so badly he said he didn’t think I’d make it out of the parking lot. But when I found myself at sunrise looking out at a glacier and a scene of extraordinary beauty, I was hooked.”
The quiet student slowly changed into a fearless trip leader, a metamorphosis that is detailed in her new autobiography, Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life. “I just wanted to climb. I had helped organize a women’s expedition to Denali in 1970, but at the summit our leader got sick. I was forced in that moment, at the top of Denali, in the snow and wind, to become a leader.”
Perhaps even more than the forces of nature, the biggest deterrents were the societal restrictions that had stood in the way of countless other women. “I decided I wanted to climb Mount Everest, and I wrote away asking for information and brochures. They wrote back and told me that women were allowed to hike as far as base camp and help with the cooking. In those days women didn’t do such things.”
One by one, Blum conquered the conventions. “After my daughter was born I didn’t want to give up trekking. I put her in a backpack and hiked the length of the European Alps when she was only a few months old. I have very strong ankles, so I was hiking most of it in sandals. The Europeans would see my shoes and stare and say, ‘You can’t hike like that!’ Then they would notice the baby on my back and do an even bigger double-take.”
Her trailblazing spirit has spilled over into the world of advocacy, where she is now helping lead the way to a less toxic future. As a chemist, she worked tirelessly decades ago to help get toxic fire-retardants banned from children’s pajamas. In recent years, however, she found out that those same chemicals are now covering furniture and other household items to which children are exposed on a daily basis. Arlene has been working with the California State Legislature to ban these toxins and help protect kids’ health; an op-ed she penned on the topic was featured in The New York Times last year.
“There’s a connection between mountain climbing and advocacy,” she adds, “It’s all about setting goals, being determined, and pushing forward.”
To check out Arlene Blum’s autobiography and to find out about her speaking tours, visit www.arleneblum.com