The opening line of Arlene Blum’s book Annapurna: A Woman’s Place reads “You never conquer a mountain. You stand on the summit a few moments, then the wind blows your footprints away.” It’s a wonderful statement because it does not encompass gender or ability. There is nothing to be conquered, only moments to be experienced; it doesn’t matter if you are a man or a woman.
This book shares the experiences of a group of women set out to push the limits that society, at that time, had placed upon women. High altitude mountaineering, still in it’s relative infancy, was having it’s limits pushed by some of the greatest climbers that history had ever seen, all of whom were men. Arlene Blum tried to be part of this exclusive group, at times successful and sometimes being defeated by traditional mindsets; she persevered to attain her dream and hold onto the hope that women could make their mark in this elite club.
nothing to be conquered, only moments to be experienced
After reading many books written by men it is so refreshing to read a mountaineering adventure from a woman’s perspective. I have read a lot of excellent mountaineering books written by men such as Ed Viesturs, Chris Bonnington, Jim Wickwire, David Roberts, Jon Krakauer, Reinhold Messner and found them very inspiring and well written. However, as a woman I always felt the tales told from the perspective of a man always lent towards the logistic side of the climbs, the technical aspect and the testosterone driven need for success.
An estrogen driven adventure is very different indeed. It lends more towards the feelings and the sensitivity felt towards other peoples feelings. So many times throughout the book I could relate to the emotions being expressed, despite not being able to share the exact experience. Told from a woman’s perspective made it very relatable rather than just enjoying the book for it’s narrative quality and adventure.
Arlene Blum told it from a very real perspective. I didn’t feel like moments in the book were ever skimmed over or not fully explored even though there were negative moments and feelings of absolute despair. There seemed to be a constant internal struggle within each of the women to deal with the fact that each of them was a woman climber. A constant struggle with wondering if they were fast enough, strong enough and good enough to be part of such a momentous and incredibly difficult challenge.
feelings of absolute despair
At one moment in the book,Joan who was in charge of calculating the rationing of the food was having difficulty doing the calculations, Arlene says “ …arithmetic is holding Joan back. Despite wanting to be a woman who could prove her strength & equality she still gets held back by ‘conditioning’”. This conditioning that she speaks of, which was obviously much more pervasive 35 years ago, I believe still has an influence on women today. Personally, often being the only woman in a group of men out in the mountains, I feel that I have to push myself harder & faster. I don’t want to give the men reason to think that I don’t deserve to be there or that I am some kind of burden . Unfortunately I feel society in general tells us that women are weaker, emotionally unequipped and not designed for that kind of hardship. Not that this idea is forced upon us, especially in western society, but depending on your upbringing, I think we all fall into our gender roles out of comfort and familiarity and this has a strong influence on what we feel we can and cannot do; especially when it comes to activities in the mountains, which is a heavily male dominated arena.
However, there is one prevailing idea, whether written by a man or a woman, in all the mountaineering books that I have read, and that is an absolute love of the high places. Arlene and her team speak of it often throughout the book and it is something anyone who enjoys the beauty of nature and the mountains can relate to. She says “As always the beauty of the mountains quieted my doubts and anxieties and filled me with contentment. This was where I belonged.” How often I have felt this exact sentiment when out in the mountains and always the raw beauty of the wild places gently pulls away any disquietude and fills me with calmness and wonder.
I’m in ecstasy over the beauty but exhausted by the hard work and I’m terrified of the avalanches
So often in the book I could almost taste the fear that these women felt as they described crossing numerous avalanche paths daily and the possibility of death at each passing. Marie, someone who had never climbed previous to joining the expedition to Annapurna says it so well when she says, “I can’t decide whether I love climbing or I hate it. I’m in ecstasy over the beauty but exhausted by the hard work and I’m terrified of the avalanches.” Another member, Christy, said, “I was prepared to be dead but not prepared to go through the process of dying in an avalanche.”
I truly believe that anyone in love with spending time in the mountains has to go through the mental process of accepting a few hard truths. First, it is going to be hard. There are a lot of moments that are not enjoyable. You are cold, you are thirsty and you are uncomfortable, to name a few. Second, you can die. I write this as plainly as possible because it is a fact. As Christy mentioned above, she had accepted that there was a large possibility that she would die. This is something the women in the book have to come to terms with and often struggle with accepting. I enjoyed reading how each member had to make the decision for themselves, whether the risk was worth the reward. “We had risked our lives, and our reward was in part a reaffirmation of life.” This quote sums it up beautifully for me. I personally feel that it is through struggle and facing this fear that we are able to really feel and appreciate the life that is in us.
As mentioned in the opening quote, I feel that it is the fleeting nature of the mountains that draws many people in .The fact that we are truly only visitors to these high places and can share only moments on top that keeps us coming back.
Arlene Blum’s account of the first American ascent and first all female ascent of Annapurna is a wonderful read. Whether you are a man or a woman you will appreciate the hardship, the fear, the ecstasy, the risks and the rewards that every one of the members experienced. A fascinating account, told from the perspective of a woman, of climbing one of the most dangerous mountains in the world and all that it can give and take to those brave enough to attempt it.