Blog of Awesome Women / Arlene Blum: “A Woman’s Place Is on Top”
January 25

Blog of Awesome Women / Arlene Blum: “A Woman’s Place Is on Top”

Arlene Blum has made a success by doing what she’s not “supposed” to do. Born in Chicago in 1945 and raised by her mother’s parents, Arlene overcame “arithmaphobia” to go to the top of her class in mathematics and science, where she developed a taste for competing academically with boys. She decided to study chemistry at Portland’s Reed College, ultimately earning a doctorate in chemistry from U.C. Berkeley. In an interview with Ms. in 1987, she indicated that this spirit of competition still propelled her, “I know that…girls weren’t supposed to be chemists. And it’s always sort of nice to do things you’re not supposed to do.” Reed’s location near Oregon’s mountain peaks was auspicious for the young scientist. She fell in love with mountain climbing and even worked it into her academic regimen by analyzing volcanic gas from the top of Mount Hood.

More exotic ranges beckoned, and Arlene soon trekked to Mexican and Andean peaks. An eye-opening event happened when she submitted an application to be a part of a team destined for Afghanistan and was turned down for being a woman. After a second ejection for an Alaskan expedition, Arlene Blum took the “bull by the horns” and put together her own all-woman team of six climbers, all of whom made the peak of Alaska’s Mount Denali (formerly known as Mount McKinley) in 1970. This was just the beginning for the barrier-breaking shero, who in 1978 took another all-woman team to Annapurna, one of the highest mountains in the world. At the time, only four teams had ever made it to the top of Annapurna, a treacherous mountain known for fierce storms and dangerous avalanches. In addition to the danger, such treks are always extremely expensive. Ever plucky, Blum and her team of Sherpas and sheroes paid their way to the top of Annapurna, the world’s tenth highest peak, by selling t-shirts and gaining corporate sponsorships. The T-shirts became real conversation starters with the winning slogan, “a Woman’s Place is on top…Annapurna!”

Amazing Arlene has gone on to walk the entire Great Himalayan mountain range, crest Everest, and organize many expeditions and explorations. She has also excelled at her other profession, chemistry, and helped identify a carcinogenic flame-retardant in children’s clothing. Arlene’s daughter Annlise joins her mother on climbs now, part of the generation of women for whom Arlene cleared the path. Arlene Blum showed the world that, when it comes to excluding women from sports, there “ain’t no mountain high enough” to keep a good woman down!

“People say I’ve organized all-women’s expeditions to show what we can do; but it wasn’t like that. It was more a rebellion against being told I couldn’t do something, or…that women couldn’t do something.”

— Arlene Blum 

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.


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