When Arlene Blum of Berkeley was a member of the 1976 American Bicentennial Expedition on Mt. Everest, when she led the first American ascent--and the first all-women ascent--of Annapurna I in 1978, and when she walked the 2,500-mile length of the Himalayan range in 1981, the problems of the treks centered on survival.
On her next expedition--a hike beginning July 1 that will go the length of the Alps, from Yugoslavia to Mt. Blanc--the problems will include finding stores that sell diapers and strained vegetables.
Instead of packing survival equipment, Blum will be carrying her 4-month-old daughter, Annalise, whose birth earlier this year--at age 42, Blum's first--has been "life's best and most challenging adventure."
For most of us, taking three months to walk 900 miles over the Alps with an infant might be life's most challenging adventure, but probably not its best. For Blum, who suffered dysentery on Everest, led a team of women who carried all their gear up 22,218-foot Bhrigupanth without Sherpas and saw two members of her all-woman team die on Annapurna, the Alps are a pleasant and civilized walk.
"My life has always been in the Himalayas," said Blum, who holds a Ph.D. in biochemistry, has taught at Stanford and UC Berkeley, and is the author of "Annapurna: A Woman's Place." "At first I thought that having a child would prevent me from doing what I love. But, I haven't been to Europe, and this is an adventure we could have. I think it's a way for us to be together--and I'll get my figure back."
The Alp trek is a safe place for her baby, she said. There are trails, lodges, hotels and huts for climbers--and the pre-expedition planning revealed that there are places to buy diapers. "The huts have telephones, so I can call my pediatrician in Berkeley," she said. Her pediatrician recommended that Annalise take solid food, along with breast milk, during the expedition. "If she starts crawling, we won't make it," Blum said. "She can't crawl over the Alps."
No stranger to travel, Annalise accompanied her mother to Bangkok for a lecture date when she was 3 weeks old. While Blum is accustomed to firsts as a mountaineer (she was also deputy leader of the first women's team to climb Mt. McKinley in 1971), she said she is not sure whether she is the first to climb in the Alps with a baby. "I called the guy who wrote the Sierra Club guides, and he'd never heard of anyone."
Blum and her companions on previous expeditions have helped to show that women are as capable as men of facing the hardships and dangers of mountaineering. On her return, Blum hopes to give lectures that will provide a different kind of inspiration, showing mothers and fathers that they can combine having children with an active, adventurous life.
Blum's aspirations for children are high, like those she has for herself and other women. "I won't take Annalise to the Himalayas until she's 3 or 4 years old," Blum said. Once a child starts to crawl and walk, there should be a moratorium on mountain climbing "until they're old enough not to put things in their mouths."
However, Blum said of her daughter, "I hope she doesn't take up climbing. It is dangerous. Now that I'm a mother, I understand how my mother felt."