Nepali Times
Walking on clouds


Climbing mountains and conducting scientific research (things women traditionally "didn't do") gave Arlene Blum a lifetime of challenges and adventures. "It's given me much to write about," says Blum. "The stories I tell, both in the lab and on a mountain, are the result of a similar process. One has a vision of what one wants to do. Then, a group of people works together to achieve that goal, whether it's solving a scientific problem or climbing a mountain."

A mountaineer with a doctorate in biophysical chemistry, Blum is in Kathmandu to work on her memoir Molecules and Mountains. Her first book, Annapurna: A Woman's Place, about the 1978 American Women's Himalayan Expedition on Annapurna I was recently reissued by Random House Publishers. Back in 1972, when Blum had the idea of organizing the first women's expedition on an 8000m peak, none of the highest peaks in the world had been climbed by women.

But by 1974, three members of a Japanese women's expedition had climbed Manaslu, the long-waited first ascent to an 8000m peak by an all-female expedition. Four years later, Blum's own expedition to Annapurna put two women on top. In 1978, two women and two Sherpas stood on the summit of Annapurna I, twenty-eight years after Maurice Herzog's first eight-thousander climb in history in 1950. The celebrations were short-lived because a few days later two women on the second summit team fell to their deaths. In Annapurna, team leader Blum chronicles the personal commitment and the triumph and tragedy of the expedition's journey.

Blum then started working on her next goal: the great Himalayan traverse across Bhutan, Nepal and India. In 1982, she and travel and adventure writer Hugho Swift became the first westerners to complete the 4,500 km trek. Starting from the eastern border of Bhutan, Swift and Blum, climbed up and down the Himalayan range up 6,000m passes and down to river valleys at 600m, gaining and losing an average of 1000m each day to reach Ladakh.

Eager to share her cross-cultural experiences with friends back home in Berkeley, Blum started the Berkeley-Himalayan Fair, an annual event which attracts 5-6,000 people to enjoy dal-bhat, momos, song and dance, and arts and crafts from the Himalaya "One day, I saw a few people selling arts and crafts on this huge field in Berkeley and I had a vision of something bigger." The 18 year-old fair is sponsored by the City of Berkeley and raises funds for development projects in Nepal.

Off the mountain, Blum's vision, drive and energy, yield tangible results in the laboratory. Her research, while she taught at Stanford University, Wellesley College and the University of California at Berkeley, was instrumental in banning tris, a carcinogenic chemical used as a flame retardant on children's sleepwear.

Today, she's traded university teaching and research, and high-altitude climbing to focus on family and sharing the leadership skills she's gained leading over twenty Himalayan expeditions with organisations worldwide. "Once you have children you don't want to engage in life-threatening sports. It's a personal choice," says Blum whose numerous awards include a gold medal from the Society of Women Geographers, an honour given to eight other women, including aviator Amelia Earhart, anthropologist Margaret Mead and Mary Leakey.

Blum's photographs and articles have appeared in National Geographic, the Smithsonian and Science magazines. To accommodate a life with "maximum freedom but minimum security", Blum conducts leadership skills, and teamwork and problem-solving workshops where participants are encouraged to overcome "their own Annapurnas and Everests"-Blum's metaphor for important and difficult goals.

Based on her experiences leading successful scientific research and mountaineering expeditions, as well as a synthesis of current research on leadership and team development, her clients include corporate and high-tech companies like Nestle/Carnation, Hewlett Packard, and IBM. Blum will be shuttling between Kathmandu and Bangalore for the next five months sharing her team-building skills with Indian and American computer professionals. "We will look at how to negotiate across cultural boundaries when the stakes are high in order to create and maintain a complex organisation without losing sight of the ultimate goals," she adds.

In 1992 she held similar workshops for tourism professionals, senior policy makers and business leaders from Nepal's leading Ministries and private industry.

Participants were encouraged to share their vision, to make a commitment, an action plan. Almost a decade later, at least one of those participants is realising her dream.

Renchin Yonjan's vision to transform Kathmandu into a green beautiful place by having companies adopt a city block or a neighbourhood is flowering fast as she continues to nurture green traffic islands in the city's choked interiors-beyond molecules and beyond mountains.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)