In 1969 Arlene Blum -- who two years ago led a team of women in the first American conquest of Annapurna -- applied to join a climb in Afghanistan. After several months she got an answer that acknowledged that she was the best-qualified applicant, but went on to say:
"One woman and nine men would seem to me to be unpleasant, high on the open ice, not only in excretory situations, but in the easy masculine companionship which is so vital a part of the joy of an expedition. Sorry as hell."
Women have been climbing the high Himalayas for 130 years, but until very recently you could still find men who insisted that "women climbers either aren't good climbers or they aren't real women," who would admit women as cooks at base camp but not as climbers, who would literally threaten to quit a climb -- as Sir Edmund Hillary once did -- if a woman went along.
When they were allowed on the mountains, they were pursued with morbid attention. No mattr that the whole team came down with dysentery; the big news that made the world wires was that the woman member had it. Her intestines made an international sensation.
"Sexism in climbing is a circular problem," said Blum, in town for an American Alpine Club meeting. "It's true, there aren't that many qualified women climbers yet, but how are they going to learn if they don't climb?"
It's a tired debate anyway: Men have longer muscles, women have more agility; men have the power, women have the endurance; men can reach higher, women's smaller feet fit into cracks and ladder-holds.
"Comparing is unfortunate, I think. It depends which men and which women.
At that level the main thing is motivation. I've taught climbing classes, and some seem like natural climbers and some are complete klutzes. But you absolutely can't tell from that which ones will be the great climbers."
At 35 Blum, a biochemist at Berkeley, is a veteran of 17 years on the big mountains. She was on the first all-woman climb of McKinley in 1970 and the 1976 American Everest expedition. Last summer she led a team of women to the world's first ascent of Brigupanth, 22,218 feet, in India. But it was the conquest of Annapurna -- at the cost of two women's lives -- that first showed her leadership qualities.
It also coaxed from her a book that probably is unsurpassed as an anatomy of a Himalayan climb. For one thing, the photos put the reader on the ridges and slopes of the terrible mountain in such a logical way that one can follow every move, every problem. More important, "Annapurna, A Women's Place" reveals a climber's world that most of us barely guessed at.
Nobody climbs a Himalayan peak just once; you climb it five or six or a dozen times: up to Camp III with kerosene, down to Base to settle a strike by Sherpa porters; back up to Camp V with crampons. And all the time there is the problem of conflicts over leadership, over supplies, over routes and philosophies of climbing.
Some of the women wanted to keep the Sherpas from leading any part of the route; others refused to attempt the peak without them. The two women who died, Vera Watson and Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz, tried it alone from the highest camp and evidently fell down the steep icy pitch into a crevasse.
"It wouldn't have made the slightest difference if they'd had Sherpas along," Blum said.
Her own decision not to go to the top was made much earlier. Many leaders don't. It is not important. "People think Hillary climbed Everest, but there were 15 others who broke their backs for months to put him there. When the avalanches started I knew my job was to keep the group organized and get us off the mountain as safely as possible."
Annapurna is a cruel mountain, even for the Himalayas. Since it was first conquered in 1950 by Maurice Herzog, 12 expeditions have attempted it. Eight climbers reached the top; eight others died. Blum's team was bombarded by scores of avalanches, some two miles wide. At the Khumbu icefall on Everest, she had noted that climbing was safer in early morning before the sun hit the slopes. But here that didn't work. There was no safe time.
"It wasn't till a year later that I began to regret not having got to the top. At the time my job was obvious to me. But there's nothing like the thrill of leading a party, with that untouched world in front of you, and it's up to you to pick a way through the maze."
Women are gradually being accepted into climbing, she believes, though she refuses to be drawn into debates about all-women's groups and balanced teams (the problem there being that if you have one man and nine women, the man just naturally assumes that he'll lead). She plans to go to China next year for a major climb, and when she's not practicing on the California mountains, she jogs daily to keep an edge.
"A lot of academics and scientists climb," she said. "I work in science policy, on the causes of cancer, and you never seem to finish anything, there's always another experiment, another test. But with a mountain, you can climb it and that's that."
Still, she doesn't recommend Annapurna to the hopefuls who come to her for advice. It's dangerous, she says. And if Arlene Blum says it's dangerous . . . it's dangerous.