One of the things that sometimes annoys me about quite a lot of mountaineering writing is machismo: the equating of various attributes such as physical strength and endurance, single-mindedness and willingness to take risks, with virtue.
I’ve lost count of the number of expedition accounts I’ve read where the hardest route to the top is the only one worth considering, or those where a big argument happens between members of a team and the stronger members are invariably cast as heroes while the weaker or more cautious members are the clowns.
Of course, all of these accounts were written by men, which is why it’s always refreshing to read a woman’s perspective.
Sherry B. Ortner’s book Life and Death on Mt. Everest which I reviewed in this blog last year is about Sherpas, but it has a chapter about the emergence of women onto the Himalayan climbing scene in the 1970s. The context in this case is the women’s relationship with (predominantly male) Sherpa mountaineers.
Such a chapter would be incomplete without examining the very first all-women’s expedition to climb an 8,000m peak, the 1978 American expedition to Annapurna in Nepal.
That previous sentence is potentially contentious, but it shouldn’t be. Arlene Blum, leader of the expedition, was insistent that the team would use Sherpa support for safety reasons. But this meant employing men, because in 1978 there simply weren’t any women Sherpas with the mountaineering skills to support them. This led to one of the expedition’s many disagreements. All 13 women knew that by employing male Sherpas, there would inevitably be men in the climbing community who would say that women couldn’t climb Annapurna without their help.
Arlene Blum took the sensible decision to ignore such rubbish, but not all of her team agreed. Two in particular, Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz and Vera Watson, believed that they could only claim success as a women’s team if the summit team comprised only women.
In the end, Arlene compromised, a decision that was to have tragic consequences. The first summit team of Vera Komarkova, Irene Miller, Mingma Tsering Sherpa and Chewang Rinjing Sherpa reached the summit and descended without any major drama. Vera Komarkova and Irene Miller became the first women to climb Annapurna. Against her better judgement, Arlene allowed Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz and Vera Watson to make a second summit attempt a few days later without Sherpas in the team. Not only that, but they intended to reach the unclimbed central summit. They never returned.
Sherry Ortner described Arlene Blum’s book about the expedition Annapurna: A Woman’s Place as ‘one of the most extraordinary mountaineering books ever written’. So it might be, but I could no longer find it in print and had to go to AbeBooks to buy a second-hand copy. The edition I bought is A4 size and has a photo of team member Annie Whitehouse getting a big hug from her base camp manager while carrying an enormous pack that many of us would struggle to lift.
Extraordinary book or not, it’s certainly one of the more extraordinary Himalayan expeditions, which makes for an enthralling story. If nothing else, it remains one of the few expeditions in Himalayan history to have been mostly funded by T-shirt sales (you can still buy them on Arlene Blum’s website). But there is quite a lot else that makes it remarkable.
If Sherry Ortner can use superlatives to describe the book, then so can I. It has one of the most shocking opening pages of any mountaineering book I’ve ever read.
In just the first few sentences, Arlene described three examples of toe-curling sexism that she encountered as she established herself as a mountaineer: refusal to join an expedition because her presence would jeopardise the ‘easy masculine companionship which is so vital a part of the joy of an expedition’, a guide who believed that there were ‘no good women climbers’, and an expedition to Denali where women could join to help with the cooking chores, but were not permitted to climb.
Upon turning the page we learn that the great Sir Edmund Hillary believed that the problems with multi-national teams ‘pale into insignificance compared with those that can be brought about by a single woman in a party’. Irene Miller, who was also a member of Sir Edmund’s Makalu expedition team, was told that ‘if you want to climb with the expedition, you ought to be willing to sleep with all the men on the team’. She stayed at base camp.
If you expect a women’s expedition to be relatively free from conflict compared to a men’s or a mixed one, then it certainly wasn’t the case with the 1978 American Annapurna expedition.
One of the first conflicts arose at the start of the expedition while they recruited staff in Kathmandu. The team were keen to take some women Sherpas along to train as climbers for future expeditions. But the women chosen had no ambition to climb and ended up being used as kitchen staff, defeating the whole purpose of recruiting them. When they were dismissed at base camp, one of the women was so upset with Arlene that she threw a rock at her.
Later, there was internal dissent among the women climbers. A delegation was sent down from the higher camps to complain to Arlene about the Sherpas. They believed that the Sherpas were coasting and not doing their share of load carrying. But not all the women in the team agreed with this assessment. Vera Komarkova believed that the Sherpas were unhappy because they were only employed as load carriers, while the women members did all the leading and establishing the route. She believed that if the Sherpas were also given an opportunity to lead then they would be much more willing to carry heavier loads.
This undercurrent of ‘us and them’ boiled over later in the expedition when the Sherpas refused to follow orders. They became angry and descended to base camp during a crucial part of the expedition. Arlene resolved the dispute by agreeing to increase their pay. Sherry Ortner interpreted this altercation as men being unwilling to take orders from women, but as someone who has also been on the receiving end of a Sherpa labour dispute, I’m not so sure.
Through all this conflict, Arlene comes across as a moderate, well-balanced leader, able to put her own ambitions on hold for the benefit of the team, and willing to compromise to avoid conflict. As a writer, she successfully brings out the characters and you feel like you understand the various personalities and how they interact. She is honest about her disagreements with other members of the team, but she describes them with fairness.
There is no better example of this than the tragic denouement. Arlene didn’t feel that by employing Sherpas it took anything away from the achievements of the team, but it certainly made the expedition safer. After the first summit team returned, there were no Sherpas remaining to support a second attempt. The third remaining woman climber, 21-year-old Annie Whitehouse, realised that something was wrong; she sensed the summit fever in her companions and dropped out of the summit team, showing a wisdom and prescience beyond her years. Arlene did not want Alison and Vera Watson to go to the summit on their own, without support from other team members; she felt they were taking too great a risk. But she wasn’t an autocratic leader; they were determined, and she believed that she had to let them go.
The rest is history. The Sherpas did eventually return to the mountain to find out what happened to the missing climbers. The book explains the finale, but I won’t spoil it here; I will let you read it.
The women had proved a point, but not everyone accepted it. Arlene set up a memorial fund for Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz and Vera Watson, part-funded by ongoing T-shirt sales. Its purpose was to fund women climbers and give them the opportunities that were currently lacking.
A few months later, Arlene was accosted by a ‘venerable’ member of the American Alpine Club (AAC). Arlene spared his blushes and didn’t name him in the text. He objected to the fact that the fund supported only women.
He told her that:
Women are good at things like raising money and supporting climbing. But if you’re going to have a substantial fund, you should give a share of the money to the real climbers, to the men.
It would be nice to think that things have moved on since 1978. Of course, they have. But these attitudes still exist well into the 21st century. For example, there are people who believe that the Black Lives Matter movement means that black lives matter more than white lives. But its purpose is to support those who are disadvantaged by the present situation. The venerable AAC member didn’t understand that Arlene’s fund was set up for the same purpose. Men already had all the advantages.
There is a powerful passage in Vanessa O’Brien’s book To the Greatest Heights, published in 2021 about an expedition that happened in 2011. She described an incident that happened at Shishapangma base camp involving one of her teammates, a Canadian mountaineer with a high profile on the public-speaking circuit. Vanessa and the teammate argued about climbing conditions during a radio conversation with their expedition leader Mike Hamill (who is given the name ‘Daniel’ in the book). One of their Sherpas was asked to adjudicate, and he did so in Vanessa’s favour. As a result of the argument, her teammate called her a ‘fucking bitch’ and told her to ‘watch her back’. The words may well have been a throwaway line, but Vanessa had survived a difficult childhood that had taught her not to take such phrases lightly.
‘What did I really know about this guy? Only what I’d witnessed, and what I’d witnessed a moment earlier scared me.’
She took him at his word. She was sure this man whose pride she had wounded was going to sabotage her summit attempt by hiding the equipment she had cached higher up the mountain. Or something worse. For the remainder of their climb, she kept in close company with her Sherpa companion, and they raced up the mountain, determined to stay ahead of this climber who had threatened her. She didn’t relax until they were safely back at base camp with the summit bagged.
Some may read this section and feel that Vanessa was over-reacting, but others will read it and realise that words have consequences.
On a less dramatic note, earlier this year I had a feisty exchange on the platform formerly known as Twitter with a male climbing journalist who didn’t consider he was being sexist by comparing the achievements of women mountaineers against those of men. There is a reason men’s and women’s 100m races are separate events, and why men don’t compete in wrestling matches with bears: you’re not comparing like with like.
We are not yet where we need to be. In the meantime, we can all learn by reading these engaging accounts that provide a fresh perspective.