Talking with A conquerer of mountains and more

Name: Arlene Blum
Age: 68
City: Berkeley
Credentials: Founder of Green Science Policy Institute, enviornmenal activist, author, chemist, world-class mountaineer

J.: You led the first all-woman ascent of Alaska’s Mount McKinley (1970) and the first successful American ascent of Nepal’s Annapurna I (1978), also an all-woman effort. And you were the first American woman to attempt Mt. Everest (1976). How did you get into trekking?

Arlene Blum

Arlene Blum: I was raised in Chicago by Orthodox Jewish parents who didn’t want me to go to the beach because it was too dangerous. So I went to Reed College in Oregon and took up mountain climbing as my P.E. class. Living in Portland, I discovered mountains. It was a big change and I was always very curious. I wasn’t allowed to have adventures and mountain climbing was a great opportunity for that.  I saw the movie “Endless Summer,” about the Beach Boys going around the world looking for the perfect wave, so I decided I would go around the world for 15 months looking for the perfect mountain.

J.: And where was the perfect mountain?

AB: (Laughs). I don’t know. I liked them all. We climbed in Iran while the shah was in power; saw beautiful mountains in Afghanistan and Ethiopia — all these countries that now have big problems. In those days it was pretty unusual and there were not that many Americans doing this.

J.: What did you learn in those 15 months?

AB: What I learned is that you can have a dream: Draw a line on a map and then make it a reality. As a grad student earning $200 a month, I saved every penny. I didn’t have anyone to go with, but I advertised and found people. If you really want to make things happen, you can.

J.: You got your Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology and were instrumental in getting the flame retardant, Tris, out of children’s pajamas in the 1970s. Did being a climber help you to attain these goals?

AB: I always say I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I were not a mountain climber because each thing I undertake people say, “That’s impossible” and that I could never do it. Hard mountains seem that way, so it’s kind of a familiar thing.  Climbers are very persevering. You put one foot in front of the other and plod up the mountain. The work I’m doing now [as the executive director of the Green Policy Institute] feels very similar. You have a team of people, a shared vision of where you are going and trek up the mountain irrespective of storms, avalanches and whatever comes your way.

J.: What started your crusade against flame retardants?

AB: In the mid-70s, a friend who was an environmentalist died while we were climbing in India. I was really depressed and wanted to do something for the environment. I was a post-doc teaching at Stanford and … I went to a U.C. Berkeley professor who had been on my oral committee and he said he was worried about the flame retardants that were in kid’s pajamas.  He thought the chemicals were getting into the kids, and they were.

J.: You took 26 years off science to raise your daughter and walk across the Himalayas. In 2006, you started advocating to get flame retardants out of furniture. It was a long battle, and the California law banning them went into effect Jan. 1. What has it been like returning to the science world?

AB: With my previous experience, we discovered there was a cancer-causing flame retardant and that it was getting into children. We wrote a lead article in Science magazine and it was picked up by the three major networks. Every parent knew about it and they were gone in three months.  That was my sense of what should happen with furniture. So I came back 26 years later and saw the same chemical used in our couches. I thought I would tell everyone and it would be gone in three months. That was seven years ago. It was kind of a shock.

J.: You wrote a memoir, “Breaking Trail” (2007), about your Orthodox upbringing in the heartland while you were raising your own daughter. How do you relate to Judaism now?

AB: The book is kind of like a detective story of discovering the history of my crazy Jewish family. I was raised Orthodox and kind of rebelled against it. When I came to Berkeley, I discovered Jewish Renewal; I went to a  High Holiday service and cried through the whole thing. Women were able to touch and hold the Torah, say prayers and I was so moved. If you are raised Orthodox, there’s kind of a type of bigotry — at least the way I was raised. But I have a really strong Jewish identity.

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Abra Cohen