Book Review: Breaking Trail

(Last Updated On: April 17, 2010)

Title: Breaking Trail

Author: Arlene Blum

Year: 2005

Arlene Blum’s Breaking Trail is a book that I felt I could relate to on so many uncanny levels. Although Blum was never a skier, she was a high-altitude mountaineer. Her collection of adventures includes her childhood in the Midwest, a huge desire to leave the area where she grew up, choosing to focus her major in Chemistry, playing in the mountains, traveling to exotic places, and taking part in male-dominated fields such as mountaineering and chemistry —all things which I have done in my own life. Despite my obvious bias, Breaking Trail is a great book for any mountaineer as it takes place when the sport was being revolutionized. This novel is also a great inspiration for any woman trying to find her place in a male-dominated world.

Blum speaks openly throughout her novel. From her harsh childhood with a depressed mother, over-protective grandparents, and a father who abandoned her to her many love interests in college, the mountains, and beyond, Blum tells her stories retrospectively. Readers can tell that certain issues have plagued Blum throughout her life and that writing about them has allowed Blum to come to a sort of reconciliation with these events.

Blum clearly lived a life full of adventure. Some of my favorite stories included her accounts of leading all women’s treks up Denali (1970), Annapurna (1978), and Bhrigupanth (1980). I also enjoyed Blum’s account of her Peak Lenin attempt (1974), full of amusing cultural encounters being that the peak was located in Russia during this Cold War era. Also engaging was Blum’s tale of her Endless Winter, where she and her friends traveled around the world, peak-bagging in remote countries like Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, and Iran.

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While Blum’s climbing career was met with much success, like many high-altitude mountaineers, Blum found herself surrounded by death. Blum’s first loss was that of her love-interest, John Hall, and three of her other friends in and avalanche on Mt. St. Elias. Accidents would continue to plague Blum, with 15 people perishing on Peak Lenin, two of her team-members dying on Annapurna, and another love interest, Bruce, falling through a cornice on Trisul in India. Each loss was not taken lightly by Blum and she often reflected upon the risks of the sport she loved. Eventually, Blum decided she’d had enough loss in her life and shifted her mountain adventures away from high-altitude to long treks. In 1982 she traversed the Himalaya from Bhutan to the Pakistan border.

Throughout the novel, Blum tried to balance her climbing life with her professional world. Blum studied chemistry and biochemistry and then began researching the structure of tRNA. Eventually, Blum’s research shifted to protein folding. Blum’s research in these areas laid the foundations for further discoveries in biochemistry. However, as Blum began to experience other cultures, she decided to reevaluate the goals of her research. Blum wanted to “do practical research that would have a direct positive impact on the world” (Blum, 228). Blum began studying whether certain substances were cancer-causing. Because of her revolutionary research, Tris, a flame retardant used in many children’s clothes, was discovered to be a carcinogen and was finally prohibited. Blum’s career continued to shift. Leaving her cancer research behind, Blum eventually found herself leading trekking trips in various countries.

Another theme inherent in Blum’s novel is the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated world. Blum’s first encounter with this was in her childhood, where women weren’t supposed to be good in math or science. But, the Cold War gave new focus on education, allowing Blum to explore these subjects deeply. This theme extended even into her own orthodox Jewish religion, where women weren’t supposed to pray. Blum continued to fight battle after battle. An MIT professor told her, “We’ve never given a girl a PhD in physical chemistry. And we never will” (Blum, 30), yet Blum earned her PhD from Berkeley. She was turned down from various climbing permits and climbing trips, based on the premise that she was a woman, a tall woman, a Jewish woman, and an outgoing woman. Yet, Blum prevailed through it all, continuously fighting against the tide. Blum’s actions, both in the world of climbing and the field of chemistry, helped open future opportunities for women.

Breaking Trail is the story of Arlene Blum. Although Blum’s novel is an excellent historical account of many climbing tales during a time when the sport was quickly progressing, her novel is so much more. Blum’s constant encounters with hurdles that she must overcome, from being denied privileges based on the fact that she was a woman to the many losses she had to face, turns this story into one of inspiration. Blum climbed these peaks too, and it’s a story worth reading.

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Brittany Walker Konsella

Aside from skiing, biking, and all outdoorsy things,Brittany Walker Konsella also loves smiles and chocolate 🙂 Even though she excels at higher level math and chemistry, she still confuses left from right. Find out more about Brittany!

Brittany Walker Konsella

Aside from skiing, biking, and all outdoorsy things, Brittany Walker Konsella also loves smiles and chocolate :) Even though she excels at higher level math and chemistry, she still confuses left from right. Find out more about Brittany!

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