SAN JOSE, Calif. — It did not exactly rival Mallory’s epic rejoinder when the British mountain climber was asked why he wanted to scale Mount Everest: “Because it’s there.”
But the slogan that San Francisco Bay-area women who were part of an American climbing team splashed on fundraising T-shirts for the first all-female assault on one of the world’s tallest peaks captured the spirit of the feminist movement — and their expedition — in 1978: A woman’s place is on top/Annapurna.
Just as women were beginning to test the so-called glass ceiling in the workplace, 10 intrepid American women broke through the ice ceiling, ascending one of the 8,000-meter peaks that beckon many serious climbers. The expedition was led by Arlene Blum, a biochemist at UC Berkeley, and when the summit was successfully scaled, one of the two women on top was Irene Beardsley, then a physicist at IBM in San Jose. They were not only the first all-female team to climb an 8,000-meter mountain, but they also were the vanguard of the first American team to conquer mighty Annapurna I in the Himalayas.
The distinction resonates powerfully for the women to this day, both for their legacy of accomplishment and the staggering cost at which it came. Two members of the team, including Vera Watson, Beardsley’s co-worker at IBM’s San Jose labs, died in a fall while attempting to match Beardsley’s feat.
Last week, Blum, now 68, was back in Nepal, where she trekked with her daughter, Annalise, for nine days “in the shadow of Annapurna” and recalled the team’s triumphal but “bittersweet” ascension to the summit.
“I remember the avalanches and ice falls and our youthful optimism that we could climb the mountain safely and successfully,” she said from her campsite near Ghorepani, “and establish that a woman’s place was on top of Annapurna, or anywhere she chose to go.”
Beardsley, now 78 and still living in the same Palo Alto home she occupied at the time of the expedition, had her first dizzying experience with great heights when she saw the Grand Tetons on a family trip to Wyoming as a girl. After enrolling at Stanford, she joined the university’s Alpine Club. Before Annapurna, Beardsley twice climbed Andean peaks in Peru, reaching 22,000 feet through snow and ice. “I really loved it,” she said.
So Beardsley was a bit taken aback by the reaction of Nick Clinch, president of the Stanford Alpine Club, when she excitedly told him of the plan to scale Annapurna.
“He said, ‘Are you out of your mind?’” she recalled. Clinch, now 83, had led the first American team to successfully climb an 8,000-meter peak — Gasherbrum I in 1958 — and his concerns turned out to be prophetic.
Blum’s selection of the mountain her team would climb, while not entirely sound logically, at least conformed to the idea that this was a quest undertaken by women. Annapurna translates from Sanskrit as “goddess of harvests,” which Blum considered “kind of poetic.” She also considered it a plus that at 8,091 meters, or 26,545 feet, it was only the 10th-highest — and the first successfully scaled — of the 8,000-meter peaks.
“So I thought it would be less demanding than some of the higher ones,” Blum said. What she didn’t know, because the mountain had been climbed so few times at that point, was that Annapurna soon would earn a reputation as the most treacherous of the 8,000-meter peaks, with the highest fatality rate of all because of its avalanches.
“Compared to other 8,000-meter peaks,” Clinch says now, “that mountain is an avalanche trap.”
As of March 2012, 61 climbers had died on Annapurna, compared with 191 successful ascents — a ratio of one death for every three successful bids.
Fun without men
The expedition would cost $80,000, and Blum hit upon an unconventional way to finance the trek — although the idea would have been familiar to any PTA mom. The group sold 10,000 T-shirts; with additional support from the National Geographic Society, the expedition arrived at base camp in Nepal in late August 1978.
At the outset, the joy of being with a group of other like-minded, high-spirited women trumped any doubts Beardsley might have felt.
“Clearly, there was pressure,” she said. “None of us wanted to look bad. But it was a chance for all of us to go on a trip where we didn’t have to answer to men who didn’t really want you there. Until we got to the mountain, we were just having a wonderful time without a man around, telling us what to do.”
Men were around — a small army of them — but they were Nepalese Sherpas, porters, cooks and even mail carriers, whose job it was to transport 6 tons of food and supplies across 80 miles of mountainous terrain to the base camp. Beardsley recalls the quizzical looks on the Sherpas’ faces when they first encountered the 10-woman team.
“In the beginning, they thought the whole thing was pretty strange,” Beardsley said, “and they weren’t sure we could do it.”
Midway through the climb, a pair of storms hit, triggering waves of avalanches. Beardsley spent three days waiting for the storms to pass on an escarpment called Dutch Rib, huddled with a teammate in a small tent in the chute between two avalanche tracks.
“We were watching these things go by,” she recalled, “and we were running out of food. We began to get very depressed about it all.”
The entire team convened one more time before a smaller party was selected for the summit, and Beardsley was among several women who spoke openly for the first time about quitting.
“I don’t know if you could say we seriously considered it, but we discussed stopping,” she said. “It was like everybody was frightened, but we just felt like we wanted to do it and go home.”
Blum, who climbs the hills near her Berkeley home between expeditions, allowed everyone to share their feelings.
“Being a group of women,” she said, “it was really important to us to talk everything out, for everyone to be happy. I think our team really wanted to bring everyone along, and to take the time to talk things out, so we were all in agreement.”
There was considerably less agreement about the climbers who would attempt to reach the summit on Oct. 15. Beardsley, Vera Komarkova and Piro Kramar — attended by three male Sherpas — were selected by Blum, but Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz declared herself most fit to meet the challenge. She would have to wait two days for her chance to make it to the top.
Two at the top
On the morning of the record-breaking ascent, Kramar, an ophthalmologist, feared two of her fingers were becoming frostbitten, and bowed out.
Slogging through heavy snow at 26,000 feet, Beardsley and Komarkova reached Annapurna’s pinnacle, figuratively planting a flag for America and female climbers.
“Being first is best because there’s always an element of the unknown,” Clinch said. “You sort of think you know everything, but it’s always in the back of your mind that you really don’t know what you’re getting into.”
Two days after the successful summit, Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz and Watson, roped together, disappeared while climbing for the summit. Their bodies were later discovered at the bottom of a 2,000-foot drop, still roped together. One had fallen, taking the other with her. Their bodies remained on the mountain, and their names were added to a memorial for the dead at the base of the mountain.
Clinch said that no climb of the world’s great peaks should be judged by those who don’t make it. “What they did took organization, technique, skill, plus tremendous courage and determination,” he said. “And they brought it off. They deserve a huge amount of credit for that.”
“A woman’s place is on top” had been a whimsical way of acknowledging their ambition, the women’s movement, even the sexual revolution. It had never occurred to Blum that they might leave two women forever at the top of Annapurna.
“It’s never worth climbing a mountain if you lose people,” she said. “And losing two friends is the worst thing of all. When I’m asked did we conquer the mountain, I say, ‘You never conquer a mountain. You stand on the summit a few brief moments, and then the wind blows your footsteps away.’”