Apart from the cool slogan and great design, this shirt is distinctive for a couple of other reasons. I don’t have any other shirts in this color (what is it? “rust”?), and it’s one of the few I have in what used to be called “French cut” and now seems to be “women’s,” as opposed to “unisex.”

No, I wasn’t on the 1978 American Women’s Himalayan Expedition to Annapurna. I’ve never had any desire to climb anything that required more than the ability to walk upright. I first learned about the expedition when expedition leader Arlene Blum’s gorgeous book about it came out in 1980. Though the story went places I’d never been, it started in instantly recognizable territory: with the sexism and outright misogyny of the male mountain-climbing elite. I also recognized the powerful determination of women adepts in any male-dominated field to show the men that they are wrong.

I bought the T-shirt when Dr. Blum spoke in D.C. What year was it? I don’t remember, but I’m guessing 1981. Where did she speak? I don’t recall that either. Was I already working at Lammas then? I’ll only know that if I can find an exact date for the event. For sure it didn’t take place at the shop, whose 400 square feet of selling space were far too small for talks and readings. Where did it take place? Once again I’m drawing a blank.[1]

My indelible memory is of Arlene Blum herself, or, more accurately, of my impression of her. In my mind’s eye she has long wavy dark hair, as she does in the Annapurna photos. She is tall, but she seems dressed to look smaller and younger than she is, in a purple and black dress that stops several inches above her knees. She’s trying to look like a schoolgirl, I thought at the time.

Which probably wasn’t her intent, and her dress may not have been purple and black either, but that’s what struck me: this physically and emotionally strong and highly intelligent (she had a doctorate in biochemistry) woman seemed to be downplaying all the traits that made her achievement possible. I’m guessing that she wasn’t nearly as comfortable with the whole book tour routine as she was organizing expeditions, climbing mountains, and doing research — building and leading teams rather than speaking to strangers whom she’d never see again.

By this time, I’d read and devoured Adrienne Rich’s collection The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977. I know this for sure: I wrote my name and “Sept. 78” on the flyleaf of the book, a trade paperback that split along the spine maybe three decades ago from repeated readings. It includes Rich’s 1974 “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev,” written for the leader of an all-women team that perished in a storm on Lenin Peak in August 1974. Narrated in Shatayev’s voice after death, it includes lines from the diary she wrote while she was living, like these:

Now we are ready
and each of us knows it   I have never loved
like this   I have never seen
my own forces so taken up and shared
and given back
After the long training   the early sieges
we are moving almost effortlessly in our love[2]

Visiting Arlene Blum’s website just now, I noticed a link for “Peak Lenin” in the Mountaineer section. The year was 1974. The coincidence of place and year gave me goosebumps, but the accompanying slide show was even more startling: Arlene Blum and her climbing buddies and Elvira Schatayeva and her team, along with other mountain-climbers, were all at base camp at Peak Lenin at the same time. Arlene was almost caught by the same storms that killed the Russian women. The slide show includes images of Elvira, known to her friends as Eva.

A cable of blue fire ropes our bodies
burning together in the snow   We will not live
to settle for less   We have dreamed of this
all of our lives

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notes

[1] To further confuse my already flummoxed memory, I just Googled Arlene Blum Annapurna Washington Post. This turned up a Washington Post story from December 9, 1980, that had Blum in town for an American Alpine Club meeting. This would have been shortly after the book came out. Did she give a public talk then, and did I attend it? If so, I definitely wasn’t working at Lammas, and it might explain why my sketchy memory of the venue doesn’t ring any bells. Another story, from April 1983, refers to a lecture Blum has just given, but it and the article itself focus on her 2,000-mile trek from one end of the Himalayas to the other. The talk I attended was definitely about Annapurna, so I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that one.

[2] Both this and the quote at the end are from Adrienne Rich’s “Phantasia for Elvira Shatayev,” in The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978).

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