Monday, November 26, 2012

Annual New York Section Dinner Official Write Up by Susan Schaller

Enduring ...There is a wonderful, enduring sameness to the annual dinner ofthe New York Section of the American Alpine Club. It starts with the same location year after year -- the venerable Union Club on Park Avenue- many ofthe same faces (looking surprising and reassuringly unchanged)- and last but not least, the enduring high quality of the presentations.

This year's main speaker was Arlene Blum, notable in climbing history for being a groundbreaking woman mountaineer and the first and only woman to organize and lead the first ascent of an 8000 meter peak (which happened to be Annapurna, which holds the highest fatality rate per successful summit attempt of any of the Himalayan Goliaths).

Not incidentally, Arlene's resume includes other extraordinary factoids such as leading the first all women's ascent of Denali, on the compellingly titled, Damsels on Denali, and joining the team that made the second American ascent of Everest.

Arlene's presentation though takes on another layer of significance. While fascinating enough to hear her account of how she managed to break into the old boys' mountaineering club -- at a time when it was assumed that women lacked the emotional fiber and physical stuff to be mountaineers- Arlene's story offers a second track of how she broke into the old boys club of science. However, after earning a PhD in Biochemistry and pursuing post-doctoral work at Stanford, Arlene decided to put her scientific career on hold after her ascent of Annapuma and the death of her close friend, Bruce Carson.

Then about six years ago, Arlene decided to go back to science. The reason? Arlene had discovered a new mission- the fact that chemicals required by law to be put into children's pajamas supposedly to make the pajamas flame retardant are also carcinogenic.

This has become her mission: Of all of Arlene's many and impressive adventures, she considers this her biggest and most important role, dedicating herself to lobbying and working tirelessly to get this chemical banned not just from children's nightwear but also from common household objects such as furniture.

She faces vehement opposition from the chemical and furniture industries, and potentially even the builders as she expands her campaign to see whether building codes need to be revised. It's fair to say, that sometimes the greatest challenges come from human nature rather than Mother Nature.

Meanwhile, Arlene's presentation was preceded by the introduction of new members, acknowledgement of inspirational long time AAC members, and an auction which raised more than $10,000 for the Cliff Maloney Memorial Fund, which donates the money to young climbers to use to enable their dreams of climbing high peaks.

The "warm up" presentation could have been the evening highlight under other circumstances, with Mark Richey describing his alpine-style first ascent of the 7500 meter peak, Saeser Kangri II in the Indian Karakoram, which was the second highest unclimbed mountain in the world ( the highest unclimbed peak is in Bhutan and off limits for religious reasons). Even just getting to the base required navigating a steep gorge using fixed ropes. The experience ended happily, but not without the near death of Steve Swenson and his helicopter evacuation by the Indian Air Force.

The evening ended with a wonderful endearing sameness - great food and wine (duck breast was the entree on the menu), great friends, great fun, and of course, great presentations.

Susan Schaller

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