ANNAPURNA is not your run-of-the-mill New England foothill. It isn't even your average Himalayan peak. Annapurna is the tenth highest mountain in the world and is considered one of the toughest to scale, even harder than Mount Everest, the world's tallest.
On October 15 the first American team reached its summit. Notably, as the team would have you know, all ten members of the expedition were women.
The ten women, nine of whom are Americans, set off with six sherpas (Tibetan guides), 200 porters and 13,000 pounds of food and equipment in late August. After hiking 80 miles to reach the base of the mountain they began the ascent, setting up five base camps at progressively higher elevations. Struggling against blizzards and avalanches, only four of the ten members succeeded in topping the peak. Two died trying.
The point of the climb, according to University of California biochemist and expedition leader Arlene Blum, was to give women "the opportunity to participate from the very beginning in the organizing of an expedition because the leaders have always been men." The outcome--"I knew women could climb high mountains like this before I went and this reestablished it."
In many respects the ascent of Annapurna was not the first of its kind. All-female teams have climbed mountains before; leader Blum was deputy of a 1971 Mt. McKinley expedition. And a few have climbed in the Himalayas. What makes the Annapurna expedition unique, and what Blum emphasizes, is that for the first time women organized on their own.
And indeed the Annapurna expedition should receive attention. The members deserve admiration, but they deserve it more for being mountain climbers than for being female mountain climbers.
The mountaineers sought to prove that they are as able as their male counterparts, but to do so they segregated themselves. With that self-imposed separation they set up a distinction between themselves and the men. Ironically enough, such a distinction--any distinction--is contrary to the whole concept of equality. So to prove that men and women are equally capable of climbing mountains, the women believed they had to go it alone.
If their purpose was to establish equality between men and women, 'integrated' climbing makes much more sense than the 'separate but equal' attitude the Annapurna expedition represents. The men who would climb with women would be, in all likelihood, the last people to treat women as inferiors. Hooked up to the same 'lifeline' as the women during the climb, the men wouldn't entrust their lives to those less capable. On the other hand, if male climbers really do believe their female colleagues to be less qualified, climbing without men won't help no matter how well the women climb. Obviously, since there would be no men climbing in an all-female group, no men would witness the women's skillful ascent.
The same sort of argument holds for the views of the non-climbing public as well. It is all too easy to say, "that's great, for a girl" when women show they can climb on their own, or can do anything else on their own for that matter. What women should seek instead is just a "that's great."
Blum and her team insist that the time had come for women to organize and lead an ascent. This, also, is an absurd way to achieve equality. Skill, not sex should determine who leads a climb. If women have the requisite skill, fine. By all means they should be encouraged to gain leadership. But they also have to bear in mind that, as females, they are a climbing minority.
Mountain climbing pits the individual against the mountain, not you-the-man or you-the-woman but simply you the individual. By setting themselves apart, the Annapurna team typed themselves as you-the-woman climbers. And by going alone they only succeeded in defeating their own purpose.
MOUNTAINS are impervious and brutal without bias. They don't know who "conquers" them, not can they care. Which isn't to say that we shouldn't. On the contrary, mountain climbers deserve all the respect we can muster. The women who climbed Annapurna accomplished the incredible, not because they were women but because they were excellent mountaineers. After all, Annapurna isn't just another New England foothill.