Of Annapurnas and Men: Maurice Herzog’s Epic Lives On

Just over sixty-four years ago, on June 3rd 1950, a pair of French mountaineers, Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal, stood on the summit of Annapurna, the world’s tenth highest peak. It was the first time mountaineers had succeeded in climbing a peak above eight thousand meters altitude. The French pair’s trials and travails were not over; their painfully extended return back to safety was a harrowing one, featuring snow-blindness, frostbite, and several missing fingers and toes (amputated on the go, without anaesthetic, and using only crude surgical implements, by the team’s doctor).

Thanks to Herzog’s best-selling book Annapurna, a classic of adventure literature, these details are familiar to those that follow the exploits of mountaineers. Despite my keen interest–a purely academic one as I have no ability whatsoever–in mountaineering, I had not read Herzog’s book till earlier this week, when, by a fortuitous coincidence, I finished reading it on the sixty-fourth anniversary of his summit climb.

There are good reasons for Annapurna‘s standing as a classic. Herzog’s tale is told with verve: the unforgiving harshness of the Himalayan peaks, which contrasts so starkly with their beauty, is a constant presence, as is the bravado and technical competence of the men who attempt to climb them. The book’s language shows its age in part: a post-colonial reader might object to some of the language used to describe the native Sherpas, who so ably assisted the French in their climbing, often performing brutal, back-breaking work in ferrying loads, setting up camp, and assisting the injured, and of course, there is  talk of ‘doing battle’ with, or otherwise ‘conquering’, the mountains. But these are exceedingly minor blemishes in a mostly lyrical tale of pioneering bravery.

Mention of pioneering reminds me that while a great deal of attention has justifiably been paid to the physical toll the beautiful but deadly mountains exacted on the French, much deserves too, to be centered on their initial reconnaissance of the Annapurna-Dhaulagiri pair of peaks. As a reminder: while these two peaks were known to surveyors and map-makers, they had never been traveled to, let alone attempted. Not only did Herzog’s expedition have to find a route up the mountain, they had to find a route to the mountain. The chapters in the book that detail these attempts are as engrossing as any other, bringing out clearly the peculiar and particular challenges the topography of the region posed for the French expedition’s route-finding attempts. An eight thousand meter peak is a huge object, and yet, finding it, and getting to it, is a non-trivial task when it is surrounded by natural barriers like deep river gorges and seven thousand meter peaks.

Modern mountaineering is a very different business from the activities undertaken in Herzog’s day. Some changes, like light, fast, Alpine-style climbing using minimal equipment, are desirable, while yet others like the guided climbs that have justifiably become controversial, remain far less so.  Annapurna also reminds us of a very different era, when mountaineers were still cultural heroes of a sort.

Classic adventure books are often tinged with a touch of the spiritual and inspirational. Annapurna is no exception, especially in its immortal closing words, as Herzog reconciles himself to the achievement of a long-desired goal and turns toward a new life, one bound to be different given his experiences and physical losses:

There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.

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