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Authors: David Roberts

True Summit (10 page)

At 4:30 the following morning Lachenal and I once more formed the partnership which had so often brought us success. . . . We were back on our old semi-divine form, each reacting to the other so as to double his normal skill and strength almost in defiance of the laws of nature. In this supercharged state we literally played with the obstacles, running up them like cats.

The climbing, however, was harder than either man had anticipated, and snow flurries and clouds made the going all the more tricky. One pitch that Lachenal led, on steep rock coated with a skin
of ice called
verglas,
was rated, both men agreed, Grade V—a very stiff pitch for that era in the Alps, and almost certainly the hardest passage that had ever been climbed at an altitude of more than 18,000 feet. At the end of the day's probe up the spur, the indomitable Terray wanted to bivouac and continue on the morrow, but Lachenal talked him into descending.

Lachenal's own diary entry for May 18, written that evening or the next morning, rather than after an interval of eleven years, bears none of the ebullience of Terray's account. No hint of any nostalgic glow at the reuniting of the old
cordée
emerges in Lachenal's laconic phrases. Instead, he is fretful and dubious. A chilling sleet makes the rock-climbing more hazardous, and a traverse across rotten slabs seems “extremely exposed.” On the descent, Lachenal notes, the pair make three dangerous rappels, two of them anchored by bad pitons. The sleet turns to steady snow. The two men regain their camp on the moraine “completely soaked.”

Given the difficulty of the climbing, Lachenal wanted no more of the Northwest Spur. But the stubborn Terray had only grown more optimistic in the face of the severe pitches he and Lachenal had so skillfully led. Against Herzog's objection that the team could never get the Sherpas up the spur, he argued that (in his own words) “with the aid of eight or ten fixed ropes it would be perfectly possible to get Sherpas up to the point we had reached, and probably also to Point 19,685 ft., since the snow ridge did not look particularly difficult.”

Herzog was evidently convinced, for after a rest day, he spent the next three days climbing with Terray to push the route up the Northwest Spur. Both men grossly underestimated its difficulty. “In the event,” wrote Terray ruefully in 1961, “it took Maurice and me three days of top-class climbing to reach even the first pinnacle of a fantastic ridge of purest snow lace, utterly invisible from below.” Four days of brilliant gymnastics had pushed the Frenchmen only into a cul-de-sac nearly 7,000 feet short of the summit. “We were beaten again. Days of mortal combat had led us to no more than an unheard-of little summit.”

In 1961, with his decade of big-range mountaineering behind him, Terray could see his pigheaded enthusiasm for the Northwest
Spur as the folly it was. In
Conquistadors,
he was unsparing: “What ignorance of Himalayan conditions! What an accumulation of errors of judgment!”

Yet for all that, Terray retained a certain pride in his effort on the spur: “Nothing will ever surpass those desperate days when I gave myself up to the struggle with all the strength and courage at my command.” To this day, the full Northwest Spur remains unclimbed.

H
ERZOG
'
S OWN ACCOUNT
of the five days of wasted effort exemplifies his penchant for the retrospective I-told-you-so. In
Annapurna,
he presents himself as skeptical from the start about the Northwest Spur. In the face of his demurrals, “Lachenal and Terray stormed away at me. They thought we ought to decide to attack at once, and kept on insisting that this was the right route.” The leader chalks up the pair's “wild enthusiasm” to “a very excitable state after their day's climbing.”

“I've no intention of hazarding the whole strength of the expedition on a route we know so little about,” Herzog quotes himself as saying. Yet as if to humor Terray, he agrees to the three days' push on the spur. In his detailed account of the fierce climbing the duo performed, Herzog seems to lapse into the same blithe enthusiasm as the headstrong guide. Yet at the high point, staring at their defeat, he concludes: “No long discussion was necessary. Even if no other obstacle cropped up to hinder our progress . . . it would have been madness to launch an expedition on this route.”

The true skeptic regarding the Northwest Spur was undoubtedly Rébuffat. Despite his lanky, acrobatic grace on vertical rock, the guide from Marseille saw the spur as a seductive distraction from the start. To him, the self-evident best hope of attaining the relatively low-angled north face of Annapurna was to climb the glacier that sprawled west from unseen basins to the very foot of the spur. Even as Terray and Herzog flailed away at the difficult pitches on the spur, Rébuffat set off with a now-disillusioned Lachenal to scout a route among the crevasses and seracs. The choice of line of attack was Rébuffat's, and it turned out to be a sublimely
canny piece of route-finding, leading without major difficulties up to a snowy plateau from which the north face began to unfold.

For the rest of his life, Rébuffat harbored a bitterness toward Herzog for not sufficiently acknowledging the critical jump-start in the expedition's fortunes that his reconnaissance up the glacier had provided. Writes Ballu, his biographer:

Rébuffat felt a great satisfaction at his discovery of this “favorable and rational” itinerary. Thanks to his instincts, he had, he thought, perfectly exercised his métier as guide, by finding this route that, on the face of it, would become
the
route.

Indeed, in
Annapurna,
Herzog seems to appropriate the intuition of the glacier route from Rébuffat, crediting himself with ordering the reconnaissance:

As I looked once more at the glacier, and the enormous icefall down below, I felt in my bones that if there were a way up Annapurna, that was where it lay. So another plan began to take shape in my mind. Rébuffat and Lachenal . . . [would] attempt to force a way—which to all appearances would be found along the right bank—up the glacier to the plateau.

Having topped out on the plateau at 11:15
A.M.
on May 22, Lachenal and Rébuffat immediately scribbled a note for the Sherpa Adjiba to carry down to Herzog. Though it is not clear which man wrote the note, Lachenal gives its whole text in his diary, and the impatient exhortations of its closing lines sound like that most driven and impetuous of climbers:

Come up, and bring supplies as quickly as possible, for we are expecting good weather and a solid route almost certainly climbable in a few days. Come en masse with all the Sherpas and the maximum food and gear. We think we need to act very fast.

So too does Lachenal's voice speak in the single ironic sentence the
note contains: “The sluggards are ready to dash.” The context of the remark is obscure. Had Herzog earlier denigrated some of his teammates as “sluggards”? No epithet could have more sharply insulted Lachenal, who seemed to run on sheer nervous energy, and it would have been like the man to throw the derogation back in Herzog's face.

Immediately after quoting the text of the note, Lachenal wrote in his diary, “We are very happy. Today is the first day in the Himalaya that I felt this much pleasure.”

During the previous week, in fact, Lachenal had often been in a terrible mood, wracked with annoyance and irritation, lashing out at what he perceived as the idiocies of his teammates. On May 19, he noted of a campsite ordered by Herzog: “A huge waste of time, which disgusts me.” Of a parallel reconnaissance of the glacier along its left-hand side, ordered by Herzog and undertaken by Schatz, he remarked, “an exploration that seemed completely ridiculous to me.” (Both passages were suppressed in the 1956 edition of
Carnets.
)

Over another campsite that Lachenal favored but Herzog disdained, a “bitter altercation” raged. On May 20, still bent on attacking the Northwest Spur, Terray and Lachenal had hiked up through a snowstorm to find Rébuffat and Herzog lolling in their tent at the foot of the spur at 10:00
A.M.
Lachenal exploded in fury: “What the hell are you doing here?” he demanded.

“Can't you see the snow?” one of the “sluggards” rejoined.

“We've seen it as much as you! More than you, since we've been climbing since dawn to get here.”

Lachenal persisted in his tirade, calling his teammates “a bunch of schoolgirls” and “weaklings.”

Rébuffat protested, “It would be crazy to go up in this. I have no desire to ‘come off' here.”

“We'll show you who's going to ‘come off'!” Without another word, Lachenal flung himself at the dangerous first pitch, climbing with a reckless abandon born of his anger.

Curiously, this scene appears not in Lachenal's diary, but in
Annapurna.
Though Herzog marvels at Lachenal's skill, he is dismayed by his fury. “I wasn't at all happy,” Herzog writes: “it
seemed to me that it was wrong to take such risks in the present conditions.” In the end, the tableau, which on the surface of it takes the chance of painting the author and his fellow sluggard Rébuffat as not as tough or daring as the stalwart
cordée
of Lachenal and Terray, serves to build up a portrait of Lachenal that subtly accretes through the book—of a genius-madman of ascent, unmatched at sheer ability but nearly devoid of judgment, his impetuous rages driving him beyond reasonable human limits.

M
ARCEL
S
CHATZ AND
J
EAN
C
OUZY
were a
cordée
as well, though a far less experienced one than Terray and Lachenal. Only a couple of years younger than the three stellar Chamonix guides, these two were “amateurs” like Herzog. Couzy, who hailed from the Southwest of France, was a promising aeronautical engineer; Schatz, a Parisian, was a physicist who earned his living as manager of one branch of his father's tailoring business.

Schatz would quit mountaineering altogether less than a year after Annapurna. After turning thirty, he returned to his research, which he performed so capably that he eventually had a hand in the development of the French atom bomb.

Couzy, on the other hand, went on to become one of the greatest mountaineers of his generation. On Makalu, the world's fifth-highest peak, in 1955, he was the “tiger,” the climber whose will drove the whole party to success on the only other 8,000-meter peak first climbed by Frenchmen.

In 1950 on Annapurna, however, these two alpinists played a largely supporting role, accomplishing important reconnaissances (including the key penetration of the Miristi Khola), but leading virtually none of the pitches on the mountain itself. (They would, to be sure, participate in a heroic act of rescue on the descent.) Perhaps the pair were simply in awe of the three great guides; perhaps they were further intimidated by the strong personalities of their four elders. (Along with the others, moreover, they had sworn unflinching obedience to Herzog.) Couzy in particular never seemed fully to acclimatize. In all the accounts of the expedition, he lurks in
the background, a silent collaborator who gets along with his teammates by never thrusting his own character to the fore.

Whether or not in recognition of Couzy's poor form on the mountain, as the team at last came to grips with Annapurna, Herzog took the young engineer aside and said, “Couzy, you are going to have a thankless job.” He then ordered the twenty-seven-year-old to take charge of the grunt work of organizing the porters and Sherpas to carry their loads to a permanent Base Camp at the foot of the north face. The chore would take days, and Couzy would have to hump loads himself, while his five teammates soared across untrodden terrain above.

In
Annapurna,
Couzy responds to this disheartening directive with staunch loyalty: “It certainly doesn't sound much fun, but if the job's really got to be done . . .”

Herzog praises the self-sacrifice of this youngest knight of the sky:

He did [his job] to perfection and without a single word of complaint, although he knew that, when the final attack was launched, he would not be sufficiently acclimatized and so would lose the chance of being on it. It is this admirable spirit of self-denial which determines the strength of a team.

Couzy's private thoughts on this matter have escaped the record. But in 1999, Couzy's widow, Lise, told this writer, “It was Marcel [Schatz] and Jean who found the passage [up the Miristi Khola] in a very tight valley. Herzog later said, ‘
We
decided. . . .' But it was Marcel and Jean who found it.”

Choosing her words cautiously, Lise Couzy added, “When you bring together men like this on an expedition, there are always problems and disagreements. Jean was correct with Herzog, but there was not an affinity between them. They did not have the same passions. Herzog was not an enemy, but he was not a great friend, either.”

What with the loss of five days on the Northwest Spur, it was not until May 23 that the team established Camp I, at an altitude of
16,750 feet—a discouraging 10,000 feet below the distant summit. Herzog had received a radio bulletin about the weather farther south, in India. In
Annapurna,
he gives voice to the hectic urgency the whole team now felt: “The arrival of the monsoon was announced for about June 5.
We had just twelve days left.
We'd have to move fast, very fast indeed.”

Now Lachenal, hitherto so cranky and out-of-sorts, was seized with a fervent optimism. In his diary on May 22, with no rational reason to make such a sanguine judgment, he wrote, “Finally today we sense that victory is very close—as long as the weather stays good. . . . Life is beautiful.”

“An astonishing sight greeted me next morning,” wrote Herzog. “Lachenal and Rébuffat were sitting outside on a dry rock, with their eyes riveted on Annapurna. A sudden shout brought me out of my tent: ‘I've found the route!' cried Lachenal.” As Herzog watched and listened, Lachenal linked features on the icy face above, which glittered in the sun, while Rébuffat—ever the skeptic on this expedition—raised doubts and problems that Lachenal brushed aside. The debate ended on an upbeat note. “A hundred to nothing! Those are the odds on our success!” pealed the genius-madman of Herzog's portrait. Of the route Lachenal had sketched in the air, even the dubious Rébuffat conceded, “It's the least difficult proposition and the most reasonable.”

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