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Authors: David Roberts

True Summit (11 page)

So began what Terray would call the “fantastic up-and-down ballet” of establishing a series of camps on Annapurna and hauling gear and food to them. During the week that followed, the strongest team member was Terray. A close second, however, was Herzog himself. There is no reason to doubt the leader's own self-appraisal in this matter in
Annapurna.
When it came to taking the lead and plowing through deep snow up avalanche-prone slopes, getting the tents pitched at a new campsite, and maintaining the high morale needed to counter the team's setbacks, even the accounts of his teammates confirm that Herzog was a paragon. A sample entry in Lachenal's diary, from May 28: “Couzy and I descended once more to Camp II. There we found Momo [Herzog] in great form.” Terray recorded a discussion with Herzog on the day before, in which the leader bemoaned his teammates'
low spirits: “His own form at around twenty-three thousand feet, by contrast, was very hopeful, and he still felt confident of victory as long as the daily snowfalls did not exceed six to eight inches.”

A
T
31 the eldest of the six principal climbers on Annapurna, Maurice Herzog had grown up in Lyon. His father was an engineer and a casual alpinist who had served in the French Foreign Legion in World War I. Wounded in battle, he had been repatriated to Toulouse, where he met Herzog's mother. The couple eventually had eight children, of whom Maurice was the first. In a telling phrase embedded in the memoir he published in 1998, Herzog reflected, “As the eldest, I felt myself invested with the mission of guardian of order.”

That memoir, titled
L'Autre Annapurna
(
The Other Annapurna
), appearing in Herzog's eightieth year, represents only the second personal narrative to flow from the pen of France's most famous mountaineer. During the intervening years, Herzog had co-authored a picture book with Marcel Ichac about the expedition, called
Regards vers l'Annapurna
(
Looking at Annapurna
) and issued a historical tract titled
Les Grandes Aventures de l'Himalaya
(
The Great Adventures of the Himalaya
). There are some passages of considerable power in the memoir, particularly those recounting with fresh detail the agony of Herzog's retreat from the mountain and his convalescence in the hospital.

In sum, however,
L'Autre Annapurna
is a feeble performance, riddled with parables of character-building and self-congratulation, marred by an unfortunate predilection for name-dropping. Nonetheless,
L'Autre Annapurna
stands as the primary source for Herzog's youth and early adulthood. In his full celebrity, the leader of the 1950 expedition would blossom as a man of consummate charm and personality. Women found him irresistible: his looks were often likened to Clark Gable's. It is interesting, then, to learn that at eighteen, Herzog thought himself not only “taciturn and introverted,” but a veritable misogynist (his own word). Everything feminine, everything to do with romantic love, seemed to him soft
and weak. His heroes were Wagner's Lohengrin and Siegfried; his masters, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer.

Just like his teammates Lachenal, Rébuffat, and Terray, Herzog discovered Chamonix early in life, thanks to a family chalet at the foot of the Glacier des Bossons, which spills northeast from the summit of Mont Blanc. On solitary excursions, he explored the wonders and terrors of the great glacier, graduating to more and more ambitious ascents of the granite peaks and aiguilles that tower above it.

Chamonix was Herzog's “little native land,” but school took him increasingly to Paris, where he earned his
baccalauréat
in mathematics and philosophy and an advanced degree in business from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales. In 1945, just as Terray and Lachenal were becoming Chamonix guides, Herzog was hired as a director at Kléber-Colombes, the mammoth tire company.

Herzog thus remained firmly an “amateur” in mountaineering. In his memoir, he recounts an exchange with Terray, whom he had befriended in Chamonix. Terray asks Herzog why he doesn't want to become a guide.

“I suppose I could,” he responds, “but I wouldn't enjoy squeezing money out of the mountains. Living off what I love.”

“Nature is nobler than offices and labs and factories,” retorts Terray.

“Exactly! A passion should remain free.”

“For Christ's sake,” bursts out the guide, “the point isn't to make money, but just to get by!”

“There's another reason,” Herzog adds. “I would think that being a mountaineering professional means endlessly repeating the same routes. Isn't that tiresome? And finally, a true burnout?”

“Yes, but you can constantly change clients.”

As so often in
Annapurna,
here, with Terray's meek rejoinder, Herzog in effect gives himself the last word.

In any event, in the 1940s Herzog became a good but not a great alpinist. With his usual bluntness, Terray addresses the question in
Conquistadors
as he acknowledges the fact that the choice of Herzog to lead the Annapurna expedition “caused a great deal of
argument both then and later. . . . The objections were mostly on the grounds that he had done none of the greatest ascents of his day, and could therefore not be considered one of its leading climbers.” Still loyal in 1961, Terray counters the objections by insisting that Herzog had “made himself into a good rock climber; and above all he was a complete mountaineer with all the right qualities for the Himalayas.” Moreover, Terray insists, “If Herzog's selection was justified on technical grounds, it was even more so on intellectual and human ones.”

In
L'Autre Annapurna,
Herzog dances all around the question of just what level of ability he attained as a climber. The gulf between Herzog's expertise and that of the three Chamonix guides, however, emerges somewhat inadvertently in the book. Herzog devotes thirteen pages to an exciting account of what must have been his greatest climb in the Alps: the 1944 first ascent of the Peuterey Ridge on Mont Blanc via the north face of the Col de Peuterey, with his brother, Gérard, and Rébuffat and Terray. The epic ascent culminates in a summit dash in the midst of a violent lightning storm, as the four men avoid a potentially fatal bivouac.

Reading between the lines, one realizes that the
cordée
of Rébuffat and Terray led virtually the whole climb, with the brothers Herzog trailing behind on a second rope. In
L'Autre Annapurna,
Herzog calls the climb “the greatest ascent in the Alps” (to date). Though a highly creditable new route, the Peuterey Ridge was not in the same class as the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses or even Terray and Rébuffat's first on the Col du Caïman. In
Conquistadors,
Terray relegates the Peuterey ascent to a single sentence. Rébuffat seems never to have bothered to write about it.

Another key to Herzog's makeup lies scattered through the pages of
L'Autre Annapurna.
At the age of seventy-nine, long after Rébuffat's radical aesthetic of the mountains as an “enchanted garden” had gained the day, Herzog still automatically conceives of ascent in martial terms. He speaks of his youthful climbs as “victories” and “conquests.” One passage is explicit: “Adventure is a war. It determines the character of the combatant, who pledges at every instant his very existence.”

War, indeed, has been central to Herzog's conception of himself,
and long passages in
L'Autre Annapurna
detail his deeds in the Résistance and later as a captain of a high mountain troop. Unlike Terray, with his epiphany after the battle of Pointe de Clairy, Herzog felt no ambivalence about the war against the Germans. He had only contempt for the collaborators of the Vichy regime.

Herzog's account of the actions in battle of his alpine comrades-at-arms is unabashedly heroic. Terray puts a slightly different spin on his friend's role in the war:

As a newcomer he was not treated with any great respect by the leaders of the A.S. [the
Armée Secrète,
or underground army]. He was so annoyed by this that, although he had no affiliations with the Communist Party, he turned, on the rebound, to the F.T.P. [the left-wing
Francs Tireurs et Partisans,
or French Partisans and Riflemen]. They were short of men, and Herzog was received with open arms and made a captain.

According to Terray, though beseeched by Herzog to join the F.T.P., Rébuffat wanted no part of a communist outfit. Terray himself also declined, since he then “was not very impressed by all the muddles and internecine quarrels of the new army.” For the time being, Terray tolled on as a farmer in Les Houches.

In recent years, amidst the blizzard of revisionism around Annapurna 1950, several French journalists have tried independently to verify the particulars of Herzog's war record. Some have concluded that there is little evidence that the captain performed many of the campaigns he claimed in
L'Autre Annapurna.
By their very nature, however, the underground army and other fugitive battalions of the Maquis left little to document their activities. Perhaps on this question—as on the vexed issue of whether certain famous ascents were in fact hoaxes—one must start from the principle of taking a man at his word. There is no denying the fact that Herzog received two citations of the Croix de Guerre after the war. Nor is there any reason to doubt that his opposition to the Nazis was as fierce and steadfast as that of his general and mentor, Charles de Gaulle.

Oddly enough, while purporting to be an intimate memoir,
L'Autre Annapurna
tells us relatively little about Herzog's personal life. There is not a word in the book about either of his marriages, nor about his four children. From
Who's Who in France
and assorted clippings, we learn that in 1964 Herzog married a countess with the imposing name of Marie-Pierre de Cossé-Brissac, with whom he had a son (now deceased) and a daughter; and that in 1976 he married an Austrian woman named Elisabeth Gamper, who bore him two more sons. In a recent interview in the magazine
Sport et Vie,
asked about his family life, Herzog avowed, “I've always taken my role as a father seriously. In fact, I try to be an ordinary human being. I don't want my children to be proud of having a well-known father.” Herzog went on to describe the “hell” that—according to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whom Herzog knew well—her own children had endured as the offspring of the famous aviator.

So guarded has Herzog been about his private life that, paradoxically, we know less about this most famous mountaineer in French history than we do about his colleagues Rébuffat, Terray, and Lachenal. The habit of self-concealment seems to have set in early.

H
ERZOG
'
S MEMOIR
does offer certain details of the Annapurna expedition that, while agreeing in their general outlines with the narrative in
Annapurna,
cast new light on the famous ascent. In the very first pages of
L'Autre Annapurna,
Herzog insists that his selection by the Himalayan Committee as leader of the expedition was unanimous, and that he in turn chose the rest of the team. Herzog alludes to two leading candidates who were vetoed by the committee, and one who was accepted only on probation.

One of the most famous Chamonix guides, Herzog states, was excluded because he demanded to be paid for his participation on the expedition. The cognoscenti, puzzling gleefully over this aspersion in 1998, agreed that Herzog must have been referring to Armand Charlet, a generation older than Terray, Lachenal, and
Rébuffat and otherwise an obvious choice for Annapurna. About the identity of the second anonymous rejectee, impugned by Herzog for his “excessive character,” the experts were divided. The canard was too vague to point unambiguously at one member of the celebrated company, though the name André Contamine was raised more than once.

Herzog then let slip his juiciest insider gossip:

The fate of another of the best-known [Chamonix guides] was resolved by conditionally accepting him. In case of any major difficulty during the expedition, I had the absolute power, without appeal, to send him back to France, that is, to banish him. I never had to exercise this clause (which some might judge rather leonine) because—despite what was apparently divulged much later—everyone conducted himself as a true comrade on the mountain.

Vague though these bureaucratic sentences sound, expert observers almost unanimously agreed that they referred to Lachenal. “Despite what was apparently divulged much later” seems an oblique disclaimer of Guérin's edition of the
Carnets.

If so, one wonders whether Lachenal knew that he was under probation on Annapurna, and that Herzog was ready to send him home at the first sign of rebellion. In any event, the tensions and the barely checked contempt that sprinkle the candid passages in Lachenal's diary give vivid testimony to the strain under which Herzog's knights of the sky prepared to launch themselves toward Annapurna's summit.

D
URING THAT LAST WEEK
of May, Terray became a demonic workhorse. Most of the arduous trail-breaking that gave the team access to the upper slopes of the north face was performed by him or Herzog. Terray later recalled those days of grueling effort.

I was trudging on like a sleep-walker, just as on those occasions when I had shot my bolt by doing too many climbs in succession as
a guide. But for all that I was in no mood to give in, and could still find the energy to curse the others when they slumped down exhausted.

In
Annapurna,
Herzog saluted Terray's indomitable spirit: “He was an invaluable man. I know of no one in France who comes nearer to being the ideal member of an expedition.”

Having established Camp II, with Herzog, at 19,350 feet, Terray volunteered for a thankless task. There was not enough room in the tents at this “poor little camp” for the Sherpas, who had carried loads behind the trail-breaking of the two Frenchmen, and it seemed unsafe to send them down on their own past teetering seracs and avalanche slopes. So Terray accompanied them back to Camp I, from which an easy trail in the snow allowed the Sherpas to descend all the way to Base Camp. Meanwhile, Terray bivouacked alone, without a tent, at Camp I, preparing to climb again to II in the morning.

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