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Authors: David Roberts

True Summit (2 page)

BOOK: True Summit

We were on top of Annapurna! 8,075 meters. . . .

Our hearts overflowed with an unspeakable happiness.

“If only the others could know . . .”

If only everyone could know!

As he stood on the summit, Herzog was awash in a mystical ecstasy:

How wonderful life would now become! What an inconceivable experience it is to attain one's ideal and, at the very same moment, to fulfill oneself. I was stirred to the depths of my being. Never had I felt such happiness like this—so intense and yet so pure.

Lachenal, however, was in an entirely different state of mind. He shook Herzog, pleading, “Well, what about going down?”

His companion's impatience puzzled Herzog. “Did he simply think he had finished another climb, as in the Alps?” he wondered. “Did he think one could just go down again like that, with nothing more to it?”

“One minute,” Herzog spoke, “I must take some photographs.”

“Hurry up!”

Herzog fumbled through his pack, retrieving his camera and several flags. For long minutes, he posed with one pennant after another attached to his ice axe, as Lachenal snapped photos. Then Herzog changed from black-and-white to color film.

Lachenal exploded: “Are you mad? We haven't a minute to lose: we must go down at once.”

Vaguely, Herzog sensed that his friend was right. Glancing at the horizon, he saw that the perfect day had deteriorated. A storm was moving in—perhaps the leading edge of the monsoon itself. Yet Herzog stood there, unwilling to let go of his transcendent moment, lost in a whirl of emotions and memories.

“We must go down!” Lachenal cried once more, then hoisted his pack and started off. Still Herzog lingered, drinking a bit of condensed milk, taking a reading with his altimeter. At last he put on his own pack and followed Lachenal.

Of all the qualities that had made Lachenal such a matchless climber, it was his speed on difficult terrain that was paramount. Now Herzog watched his friend dash down the couloir, then hurry along the traverse beneath the rock band. Stumping downward far
more carefully, Herzog saw the gap between him and Lachenal grow.

At the base of the rock band, Herzog stopped to catch his breath. He took off his pack and opened it, then could not remember what he was about to do. Suddenly he cried out, “My gloves!”

To open his pack, Herzog had laid his gloves on the snow. As he watched, dumbfounded, they slid, then rolled toward the void below. “The movement of those gloves was engraved in my sight,” he later wrote, “as something irredeemable, against which I was powerless. The consequences might be most serious. What was I to do?”

of an 8,000-meter peak began to take its toll on the victors. In his trance, Herzog forgot all about the spare pair of socks in his pack, which he could have used as gloves: instead, he descended barehanded. The two men regained Camp V only just before dark, in the middle an all-out storm that severely reduced their visibility. Lachenal had slipped and fallen past the tent before scrambling back up to the shelter. Left to their own devices, Herzog and Lachenal would probably have perished there. But during the day, Rébuffat and Terray had climbed to Camp V, hoping for their own summit push on the morrow. As Terray seized Herzog's hands to wring them in congratulation, he was struck with horror. “Maurice—your hands!” he cried out.

“There was an uneasy silence,” Herzog later recalled. “I had forgotten that I had lost my gloves: my fingers were violet and white and hard as wood. The other two stared at them in dismay.”

Forgoing their own chance for the summit, Terray and Rébuffat stayed up all night brewing hot drinks for their comrades and whipping Lachenal's bare toes and Herzog's toes and fingers with rope ends, in an effort to restore circulation. (Because of the damage it does to frozen tissue and cells, the treatment is now known to cause more harm than help.)

The next day, as the storm increased its fury, the four men staggered down toward Camp IVA, just above the ice cliff of the
Sickle. But in the lashing whiteout they lost their way. With dusk approaching, carrying no tent and but one sleeping bag among the four of them, the men circled helplessly looking for a familiar landmark. A night without shelter would undoubtedly prove fatal.

Then Lachenal broke through a snow bridge and plunged into a hidden crevasse. The mishap turned into salvation. Unhurt, Lachenal called out to the others to join him. The snow ledge at the bottom of the crevasse would serve for an emergency bivouac.

Huddled together for warmth, shivering against the snow that relentlessly filtered into their clothes, rubbing each other's feet to ward off further frostbite, the four men spent as miserable a night as mountaineers have ever endured in the Himalaya. After two nights in a row without sleep, Herzog and Lachenal had neared the end of their endurance. In the morning, Rébuffat was the first to poke his head out of the crevasse. Terray anxiously inquired about the weather. “Can't see a thing,” Rébuffat answered. “It's blowing hard.”

But after Lachenal thrashed his way to the surface, in Herzog's words, “he began to run like a madman, shrieking, ‘It's fine, it's fine!' ” The day before, trying to find the route down, Terray and Rébuffat had removed their goggles. Despite the storm that smothered them, at an altitude above 24,000 feet the sun's ultraviolet rays had penetrated the murk and left the two men snow-blind. Rébuffat had mistaken the gray smear of his blindness for a ceaseless storm.

The weather was windy but clear. Yet now the four men faced a cruel fate: the blind could not lead the lame down the mountain. Pitifully, Lachenal began to cry out for help. The others joined in. And then they heard an answering call. It was Marcel Schatz, who had come out from Camp IVA to look for the companions he feared he would never see again. As Schatz clasped Herzog in his arms, he murmured, “It is wonderful—what you have done.”

Though the men were saved, the rest of the descent unfolded as a grim ordeal. At one point, Herzog and two Sherpas were swept 500 feet by an avalanche and partially buried. As the survivors approached Base Camp, even Terray—the sahib whose strength had made him a legend among the porters—had to be helped down the
mountain like a baby, his arms around the shoulders of a pair of Sherpas who held him up and guided his steps.

Herzog and Lachenal could no longer walk. During the next month, a succession of Sherpas and porters carried the men through mile after mile of lowland ravine and forest. Jacques Oudot, the expedition doctor, gave them agonizing daily abdominal injections of novocaine in the femoral and brachial arteries. It was thought at the time that the drug could dilate the arteries and, by improving the flow of blood, forestall the ravages of frostbite; today, the procedure is known to be worthless. As their digits turned gangrenous, Oudot resorted to amputations in the field. Eventually Lachenal lost all his toes, Herzog all his toes and fingers.

The team members arrived at Orly airport in Paris on July 17, where a huge crowd hailed them as heroes.
which owned exclusive periodical rights to the story, rushed into print a special issue, with a cover photo of Herzog hoisting the Tricolor on the summit, that broke all the magazine's sales records.

As he recuperated in the American hospital at Neuilly, Herzog, who had never before written a book, dictated his account of the expedition. Published the next year by Arthaud as
Annapurna: Premier 8,000,
the book at once became a classic. The story Herzog had brought back from the mountain was a stirring saga of teamwork, self-sacrifice, and—in the two-week push to the summit—brilliant mountaineering against long odds. The descent and retreat from Annapurna figured as a tragic yet heroic coda, which Herzog narrated in a peroration saluting the highest ideals of loyalty and courage.

What moved readers beyond all else in
however, was the transcendental optimism of the book. The euphoric trance that had seized Herzog on the summit persisted through all his convalescent tribulations. With only stumps left where he had once had fingers, for the rest of his life Herzog would find the simplest tasks—tying his shoelaces, buttoning his shirt—almost beyond him. Yet not a trace of bitterness or self-pity emerged in the pages of his book.

Quite the opposite. In the foreword, he wrote of his ordeal, “I was saved and had won my freedom. This freedom, which I shall
never lose, has given me the assurance and serenity of a man who has fulfilled himself. . . . A new and splendid life has opened out before me.” Of his brave teammates, he wrote, “My fervent wish is that the nine of us who were united in face of death should remain fraternally united through life.” And in the book's last pages: “Annapurna, to which we had gone emptyhanded, was a treasure on which we should live the rest of our days.”

The book closes with a line as resounding and memorable as any in the literature of adventure: “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.”

Fifty years later,
remains one of the canonic works in exploration literature. Published in forty languages, it has sold more than 11 million copies, making it the best-selling mountaineering book of all time. Though he would never again do any serious climbing, Herzog went on to become mayor of Chamonix and Minister of Youth and Sport under Charles de Gaulle. Today, at age eighty-one, he is the only surviving climber from Annapurna 1950 (the liaison officer, Francis de Noyelle, who never got above Camp II, also survives). In France, Herzog remains a household name, one of the country's eternal heroes of sport and exploration, in a league with the late Jacques Cousteau or Jean-Claude Killy. In contrast, as one mountaineering journalist estimates, only about five to seven percent of the French public has ever heard of Rébuffat, Terray, or Lachenal.

As for Herzog, the sense that despite—even because of—his personal tragedy, a marvelous new life had thereby opened to him seems to have tided him well into old age. In 1998, he published a memoir called
L'Autre Annapurna
The Other Annapurna
). In its opening pages, Herzog declared that nearly half a century after his “rebirth,” the sense of having discovered a new life still infused him with an “indescribable happiness.” He considered it his duty to share that revelation with his readers.

growing up in Boulder, Colorado, in the late 1950s,
came as a stunning revelation. Since the age of thirteen or fourteen, I had checked out of the public library a number
of classic Himalayan expedition narratives—Paul Bauer on Nanga Parbat, Sir John Hunt on Everest, and the like—and devoured their sagas of brave men at altitude. But mountaineering books were for me a kind of escape literature, not unlike the Hardy Boys mystery novels or Albert Payson Terhune's fables of faithful collies, such as
It never occurred to me, reading about Nanga Parbat or K2, that I might some day go on a mountaineering expedition myself.

hit me hard. By the time I read the book, at age sixteen, I had started hiking up some of the inimitable “talus piles” of the Colorado Rockies—shapeless lumps of scree and tundra strung along the Continental Divide, peaks such as Audubon, James, Grays, and Torreys. It took stamina to push on at 14,000 feet, and judgment to descend in the face of a July lightning storm, but I knew that what I was doing was a far cry from real mountaineering. Staring at a true precipice, such as the 2,000-foot-high east face of Longs Peak, I felt an ambivalent longing: surely it took the competence and arrogance of the gods to inch one's way, armed with ropes and pitons, up such dark landscapes of terror.

ratcheted that uncertain longing into full-blown desire. When I put down the book—swallowed in one sitting, as I recall—I wanted more than anything else in the world to become a mountaineer.

Over the decades, Herzog's narrative has had precisely that effect on an inordinate number of adolescents of both sexes. It might seem curious that a tale fraught with near-death, with fearful trials by storm and cold, and finally with gruesome amputations of fingers and toes turned black and rotting, should encourage any reader to take up the perilous business of climbing. Yet so exalting were the ideals that Herzog lyrically sang—loyalty, teamwork, courage, and perseverance—that rational apprehension was drowned in a tide of admiration. Those Frenchmen—Herzog, Lachenal, Terray, and Rébuffat—
gods, or at least mythic heroes.

So I became a mountaineer, and then a writer about mountaineering. In 1980, having survived thirteen Alaskan expeditions of my own, I wrote an article for the Sierra Club's semiannual journal
called “Slouching Toward Everest,” that tried to identify the finest mountaineering expedition books yet written, giving readers a taste of each. Summing up my roster of twenty-one classics, I concluded that
was the best of them all.

A decade and a half later, in February 1996, I met Michel Guérin for dinner in the French ski town of Morzine. A specialty publisher of mountaineering books based in Chamonix, Guérin and I had struck up an epistolary friendship based on many a mutual enthusiasm in the climbing world.

Our long evening's conversation took place mostly in French, for while Michel proved to be an elegant conversationalist in his native tongue, his spoken English tended to emerge in gnostic bursts of decidedly unidiomatic phraseology. Over our second Armagnac, the talk turned to
Michel reminded me of my paramount ranking of Herzog's book in “Slouching Toward Everest,” which he had recently read.

I nodded and said, “Don't you agree?”

It took a long moment for a wry smile to form around his cigarette; then he shook his head.

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