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Authors: David Roberts

True Summit (23 page)

BOOK: True Summit

Lachenal threw himself back into the mountains. In 1954, he was involved in a harrowing catastrophe, when a group of beginners he was leading got bombarded with tons of falling rock as they descended the Aiguille Verte. Lachenal's fellow guide, Alexis Simond, was killed beside him, and one of the beginners gravely injured. Yet even this memento mori failed to dampen Lachenal's enthusiasm.

In the summer of 1955, Lachenal agreed to climb Monte Rosa (at 15,217 feet, the second-highest peak in the Alps) with Herzog. In the 1956
Gérard Herzog claims the idea was Lachenal's:

Already in 1954 Lachenal had wanted to make a good climb with his companion from Annapurna. Then the circumstances had not been right; but now Herzog was in Chamonix, the weather seemed stable and fine, the moment had come. For both of them, this project had a great emotional significance.

Jean-Claude Lachenal remembers the “project” quite differently: “Herzog wanted the press along. My father said no, not with any publicity.”

After the climb, Lachenal wrote an account of it. This too was suppressed by Devies and Gérard Herzog in the 1956
remaining unknown until Michel Guérin rescued it in the 1996 edition.

Lachenal's narrative is full of his characteristic wit and candor.
And it confirms Jean-Claude's memory that the climb may have been concocted as a publicity stunt.

Thus we wanted to go into the mountains. This became known in Chamonix. Several friends wanted to join us; one of them wanted to make a photographic
the proceeds of which he would have donated to mountain rescue groups. Even with that aim, the project hardly pleased us. There was a moment of uncertainty, because it bothered both of us to turn down such good will.

On the typescript of Lachenal's account, a marginal annotation in Maurice Herzog's hand reads, “I propose to suppress”; the circled passage begins with “one of them” and ends with “such good will.”

Later, as the pair sets out from the mountain village of Macugnaga, Lachenal writes of the locals,

They gave us a welcome that I will not soon forget. Herzog and I could not pass through unnoticed, but their welcome was not that of stupid curiosity about pseudo-stars, it was the joy of
who love their mountains and are happy because other
have come from afar to admire them.

Herzog has circled “about pseudo-stars” and written in the margin, “propose to suppress.”

The two reached the summit at 7:00 or 8:00
on the second day. The moment awakened for Lachenal glimmerings of Annapurna:

It was perfectly clear, with a little wind. We had all the time in the world to dawdle. It would be difficult to describe our thoughts, except that all the bad memories had been wiped out.

On the typescript another hand, that of Lucien Devies, has circled the second half of the last sentence and written “No.”

In the end, not one line of Lachenal's account was published in the 1956
Instead, Gérard Herzog summarized the climb in two pages, whitewashing it: “The ascent unfurled without the
slightest incident.” The account ends with a different summit moment:

As on Annapurna, they said nothing of their buoyant feelings, which forebade the slightest word. Their gazes crossed in a flash. Each one cast a furtive glance at the short little boots of the other. Jubilant, Lachenal smiled.

By 1955, Lachenal was climbing at near his pre-Annapurna level. He was still only thirty-four years old. Terray had started going off every summer on an expedition. In his absence, André Contamine became Lachenal's regular partner.

In the spring of 1955, when the five-year interdiction against publishing any account of Annapurna expired, Lachenal now set out to write a memoir of his climbing life, with his version of Annapurna as the centerpiece. He had guarded his diary, and he appealed to an acquaintance, Philippe Cornuau, who had just come off a landmark first ascent on the Droites and was in need of a spell of recuperation, to help him. Lachenal had never had much confidence in his writing ability, thinking his style too crude and down-to-earth. Cornuau was a professional freelance writer, contributing regularly to
Réalités, L'Express,
and other journals.

“He was in a hurry to get it out,” recalls Cornuau. “We didn't have quite the same idea of the book. Lachenal wanted a quick book, I wanted a more ambitious one. I thought, there are very few biographies of climbers. I knew Lachenal's reputation as a breakneck daredevil was inexact. I wanted to produce a personal, psychological account of a climber's life.”

By September, the men were working regularly together. Word of the project got out. At one point, Lachenal showed his manuscript to Rébuffat, hoping the stylish writer Gaston had become could help him improve it. According to Françoise, Herzog called Rébuffat: “He was crying on the telephone, for fear Gaston would help the
to get published.” Indeed, by the autumn of 1955, Lachenal and Cornuau had secured a contract from the Parisian publisher Pierre Horay.

On November 25, 1955, Lachenal prowled the streets of Chamonix
looking for a friend to join him on a ski outing. It was his notion to take the
up to the Aiguille du Midi, then ski down the Vallée Blanche all the way to the town of Montenvers. It was a cold, wintry day with a violent wind, but Lachenal had his heart set on his project. His good friend the ski champion James Couttet turned him down, saying, “I have to do some painting on my house.” Lachenal sought out Elisabeth Payot, but she had had a recent foot operation. “Call up your brother,” said the impatient guide.

So it was Jean-Pierre Payot who accompanied Lachenal up to the cable car station on the Midi. Forty-four years later, Payot remembers that day. “We went down a snowy couloir, chatting easily, to the Vallée Blanche. The wind and cold were pretty bad. Lachenal said, ‘It dopes you a bit—gets you going.'

“We arrived at the first seracs. It was blowing in our faces. We had no goggles in those days. We started out skiing, unroped. The last thing Lachenal said was, ‘Il y a le pêt.' ” The remark, in local patois, means, “The wind's so bad it's dangerous.”

“I was only two meters ahead of him,” Payot continues. “In the moment it took to turn around, I heard the sound of his aluminum skis clacking against the ice as he went down. That noise stayed in my head for ages.”

Lachenal had broken through a snow bridge and fallen into a hidden crevasse. Had the pair been roped, he might have been saved—but the Vallée Blanche was Lachenal's backyard, where he had performed many more dangerous exploits than this swift ski descent.

“I heard him fall. Then there was silence. Later we learned that he had suffered
le coup de lapin
—the way you kill a rabbit. He'd hit the back of his head, breaking his neck. Lachenal was forty-five meters down. I shouted, but there was no answer. I thought, what should I do? In my despair, I thought, maybe I should just jump into another hole, and nobody will ever find us.

“Instead, I climbed back up to the
station.” (This ascent, in howling wind, through loose snow, was a superhuman feat.) “The station was closed when I got there, so I traversed a
thousand meters to the cosmic ray research hut. The hut keeper was as drunk as a lord. I kept trying to explain, but he understood nothing. I asked to use the telephone. ‘No, it's not working,' he said. Finally I got through at 11:00
Then I went back down to the crevasse to wait. I had taken bearings on the spot, so I wouldn't lose it.”

Payot's sister, Elisabeth, details the search effort. “It was minus 20 degrees Centigrade. The guides didn't want to go out, but all of Lachenal's friends went up.” Among them was Rébuffat.

Jean-Pierre: “Finally the others started to arrive. We burnt tires at the side of the crevasse, as a beacon. Somebody went down into the crevasse and tied Lachenal onto a rope. Then we pulled him out, put his body on a sledge, and pulled it all the way up to the Aiguille du Midi. We were down to Chamonix by 11:00

“Someone went to tell Adèle. She was prepared beforehand. She knew this was part of the mountain life.”

in the Chamonix cemetery, not far from the monument to guides killed in the mountains, which today names eighty-four victims between 1820 and 1995—including Lachenal. His headstone is a slab of brownish gray granite, on which appears a simple inscription, with no mention of Annapurna:






From the soil beside the stone sprout lilies and the gray-green plants the French call
corbeille d'argent.

In the journal
La Montagne et Alpinisme,
Herzog wrote an obituary for Lachenal. Generous and heartfelt, it nonetheless perpetuates the image of his teammate that
had advanced, of a driven genius just this side of madness:

He didn't live, he “burned.” Action intoxicated him, and at its approach, his impatience multiplied. . . . All those who knew him well knew his affectation for wishing to believe himself capable, with his appetite for action and enterprise, of pulling off at any given instant whatever piece of folly.

Herzog tips his hat, however, to Lachenal's blunt honesty. “With no evasions or prudence, he expressed the truth, even if that sometimes seemed cruel.” And he lavishes an encomium on the
Lachenal-Terray, “at its time, the strongest in the world.” Herzog remembers, “It was at once marvelous and touching to hear Terray affirm that his friend Lachenal was the most gifted alpinist he had ever seen, and to hear Lachenal say that Terray was the strongest alpinist he had ever heard anyone talk about.”

Yet the obituary cannot resist advancing the idea that with the reconstituting of their own Annapurna
on Monte Rosa, Lachenal's comeback reached its culmination:

Together, we produced the proof that the mountains were ours once more. When, five years before, we lay despairing side-by-side in the Chamonix hospital, thinking that never again would we rediscover these great joys of our lives, we could not have imagined so great a happiness, shared with one another.

Six years after Lachenal's death, in
Terray offered a more nuanced and wistful encomium for his best friend. “Lachenal was by far the most talented climber I have ever met,” Terray wrote, “and I would go so far as to say that at the height of his career his quality amounted to genius.”

Yet Terray was not fooled into believing that after his amputations Lachenal could ever fully regain his mastery. “Outside the mountain world he was like an eagle with clipped wings, ill-adapted to the humdrum life of society.” The loss of his toes, thought Terray, dictated Lachenal's increasing “eccentricity and bitter wit,” and explained his driving:

What he really sought in the intoxication of speed was escape from the human condition which he now felt so heavily. Once he had
poised over the fall of cliffs with the lightness of a bird, and it hurt him to be transformed into a blundering animal like the rest of us. Behind the wheel of his car he seemed to recapture those instants of heavenly grace.

Terray set his hopes not on Lachenal's return to alpine mastery, but on his acceptance of his limitations:

Yet wisdom seemed to be coming with the years. Already he was driving less madly, and it had begun to look as though he would soon resign himself to being a man like any other. The affectionate father he had always been was getting the better of the panther of the snows. All the signs pointed to his ending up as a comfortable, well-known local citizen, looked on by all with affection and respect. Fate, however, had decided otherwise.

For Adèle, widowed with two young boys, practicing no profession of her own, the future promised to be hard. It was at this point that Herzog made a consequential intervention. In France, the legally recognized position of
—a kind of guardian, godfather, and benefactor rolled into one—had been established to ameliorate the lot of widows such as Adèle. Herzog offered to serve as
to the two boys, and she accepted.

Over the coming years, Herzog went for walks in the woods and ski outings with Lachenal's sons. He supervised their uncertain progress through a series of schools. He may well have given the family money.

L'Autre Annapurna
Herzog offers several vignettes of “my dear little angels.” These emphasize their unruly misbehavior, particularly that of the older son, Jean-Claude: threatening another boy with a razor, swinging a croquet mallet that hits a female TV star guest square in the face. Such delinquency Herzog softens as a boys-will-be-boys penchant for mayhem, but in a subtle way his handling of it extends to the next generation his conceit of Lachenal as an impetuous genius-madman. Herzog in fact quotes a schoolmaster, complaining about Jean-Claude's bullying of classmates, as seeing in the son “the very picture of his father when it comes to character.”

There is no evidence that Herzog took on the role of
to Lachenal's sons out of any Machiavellian motive. He seems, moreover, to have taken his responsibilities as guardian of those sons seriously. But at the same time as he sprang to the rescue of the family, he took over the preparation of
Carnets du Vertige
for publication.

Philippe Cornuau, Lachenal's collaborator, recalls how this happened. “Not long after Lachenal's death, Herzog told me to give the papers to his brother, Gérard. All of Lachenal's business was taken over by Herzog. At the time, I didn't protest. It seemed logical, for Herzog was the
I couldn't have finished the book alone. At first I helped a bit with the preparation of
And I didn't want to provoke any scandal by resisting—I didn't want people to say, ‘Cornuau is making a profit out of Lachenal.'

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