Read True Summit Online

Authors: David Roberts

True Summit (3 page)

“Why not?”

I listened to the careful disquisition that spilled from Michel's lips, first in shock, then in dismay. It is a hard thing to have one's hero of forty years' standing dismantled before one's eyes.

The essence of what Michel told me was as follows.
Annapurna
was nothing more than a gilded myth, one man's romantic idealization of the campaign that had claimed the first 8,000-meter peak. What had really happened in 1950 was far darker, more complex, more nebulous than anything Herzog had written. I found myself resisting Michel's strictures: historical revisionism is an all too faddish trend of the day, especially in France.

Michel persisted. Before they had left France, the members of the expedition had been required to sign an oath of unquestioning obedience to their leader. This was not news to me, for Herzog had mentioned that pledge in his book, even recording the somewhat timid acquiescence of his teammates: “My colleagues stood up, feeling both awkward and impressed. What were they supposed to do?”

What I didn't know before that evening in Morzine was that, along with the oath of obedience, the team members had been required to sign a contract forbidding them to publish anything about the expedition for five years after their return to France. During those first five years, by prearrangement, the only version of the Annapurna story that might emerge would be Herzog's.

As soon as the moratorium expired, Lachenal had made plans to publish an autobiographical memoir, to be called
Carnets du Vertige
(
Notebooks of the Vertiginous
). The book had come out in 1956. Years ago, I had found a copy in a used book store in the States. (
Carnets
has never been translated into English.) The last quarter of the book consists of Lachenal's diary from Annapurna. As I read it, I perceived no real discrepancy between his account and Herzog's, except that Lachenal was a far more laconic, down-to-earth narrator than his vision-haunted leader.

Now Michel told me that, just as
Carnets
was going to press, Lachenal had been killed when he skied into a crevasse on the Vallée Blanche above Chamonix. I knew all about that too-early death of one of my Annapurna heroes, but nothing about what its timing signified. As soon as Lachenal had died, Herzog had taken charge of the manuscript and turned it over to his brother, Gérard, for editing. In the process, both Maurice Herzog and Lucien Devies—the president of the Club Alpin Français and the man who had devised and administered the oath of obedience to the Annapurna team—carefully combed the text. Among the three of them, they pruned Lachenal's account of every scrap of critical, sardonic, or embittered commentary the guide had penned. The published
Carnets du Vertige
was a sanitized, expurgated whitewash.

In Chamonix, Michel had befriended Lachenal's son, Jean-Claude, who for decades had held the original manuscript that his father had written. Though furious at Herzog's intercession, Jean-Claude was deeply torn in his feelings, for on Lachenal's death, Herzog had assumed the role of
tuteur
to the bereaved family—an official post mandated by French law. The same man who betrayed his father's truth took Jean-Claude and his brother on many a childhood forest walk and supervised their rocky passage through a series of schools.

After years of friendship and discussion, Michel had persuaded Jean-Claude to let him publish an unexpurgated version of the
Carnets.
The book would be out in a few months; already it was causing a stir in mountaineering circles. At the same time, journalist Yves Ballu was about to publish the first biography of Rébuffat, to be called
Gaston Rébuffat: Une Vie pour la Montagne
(
Gaston Rébuffat: A Life for the Mountains
). Ballu had received the full cooperation of Rébuffat's widow, Françoise, who had enjoined her husband not to write about Annapurna in his lifetime. In particular, Ballu would benefit from Gaston's long and acerbic letters to Françoise from the expedition, and from private notes and marginal commentaries he had jotted down in subsequent years.

The upshot of Rébuffat's and Lachenal's uncensored commentaries, Michel told me, was to paint an utterly different picture of the 1950 expedition from Herzog's. According to Lachenal and Rébuffat, the team had been frequently and rancorously divided; Herzog's leadership had been capricious and at times inept; and the whole summit effort and desperate retreat lay shrouded in a central mystery.

Herzog himself, now the father figure of French mountaineering, was about to undergo a scrutiny that would deeply trouble his old age. The grand fête of French celebration, so long anticipated, on June 3, 2000—the fiftieth anniversary of the summit—might turn instead into an
agon
of reappraisal. As the only survivor among the six principal climbers, Herzog would have every chance to get in the last word. But would his most eloquent protestations silence the posthumous oracles of Rébuffat and Lachenal?

Among the cognoscenti of French mountaineering, Michel told me, there had long been murmurs and doubts about Annapurna; but few if any of these hints had leaked abroad. Certainly before this evening I had never heard a gainsaying word about Herzog's
Annapurna.

Listening late into the night to Michel's disquisition, I felt my shock and dismay transmute into something else. The true history of Annapurna, though far more murky and disturbing than Herzog's golden fable, might in the long run prove to be an even more interesting tale—one fraught with moral complexity, with
fundamental questions about the role of “sport” in national culture, perhaps even with deep veins of heroism quite different from those Herzog had celebrated.

The revelations from the grave of Lachenal and Rébuffat, Michel suggested, might be only the tip of the iceberg. What really happened on Annapurna 1950—and everything that issued from that cardinal triumph of mountaineering—was a story that had never been told. As a narrative, it promised to bear a closer kinship to Melville's
Billy Budd
than to the Hardy Boys. As we sat stirring our coffee in Morzine, I realized that Michel had led me to a story that, no matter how hard it might be to separate the “truth” from all the layers of ambiguity in which it lay cloaked, cried out for a chronicler to grasp and tell it whole.

TWO
Resistance

W
HY WAS
M
AURICE
H
ERZOG THE LEADER
of the 1950 Annapurna expedition? His record of ascents in the Alps was strong, but not of the very highest rank. Among French alpinists a decade or more older than Herzog, two in particular—Pierre Allain, the driving force on the first ascent of the stern north face of the Petit Dru, and the superb Chamonix guide Armand Charlet—might have seemed more qualified for leadership. Among Herzog's contemporaries, Lachenal, Terray, and Rébuffat had all made more and bolder climbs.

The reasons for the choice of Herzog as leader were several, the consequences far-reaching. By 1950, there was already an established tradition of heading up Himalayan expeditions with men
whose expertise at overland travel or whose proven record of commanding others outstripped their abilities as technical climbers. In 1924, for instance, George Leigh Mallory was the sole man who had twice before attempted Everest and he was unquestionably Britain's finest mountaineer. Yet Mallory was passed over for leadership of the fateful 1924 expedition, on which, with his young partner Andrew Irvine, he would vanish into the clouds above 28,000 feet. Instead, fifty-eight-year-old General Charles Bruce, whose main qualifications were an extensive knowledge of India and long service in the army, was put in charge. Even after a malarial attack forced Bruce to abandon the expedition, another climber, Colonel E. F. Norton, was designated leader ahead of Mallory.

The choice of leader for a Himalayan expedition was usually made by some national advisory body of senior mountaineers and explorers. In Britain, that group was the Mount Everest Committee, an ad hoc assemblage recruited chiefly from the ranks of the Alpine Club. In France, the body was the Comité de l'Himalaya (or Himalayan Committee) of the Club Alpin Français (CAF), dominated by the autocratic Lucien Devies.

The rationale behind choosing a leader such as General Bruce was that logistical acumen and tactical judgment were more vital to the role than climbing ability. In addition, it was tacitly understood that a less-talented mountaineer might more readily submerge his own ambition and choose the strongest pair of teammates for the summit attempt. Herzog, however, had less experience at logistics, less mountaineering judgment than men such as Terray and Rébuffat; and on Annapurna, Herzog would prove every bit as ambitious to reach the summit as his comrades.

Another factor at play in the Annapurna expedition—all but obsolete today, but powerfully felt from the origins of mountaineering in the Alps in the 1780s all the way through 1950—was the distinction between guides and amateurs. The guide was a professional, born in the mountains where he earned his living, steeped in the nuances of weather and snow conditions. The amateur was a man who lived elsewhere, who climbed for pleasure and passion in his spare time. Even though amateurs such as Edward Whymper on the Matterhorn or Alfred Mummery on the Grépon
had spearheaded the finest climbs performed in the second half of the nineteenth century, they routinely climbed with guides. Well into the twentieth century, many pundits considered it scandalous and irresponsible to undertake “guideless” climbs.

At the heart of this distinction lay a class bias. Guides were hired hands, technicians of rock and ice, closer in status to rural artisans than to the urbane milieu of the gentleman alpinist. It would never do, then, to entrust the leadership of a Himalayan expedition to a guide. Terray, Rébuffat, and Lachenal were guides. Herzog was a Parisian (born in Lyon), an executive in Kléber-Colombes, a tire manufacturing company: in short, everything that a mountaineering amateur ought to be.

Finally, and most importantly, Herzog was Devies's good friend. Both men were staunch Gaullists. Terray and Rébuffat had served as soldiers during World War II, but Herzog had been a captain, commanding a battalion of volunteers against the Nazis in several heroic campaigns. Of such stuff, the Himalayan Committee concluded, leaders were made.

This class bias is overt in the preface Devies contributed to
Annapurna:
there he characterizes the redoubtable Terray and Lachenal as “locomotives,” as if all one had to do on the mountain was fire up their boilers and set them in motion. In contrast, Herzog is a saint of conquest: “Spending himself to the limit, reserving for himself the hardest tasks, deriving his authority from the example he set, always in the vanguard, he made victory possible.”

With Devies pulling the strings offstage and Herzog in charge of the expedition, Annapurna was conceived as a grand nationalistic effort. Devies, one of the foremost French climbers of the 1930s, was highly sensitive to the prevailing notion that France had done next to nothing in the Himalaya. And in 1950, the whole country still lay mired in the humiliation of World War II—a once-proud nation conquered so easily by the Third Reich, liberated not so much by the Résistance as by the Allies.

Even before the war, in 1939, Devies had written an essay called “Alpinisme et Nationalités.” A bizarre mélange of chauvinism and defensiveness, the piece makes for fascinating reading in
the light of Annapurna. At the time Devies wrote, the two “last prizes” of the Alps had recently been plucked, with the first ascents of the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses and of the north face of the Eiger, both in 1938. The former had fallen to a strong team of Italians led by the visionary Lecco cragsman Ricardo Cassin; the latter to a pair of Germans and a pair of Austrians (including Heinrich Harrer, later the author of
Seven Years in Tibet
) who had met by chance low on the wall and joined forces.

In his essay, Devies is aggrieved that these formidable walls had fallen to foreigners, for, he insists, “Today in France there are certainly climbers of the same quality as the best Germans and Italians”—adding parenthetically, “(I count the Austrians as Germans).” He enumerates the usual excuses for his countrymen: bereft, for instance, of playgrounds such as the Dolomites in which to learn their craft, the French lagged behind their rivals in the mechanics of aid-climbing with pitons. With war clouds gathering, Devies notes disdainfully that Hitler had publicly congratulated the Eiger foursome, Mussolini the victors on the Walker Spur.

Devies's polemic ends with a clarion call to French mountaineers to match the deeds of those foreigners, who would, within the year, become their literal enemies in war. Throughout his essay he contrasts French and German cultural attitudes, arguing, for example that the French have the disadvantage of being slightly more cautious “because we do not attach any mystical value to death.” Instead, the best Gallic climbers, in contrast with their German and Italian peers, have “a much purer experience” in the mountains. “Their deeds are freer and more individual, they earn instead a truth that is personal and human.”

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