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Authors: David Roberts

True Summit (5 page)

A famous aside in the book, titled “The Brotherhood of the Rope,” pushes that vision to a height of mystical ecstasy:

Together we have known apprehension, uncertainty and fear; but of what importance is all that? For it was only up there that we discovered many things of which we had previously known nothing: a joy that was new to us, happiness that was doubled because it was shared, a wordless friendship which was no mere superficial impulse. . . .

I wish all climbers an Elder Brother who can always be looked up to with love and respect, who will watch the way you rope yourself up, and who, as he initiates you into an exacting life, looks after you like a mother hen.

The one who shares with you his fleeting sovereignty at 12,000 feet and who points out the surrounding peaks as a gardener shows his flowers.

The one at whom we all gaze with envy, for the mountain hut is his lodging and the mountain his domain.

The friendship of a man as rich as that cannot be bought.

A
NNAPURNA HAD FIRED ME
, by the age of sixteen, with the passion to become a mountaineer. Under its influence, exploring the ranges of my native Colorado, I graduated from easy “walk-ups” such as Mount Elbert (the state's highest peak) to more challenging objectives:
a solo traverse of the treacherous Maroon Bells, near Aspen; a winter attack on the east ridge of Pacific Peak, in the Tenmile Range. Yet I continued to hesitate short of the real plunge—learning to climb with rope and piton and carabiner and the tight-fitting special footgear called
kletterschuhe.

One day in 1959, in a local bookstore, I held in my hands
Starlight and Storm.
I knew Rébuffat from
Annapurna,
but had no sense of his individual voice or character. The nine climbers in that heroic saga remained in Herzog's telling little differentiated one from the other; they were all idealized “knights of the sky.” Now, as I browsed through the small book, Rébuffat began to assume his own personality. Of the six great north faces of the Alps, I knew nothing, but the photos in
Starlight and Storm
made it clear that these savage, dark walls were far more daunting than any mountain in Colorado.

In the book, I could see, Rébuffat had somewhat chimerically adjoined his accounts of the six north faces to a pragmatic manual titled “The Beginning Climber”; perhaps the French publisher had thereby beefed up an otherwise dangerously slender volume. It may have been that how-to treatise that made me dig deep into my pockets and buy
Starlight and Storm,
for I was still too green to know that you couldn't learn to climb from a book.

Yet it was not the Chamonix guide's succinct advice about sunglasses and shoulder stands that captivated me, but the lyrical prose in which he recounted the harrowing bivouacs, the gutsy leads up frozen pitches, that had won him his great faces. The author himself had evidently wearied of the pedestrian job of explaining how to climb, for time and again in “The Beginning Climber” he burst into philosophy: “Of course, technique is a poor thing, even a wretched thing, when separated from the heart which has guided it: this is true in rock climbing, or playing a piano, or building a cathedral.”

In these deftly romantic pages I found a view of climbing utterly different from what I had discerned in the pages of
Annapurna.
Yet at sixteen I was still too naive to comprehend that those two views were fundamentally incompatible. Nor did I entertain even a glimmer of a suspicion that Rébuffat's Annapurna might
have made for a different story from Herzog's. No one in America, as I was to find in subsequent years, doubted the veracity of Herzog's perfect saga of the world's first 8,000-meter ascent.

Starlight and Storm
became for me a sacred text. The book closed with an affirmation every bit as revelatory as Herzog's famous final words, “There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.” “Life, the luxury of being!” Rébuffat pealed, then laid down his pen.

Still without any inkling that I might ever climb a big wall myself, I thrilled through each rereading of the author's struggles on the Walker Spur and the Eigerwand. A few years later, at the age of twenty, by then a junior instructor at Colorado Outward Bound School, I was asked to give a dawn inspirational reading to the ninety-six students it was our job to toughen up in the Elk Range. With trembling voice but the passion of an acolyte, I read “The Brotherhood of the Rope” from my favorite mountain book.

It might seem odd that a Colorado boy should have taken as his climbing heroes men from far-off France. By 1959, on the crags only a few miles outside of Boulder, a six-foot-five bricklayer named Layton Kor was putting up the hardest and most daring routes ever climbed in Colorado. One of my high school classmates even climbed with Kor—or rather, was dragged bodily up pitches far beyond his ability by a demon so possessed he would pair up with anyone capable of tying in to the other end of the rope. Kor would go on to become a climber every bit as legendary as Rébuffat. Though I was in awe of his deeds, however, I never chose Kor as a hero.

Similarly, at age fourteen I had gone on a hike with Charley Houston, an Aspen physician who was a friend of my father's. Houston, I knew, had led the 1938 and 1953 American K2 expeditions, gallant failures on the world's second-highest mountain. And with longtime partner Bob Bates, Houston had written an account of the latter journey, called
K2: The Savage Mountain,
that would become a classic. Houston would later serve as a mentor to me—but never as a hero in the sense that Rébuffat became on first reading.

I was hardly alone in my infatuation with the men of Annapurna. As I grew into my mountaineering prime, I encountered one American climber after another who confessed that reading Herzog's book as a teenager had turned him irreversibly toward alpinism. After 1959, Rébuffat published a series of gorgeous picture books, such as
Neige et Roc
(
On Snow and Rock
),
Entre Terre et Ciel
(
Between the Earth and Sky
), and
Mont-Blanc, Jardin Féerique
(
Mont Blanc, Enchanted Garden
) that by themselves created a kind of cult. The photos of Rébuffat in action—always wearing the same patterned pullover, caught in profile against a vertical cliff, rope dangling from his waist into the void, hands resting gently on wrinkles of granite while toes clung to invisible holds—adumbrated an alpine acrobatics far more graceful than any climbing his readers had performed. The dreamy lyricism of the text elaborated further on the radical aesthetic of the Alps as an “enchanted garden” that Rébuffat had invented.

It was the poet of the mountains who had inspired me at sixteen, writing, in
Starlight and Storm,
“I am immensely happy, for I have felt the rope between us. We are linked for life.” That the same man could have penned, in his private notebook, “Depersonalization . . . a certain Nazification,” after the oath-swearing at the CAF, would have utterly surprised me.

All his life, even as his books made him mildly famous, Rébuffat kept his other side—the skeptical individualist, distrustful of all things grandiose and chauvinistic; the satirist, armed with a gift for the mordant phrase—under close wraps. His friends knew that side, but not the public, and so it came as a great surprise to learn, with the publication of Ballu's biography in 1996, just how disenchanted Rébuffat had been on Annapurna.

In April 1999, pursuing the “other Annapurnas” that Michel Guérin's confidences had alerted me to, I met Françoise Rébuffat, Gaston's widow, in Paris. Rébuffat had died in 1985, a rare male victim of breast cancer, after an agonizing deterioration stretched over ten years. Françoise had remarried, but she continued to guard her husband's legacy with a fierce loyalty.

In her chic apartment high above Montparnasse, I
encountered an elegant and forceful woman of seventy-five. Françoise had met Gaston rather improbably one day in 1946 in Chamonix, in the
salon de thé
of the Hôtel des Alpes, a favorite hangout of both climbing guides and modish tourists that doubled as a dance parlor. The daughter of an architect from the Côte d'Azur, studying fashion at an elite school, she was on holiday with her friends. At twenty-two, Françoise was a great beauty.

“I'd like to meet a mountain guide sometime,” she impulsively told her friends.

One of them pointed out the tall, angular Rébuffat, who was dancing with a Dior model. “That's one there,” she said.

Françoise thought her friends were teasing her, the
méditerrannéenne
ignorant of the mountains. In her conception, a guide would be dressed in ragged trousers, wearing hobnailed boots, his visage leathery with exposure to sun and wind, sporting perhaps a fine mustache—not that young man in elegant tweeds with his face expressive of urbane character. “That one,” she said with a laugh, “he must be a
guide d'opérette
”—a vapid know-it-all.

Thus Françoise and Gaston met, fell in love, and married. He took her climbing; she introduced him to her world of artists and aristocrats and fine restaurants.

As we talked on in her Paris apartment, and later, as I read a moving unpublished memoir Françoise had written about her husband after his death, I realized that despite the social inequality in their upbringings, theirs had been that rare union of two souls as devoted to one another thirty years after they met as when they had first plunged into the delirium of courtship, a pair who had never begun to fall out of love.

As he headed off to Annapurna at the end of March 1950, Gaston was twenty-eight years old, Françoise twenty-six. She had given birth to a daughter, Frédérique, two years before. Supporting the couple with his earnings as guide, Gaston had begun, if rather tentatively, to realize his ambitions as a writer. In 1946 he had published a book for aspiring climbers called
L'Apprenti Montagnard;
in 1949, a picture book about the Calanques.

Two days after the press conference at the CAF, culminating in the pledge of unquestioning obedience to their leader, the
Annapurna team met at Orly airport to board the first of a series of planes that would eventually disgorge them in New Delhi. Françoise, there to see her husband off, remembered the moment vividly.

“I was standing behind a glass window. Just before they got on the plane, I saw Maurice [Herzog] hand Gaston a contract to sign. I saw Gaston read it, then I saw them arguing.”

If the oath of obedience had come to Rébuffat as a shock, the contract seemed a far more stunning blow. With rising incredulity, he read the legalese that forbade him from utilizing his Annapurna adventure for “publication in any form, public speeches, radio or television broadcasts, books, articles, interviews, conferences, official statements, published photos or films.” It was this coerced abnegation, designed by Devies and Herzog to keep the story of Annapurna the property of the expedition's patron and its leader, sprung on the team at the very last moment, that Herzog obliquely alluded to in the pages of
Annapurna
as if it demonstrated the voluntary altruism of his teammates: “From the start every one of them knew that nothing belonged to him and that he must expect nothing on his return. Their only motive was a great ideal.”

“Gaston came very close to turning around and leaving, right there, in the airport,” said Françoise. In the end, with the deepest reluctance, he signed.

So, even before the expedition members left France, the team was torn by conflict and resentment. Lachenal was similarly disenchanted. It was a hardship for the three Chamonix guides to give up a season's earnings to join the expedition. With two small sons of his own, Lachenal, and his wife, Adèle, felt the pinch. According to Françoise, the wives of all three guides were promised a pension of 400 francs a month for the duration of the expedition, but none of them received a sou.

On April 2, in New Delhi, the climbers attended a reception at the French ambassador's house. “High society dinner in a high society apartment,” Lachenal wrote dryly in his diary. “Bored me to tears.” In the
Carnets du Vertige
edited by Gérard Herzog and published in 1956 after Lachenal's death, the latter sentence was suppressed.

Rébuffat's melancholy funk persisted during the long hike
through the lowlands toward Annapurna. In a letter to Françoise, he complained: “I don't even have a friend. I've sacrificed a lot for friendship, and today, in this adventure, in The Adventure, I am alone.”

Remembering the silent pantomime she had witnessed through the glass window at the airport, as her husband and Herzog had vehemently argued over the contract, Françoise told me, “Everything went badly after that moment.”

THREE
Looking for Annapurna

A
S THEY SET OFF
from the Indian border to trek north across Nepal toward the distant Himalaya, Herzog's team faced a quandary that effectively doubled the difficulty of their mission. Unlike such mountains as K2, first attempted in 1902, or Nanga Parbat, even earlier, in 1895, Annapurna had never been reconnoitered (let alone attempted) by Westerners. As mountaineers had found out the hard way on other Himalayan peaks, simply sorting out an 8,000-meter peak's defenses could exhaust the resources of the strongest expedition. Mount Everest, for instance, would be the goal of three full-fledged reconnaissances and seven all-out attempts before its summit fell to Hillary and Tenzing in 1953.

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