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Authors: David Roberts

True Summit (6 page)

Between 1950 and 1964, all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks in the world were first climbed, beginning with Annapurna in 1950 and ending with Shishapangma in 1964. One measure of the quality of the French achievement is that, within that roster of first ascents of
the world's highest mountains, only Annapurna would be climbed by the first expedition to reach its foot.

Knowing how vexsome merely approaching an unknown mountain could prove, Devies and the Himalayan Committee had defined the team's mandate as an attempt on either Annapurna or its neighbor, 26,811-foot Dhaulagiri (also previously unreconnoitered). Once they had acquainted themselves with the topography surrounding these two towering peaks, the team was to choose the easier of the objectives. For much of April and May 1950, Herzog's men bent their best efforts toward getting to Dhaulagiri. Annapurna came almost as an afterthought.

The approach to the mountains was fraught with setbacks. The usual porter strike materialized, to be solved by the Gurkha officer deputed by the Maharajah of Nepal to accompany the expedition, who beat a particularly obstreperous “coolie” and sent him fleeing as a lesson to the others. The Sherpas, who would prove so vital on the mountain, were more loyal. “It thrilled me,” wrote Herzog, with the unconscious condescension of his day, “to see these little, yellow men, with their plump muscles. . . . The expedition was to give them plenty of opportunity to show what they were made of.”

Terray was afflicted with a persistent stomachache, Rébuffat with lassitude, headache, and insomnia. As they gained altitude, eventually surpassing the height of Mont Blanc (the highest any of the men except Ichac had been before), Herzog seemed to acclimatize better than his teammates.

After fifteen days of trekking, the team reached the mountain village of Tukucha, equidistant between Dhaulagiri and Annapurna. Four days before, they had caught their first sight of Dhaulagiri, “an immense pyramid of ice, glittering in the sun like a crystal,” its remote summit 23,000 feet above their lowland trudge. The sight was both joyous and discouraging. “Just look at the east arête, on the right,” one team member blurted out. “Yes, it's impossible,” rejoined another. (In Herzog's text, which is rich in dialogue, the identities of the speakers often go unspecified.)

The team used Tukucha as base, setting out, usually in pairs, to untangle the lay of the land and try to find a way to the foot of Dhaulagiri. It was now that they began to realize that their Indian
Survey maps were seriously in error. On the map, the valley of the Dambush Khola, bent like an arm around a sharp elbow, led directly from Tukucha to the northeast face of the great mountain. In reality, a high ridge blocked the river's headwaters, barring all access to Dhaulagiri from this side.

In
Annapurna,
though suffering from various ailments and driven to distraction by their failures, the men keep up a jaunty banter and an unflagging optimism. Here, the art of Herzog's writing serves the tale well. Clearly he has made up the copious dialogue that laces the pages; in his hospital bed months after the expedition, he cannot have remembered every exchange down to the exact word. Yet this dialogue has an air of authenticity; it sounds like climbers talking:

“Good Lord! Look at that! A valley starting here—”

“It's not marked on the map,” said Ichac. “It's an unknown valley.”

“It runs down toward the north and divides into two great branches.”

“No sign of Dhaula! It couldn't be that pale imitation, that fake mountain, in front of us, could it?”

(This version of the passage, retranslated literally from the French to capture its colloquial ease, avoids the arch Anglicisms of the 1952 English translation.)

Does it matter that, in Herzog's concocted dialogue, no individual voice emerges? That all nine climbers sound alike? Not to most readers, for the chat serves as it should, to advance a story that gains momentum with every page.

Herzog does not entirely whitewash the personal conflicts that marred the weeks of reconnaissance. Rather, he presents a series of vignettes that all resolve in the same fashion: with the wisdom of his own leadership prevailing over the impetuous antics of the others. On an attempt to climb through an icefall toward Dhaulagiri, Herzog, Rébuffat, and Lachenal, each roped to a Sherpa, blunder into a nightmare, as a violent hailstorm hits and the seracs around them creak and shudder. Both Rébuffat and Lachenal counsel retreat.
Then, with his characteristic wild haste, Lachenal starts tearing down the slope, dragging his Sherpa with him.

Herzog, alarmed, yells after him: “Watch out for the Sherpas! Don't let them fall off.” Lachenal does not slow down.

Later, in safety, Lachenal laments only the missed opportunity to reach a benign plateau above the icefall: “We were so close!”

His leader admonishes: “You can't push on when it's like that.” Then Herzog moralizes: “I realized that even if we had reached the plateau, it would have been madness to try to bring the main body up this way. The risk was far too great.”

What takes the edge off these scoldings and I-told-you-sos is Herzog's magnanimity. At every turn, he acknowledges his teammates' skill on rock and ice. Of Lachenal and Terray, for instance, he pauses to observe: “This celebrated partnership, which had conquered all the finest and most dangerous of our alpine faces, was today living up to its reputation.” Terray's stoic perseverance particularly impresses Herzog. “The next day,” he writes of an early march, “Lionel Terray set a rapid pace from the start. During his illness he was so weak that he had only been able to walk with considerable effort, but now it was as much as we could do to follow him.”

The chapters in
Annapurna
that cover the demoralizing search for an approach to either Dhaulagiri or Annapurna subscribe to an old, deeply satisfying narrative convention. Like Odysseus's shipmates, Herzog's partners dodge one lethal trap after another. They are headstrong individualists and brilliant climbers, but what holds the team together is its common pursuit of a goal as precious as life itself.

How different sounds the kindred musing of Rébuffat, in one of his letters to Françoise:

[The others] have the air of being completely at ease in their egotism. Among us there is no team spirit, only a necessary politeness. What hypocrisy! . . . So, I live, I exert myself, I give, and I receive. But here, we are not on the same shore as one another. Here, we are reunited to bag an 8,000-er. The rest doesn't matter.

Rébuffat was homesick: he missed Françoise and his small daughter badly. With him he carried his wife's last letter, pausing to reread it now and then. It seemed to him that the other married men on the team—Lachenal, Terray, and Couzy—hardly suffered at all from the absence of their wives.

Back home on his native turf, Rébuffat could be a gregarious and charismatic companion. As a self-made intellectual, he loved to discuss philosophical and artistic matters. Here on the expedition, however, he withdrew into his melancholy privacy. Despite his deep friendship with Terray and Lachenal, he could not find on Annapurna that distillation of perfect comradeship that had floated him through the cold bivouacs on the Walker Spur and the Cima Grande.

In his own very different way, Lachenal marched, during the weeks of reconnaissance, along a similar gauntlet of irritations and disappointments. His diary, always plainspoken, clipped, and pragmatic, never blinks at the tensions and follies of the group's effort. Early during the approach, after he had settled in at the night's campsite, Lachenal impatiently waited for the rest of the entourage—porters, Sherpas, and fellow “sahibs.” Finally the caravan arrived. “They had the courage to come all the way up to here on ponyback,” he wrote sarcastically, “which seemed to me at first grotesque, then completely contra-indicated, since most of the other team members are totally lacking in conditioning.”

On April 9, Lachenal dryly recorded Easter Sunday: “For us, a day like all the others, except a few more hassles than usual.” The sentence was suppressed in the 1956
Carnets du Vertige.

Even the most laconic daily jottings (“Evening, the eternal chicken and potatoes”) were excised from the
Carnets,
as edited by Gérard Herzog. Yet the sentence, “At noon, we opened a bottle of white wine, which devilishly reminded us of our native land, truly the most beautiful we have seen to date,” was preserved.

On April 11, Lachenal witnessed an eerie rite:

I am going to attend the burial of a young girl who was carried on a stretcher. A hole is dug near the river, the girl put inside it, and after a little ceremony, covered with stones. The body will be
carried away by the floodwaters to fertilize the plains of Nepal. [Suppressed]

Lachenal's record has the virtues of a true diary, in that it notes the homely, quotidian verities by which the party measured out its progress. From Herzog alone, for instance, the reader would little guess how constantly beset the team was with annoying ailments and illnesses.

18 April.
Everybody has been sick, except Schatz and Noyelle [the liaison officer]. Tonight Lionel [Terray] had really bad indigestion with diarrhea. I woke up feeling fine. I ate and then I took off. En route the urge to vomit and diarrhea made me stop several times. . . . Today was for me the most terrible since we started.

23 April.
Lionel was sick all night, with constant stomachache.

25 April.
 . . . Always I have a bit of diarrhea. This morning I shat in my pants—not pleasant.

29 April.
 . . . I have a boil that started on my sternum. I just hope it's the only one.

30 April.
 . . . My boil only gets bigger, and I already have some ganglions under my arms.

(All these passages were suppressed, as if to admit to developing a boil on one's chest were unworthy of the crème de la crème of French mountaineering.)

Likewise Lachenal's candid observations of the native Nepalis the team passed daily. “The women seem to have very small breasts—even, if I'm not mistaken, not to have breasts at all.” (The second half of the sentence was suppressed.)

If in Herzog's text, the nine climbers blur together, all hearty team players, all knights of the sky, the occasional passages in Lachenal's diary hinting at interpersonal conflict or quirks of character bring his comrades to individual life. “The night was pretty short, because in our tent Lionel held forth at length on his youth,
his love life, and a bit about his career as a skier. We had to go to sleep at last at 1:00
A.M.
” “I took two sleeping pills to try to sleep, which gave me very funny dreams: I caught Thivierge [a fellow Chamonix guide] and Momo [Herzog] stealing cans of food!” (Both passages suppressed.)

One of the most interesting entries in Lachenal's diary hints at a serious argument between Rébuffat and himself. “With Gaston, discussions take on a macabre character,” he wrote, softening the conflict with an edge of irony. “It's important not to have them too often, because they engender a certain melancholy, a nostalgia for our return, which puts a bad aspect on the adventure.” Referring to their dispute, he writes, “We talked again about the business on the central spur of the Grandes Jorasses with the College. Gaston stuck to his position. He's wrong.”

With typical bluntness, Lachenal thus brought up a painful episode in the men's shared past. In 1947, Lachenal and Rébuffat had led a group of five aspirant guides from the Collège des Praz, an elite guides' school near Chamonix, on a climb of the central spur on the great north face of the Grandes Jorasses—a route only marginally less serious than the Walker to its left, of which Rébuffat had made the second ascent two years before. On the descent, the team bivouacked just below the summit on the south side of the mountain. Just as the team settled in to sleep on their ledge, a huge block of rock came loose thirty feet above. Rébuffat and the aspirant Georges Michel were knocked from their perch. Michel plunged 1,500 feet to his death. In mid-fall, Rébuffat miraculously jammed himself into a chimney thirty feet below, saving his life at the cost of a broken foot, kneecap, and rib.

In
Starlight and Storm,
Rébuffat narrated that accident in an oddly dreamy passage. For the poet of the Alps, death was not easy to countenance: on the following day, the guides found their protégé's corpse lying face up on the glacier.

The expression on his face was serene. The morning before, as we started up the spur, he had said to me, “Gaston, think of doing the north face of the Grandes Jorasses! I've dreamed of this all my life.” And he added with a laugh: “After, I don't mind dying.”

What Rébuffat neglects to mention is that at the last minute, he had talked Lachenal out of an easier route. The central spur had been climbed only four times before, never by Frenchmen. Apprised of the formidable objective Rébuffat proposed, the aspirants were at first taken aback; then, swayed by their faith in their tutors, they voiced wholehearted enthusiasm.

The passage in Lachenal's Annapurna diary seems to indicate that, three years later, he held Rébuffat at least indirectly responsible for the death of Georges Michel. Perhaps he felt his friend had let personal ambition get the better of his judgment. Whether other peers—including the school's director, the premier alpinist Jean Franco—were of like mind has escaped the record. (All mention of this debate on the night of April 28, 1950, was expunged from Lachenal's
Carnets
published six years later.)

The posthumous censoring of Lachenal's diary is so extreme that it cannot be explained simply as stemming from a concern that Lachenal's version might contradict Herzog's. Many of the most vivid vignettes having to do with native peoples have been excised. One day Lachenal attends a funeral of another young native girl, at the culmination of which a priest cuts open her corpse “from the vagina to the breasts”; extracts, Lachenal thinks, her liver; then sews the body closed again before burning it on a pyre. In a remote village, the sahibs are offered girls for four rupees apiece. When they turn down the proposition (mainly, Lachenal indicates, “because these were very dirty Tibetans”), the locals offer them young boys. Both scenes were left out of the
Carnets
as originally published.

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