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Authors: David Roberts

True Summit (8 page)

BOOK: True Summit

Quixotically, instead of forming the ideal
or rope team, during the middle years of the war, Rébuffat and Terray bought a farm together in Les Houches, a hamlet just down the Arve valley from Chamonix. Their bizarre experiment in pastoralism was an attempt, as Terray put it, “to find a way of living in the mountains, so that I could continue climbing and skiing.” But Rébuffat had had, since childhood, a mortal fear of cows. In addition, both men were far too restless to settle down to the grinding discipline of farm life. The agricultural lark ended in 1944.

A concomitant factor was that in the meantime, Terray had fallen in love with a teacher from Saint-Gervais-les-Bains. Marianne was “very blonde, with porcelain-blue eyes . . . young and pretty . . . [with] a taste for things elegant and intellectual.” The last sort of life she wanted was to become a farmer's wife. In love herself, Marianne agreed to marry Lionel in 1942, but from their wedding on, the ménage at Les Houches was doomed.

Terray scraped a living out of teaching winters in the ski school at Les Houches, and during the last year of the war he performed his daring jaunts of mountain warfare as a member of the Compagnie Stéphane. Just like Rébuffat, however, Terray had set as his highest ambition becoming a Chamonix guide. His birthplace of Grenoble was not as glaring a stigma as Rébuffat's hailing from Marseille, but there was no question Terray was a “foreigner.” Yet
his skill and tenacity won out. Shortly after the war, and shortly after he met Lachenal, Terray was accepted into the elite fraternity of the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix.

, the winsome lakefront French village south of Geneva. If Terray's parents had become
grands bourgeois
through industrial success, Lachenal's remained
petits bourgeois
through and through. Sober, frugal, and conservative, they ran an old-fashioned grocery store on a busy Annecy street. From childhood on, Louis felt the pinch of near-poverty.

Temperamentally, he was the opposite of his parents. Intensely curious, he was both an avid reader and a restless adventurer. The driven impatience that became the hallmark of his climbing stamped his spirit from his earliest years. At a tender age, he realized he was addicted to risk. The passion first took the form of a systematic campaign, with Louis's best friend, to sneak without paying into every movie theater in Annecy. Each theater required a different technique. The thrill was the chance of getting caught. Once the boys had succeeded in sneaking in, Louis would laugh with uncontainable joy. Yet in truth, he hated movies. As soon as the first scenes came on the screen, he would tell his friend, “Come on, let's go, it's over.”

In adulthood, Lachenal wrote memorably about the appeal of risk:

Definition: a taste for risk is inborn and later made rational. For certain men, it is a necessity. It is the desire to perfect oneself, to raise oneself, to attain an ideal. It implies a taste for responsibility. Mastery of oneself and conquest of fear.

Louis grew up as a choirboy and, starting at thirteen, as a scout; yet he was at the same time not far from what in America would be called a juvenile delinquent. While still young, he acquired a taste for the sharp cider of Savoie, known as
in the local patois. “Biscante” became Lachenal's lifelong nickname, the moniker by which his teammates addressed him on Annapurna.

From his first hikes with fellow scouts onward, Louis was obsessed with mountains. When he cornered an elder who had real climbing experience, he would bombard him with earnest questions: Was Whymper a guide? Was Lochmatter? Were there no French guides? What was the name of the mountain in this photograph? How high?

On a small crag overlooking Annecy, Lachenal and a few chums taught themselves to climb. For a rope, they borrowed the halyard with which their scout troop hoisted its flag; for shoes, they wore “sneakers,” soled with woven cord rather than rubber. From an early age, Louis was a born craftsman. One day his pals found him shod in what looked an expensive pair of after-ski boots. Where had he gotten them?

“I made them myself,” he answered proudly.

“With what?”

“With my hands.”

“But the leather?”

“I found an old scrap that I reworked.”

“And the soles?”

“Some old satchels.”

From his first leads on rock onward, Louis was so much more agile and skilled than any of his friends that they were dazzled by his technique. At the age of sixteen, he bicycled to Chamonix, where the giants of the Mont Blanc massif smote him, just as they had Terray at an even earlier age. Two years later, with a childhood friend, still innocent of any formal training, Lachenal rashly undertook an ascent of the Grépon. The pair survived a descent in a furious storm and a bivouac in the snow. His friend never climbed again.

Louis grew up thin and lanky, with powerful shoulders. His hairline began to recede in his twenties, though he never become as bald as Terray. He wore his intensity in his narrow face. Gradually over the years, a look almost of anguish printed itself on his countenance: the high forehead and the sensuous lips were dominated by the fixed arch of his eyebrows, a perpetual frown on his brow.

One of Louis's adolescent playmates was Adèle Rivier, a tomboy who climbed and camped with the best of them, notwithstanding
the overprotective instincts of her parents. Once Louis and Adèle fell in love, the parents grew more and more vigilant. Her father was an important engineer in Annecy, descended from an aristocratic Swiss family. Though he treated Louis with a certain stern kindness, it was clear that he did not expect his daughter to marry the son of a grocer.

The obstacles to their romance, like the challenge of sneaking into a movie theater, only made Lachenal's passion keener. Meeting furtively, the pair courted, then secretly affianced. Suspecting something, M. Rivier called Lachenal to account and acerbically cross-examined the

In 1939, as he turned eighteen, a series of events threw Lachenal's life into upheaval. He and Adèle passed their
together, but suddenly her father died. His passing only stiffened Mme. Rivier's opposition to her daughter's match: now she forbade Adèle all contact with Louis.

The war broke out in early autumn. No one went climbing. Casting about for a métier, Louis worked desultorily in his parents' shop, went for long walks in the mountains alone, and fell into a kind of bitterness that alarmed his friends. In view of the course of the rest of his life, that prolonged depression at age eighteen would come to seem a kind of lost year.

It was only the next summer, when he returned to Chamonix for a series of climbs with a veteran alpinist from Annecy, that Lachenal set his compass. One evening, from the terrace of a high mountain refuge, the two men stared at the surrounding peaks turning dull with dusk. Lachenal poured out his questions about guiding, then asked his friend why he had never become a guide.

“I never gave it a thought,” said the man.

“Because you have a true passion for the mountains,” mused Lachenal. Moments later, he pronounced his conclusion: “To be a true guide, you have to love the mountains more than anything in life.”

Starlight and Storm,
in the spring of my final year of high school, I signed up for a beginning rock-climbing
course taught by the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group. After only five Saturdays on easy routes on the Flatirons above Boulder, I considered myself a “real” climber. I scraped together enough cash to buy a 120-foot rope (it cost twelve dollars), a few soft-iron pitons, and a half dozen carabiners. Fired all the more by Rébuffat's lyrical evocations of the great north faces of the Alps, I grew ambitious. In June 1961, with a pal who had climbed for two years (versus my four months), I ascended the east face of Longs Peak, a 2,000-foot precipice of steep snow interrupted by short vertical pitches of clean granite. Because of a recent tragedy on the face, when two experienced mountaineers had frozen to death after getting caught in a storm, the whole east face was officially closed at the time my friend and I sneaked in to its base. After finding our names in the summit register, a ranger tracked us down to Boulder, where a benevolent elder in the Rescue Group talked him out of arresting us.

The east face of Longs seemed a grand exploit, pushing my sketchy technique to its very limit. On one smooth rock traverse, with my arms giving out from fatigue, I just managed to clip a carabiner into a fixed piton before losing my purchase altogether. Late in the afternoon, only a few hundred feet below the top, as he led on perilous mixed snow and rock, my friend screamed, “Get ready! I'm about to come off!” Fortunately, he kept his cool and swarmed past the tricky part.

Despite this bold deed, I did not find the track that would lead me toward serious mountaineering until I arrived at Harvard in the fall of 1961. At the time, the college's mountaineering club (the HMC) comprised the most ambitious collection of undergraduate alpinists in the country. At my first meeting, I was dazzled to learn that certain juniors and seniors had come back from summer expeditions to the Coast and Saint Elias Ranges of Canada, where they had reached the summits of such storied mountains as Waddington and Logan. Until that moment, the idea that I might ever emulate Rébuffat or Terray and go to the great ranges had remained an improbable fantasy.

The summer after my sophomore year, I was invited on my first expedition. That July, six HMC cronies and I made the first direct
ascent of the Wickersham Wall on Mount McKinley, a 14,000-foot-high precipice of ice and rock that forms the tallest single mountain face in the Americas. Our adventure was capped by a week-long vigil at 17,000 feet as we waited out a blizzard so severe that our bush pilot—who had flown through the storm to see our tracks disappearing into avalanche debris—reported us missing and feared dead.

On the Wickersham Wall, I cemented a partnership with a classmate named Don Jensen. Stocky, strong, moody, and painfully sincere, Don had hardened his high school apprenticeship with three-week solo outings in the Sierra Nevada of his native California. During our junior year, we met every day in the dining hall and talked obsessively about mountains. Already we were scheming a return to Alaska. On McKinley, we had been tutored by the more experienced men a year or two older than us. Now Don and I wanted to organize our own expedition, and find a mountain route even more challenging than the Wickersham Wall.

Sometime in 1963, Don and I came across a book with the awkward title
Conquistadors of the Useless.
First published in France two years before (as
Les Conquérants de l'Inutile
), the 351-page tome had just been translated and published in Great Britain. (How we found a copy, I have forgotten: perhaps an older bibliophile in the HMC had sent away for the book.)

To say that Don and I devoured
is an understatement. Every page brimmed with revealed truth—for we were reading the autobiography of Lionel Terray. At once, the book replaced both
Starlight and Storm
as my favorite work of mountain literature. In blunt, vivid prose, Terray went straight to the heart of the mystical calling in which Don and I had started to become acolytes. Not for him the rapturous poesy of Rébuffat, the idealized drama of Herzog. We relished every detail. Even a sentence like, “As I went on, it became more and more difficult to let go with one hand even for a moment, and the axe was getting in my way,” rang with a clarion purity. Here was the very stuff of extreme climbing, laid out in all its logistical and technical minutiae. The book met the ultimate criterion of adventure writing, for as Don and I read Terray's pages, our palms grew damp with sweat.

Of the six principal climbers on Annapurna, only two—Jean Couzy and Lionel Terray—ever went on another expedition. Yet after 1950, Terray became arguably the greatest expedition mountaineer in history, as he spearheaded small expeditions to some of the remotest and most daunting mountains in the world. Fitzroy in Patagonia, Jannu and Makalu in the Himalaya, Chacraraju and Taulliraju in the Peruvian Andes—always with the indomitable Terray solving the crux pitches that led to victory. This was the kind of mountaineer Don and I aspired to become: an expeditionary expert, seeking out not so much the highest unclimbed mountains as the hardest and most beautiful.

More than anything else in
Conquistadors of the Useless,
however, what stirred Don and me to the core was the account of the partnership Terray and Lachenal forged after 1945. By that year, Lachenal had found his direction in life. He had worn down the haughty opposition of Mme. Rivier and married his beloved Adèle. After a brilliant stint in Jeunesse et Montagne, where he came in first in virtually all the competitions waged among the finest young skiers and alpinists in France, he had won a job as a ski and climbing instructor in the Contamines, near Chamonix. And despite his flight to Switzerland to avoid his labor service obligation, after the war Lachenal was voted into membership in the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix.

With Terray, Lachenal started knocking off one prize after another among the hardest routes yet essayed in the Alps, starting with the Walker Spur on the Grandes Jorasses. Driven by Lachenal's impatience, the pair set extraordinary time records on these formidable ridges and walls. The first ascent of the northeast face of the Piz Badile, in Italy, had been accomplished by Ricardo Cassin with four partners in 1937. The climb had taken this strong party three days, and they reached the summit in an all-out storm. On the descent, two of Cassin's teammates died of exhaustion.

In 1949, Terray and Lachenal stormed up this wall—one of the six great north faces of the Alps, as categorized by Rébuffat—in the astounding time of seven and a half hours. Their ascent had been three times as fast as the fastest previous success, four times as fast as the hitherto matchless Cassin.

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