Authors: David Roberts
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In memory of
N THE FIRST LIGHT OF DAWN
, at 6:00
, the two men left their tent at 24,600 feet and headed up the broad, glaciated slope, their crampons biting crisply into the hard snow underfoot. The summit of Annapurna gleamed in the morning sun, only 1,900 feet above them. The wind that had raged all night had died with the dawn, leaving a piercing cold to rule the stillness.
For Louis Lachenal, a brilliant, impetuous mountaineer of twenty-eight, and Maurice Herzog, three years older and the expedition leader, it had required a long struggle that morning simply to jam their feet into frozen boots. Herzog had managed to lace up the
gaiters that covered his ankles, but Lachenal had given up trying to fasten his. Neither man had slept a minute through the terrible night, as the gale threatened to rip the tent from the pitons and ice axes that anchored it to the 40 degree slope and send the men hurtling down the mountain. Through long hours in the darkness, they had clung to the tent poles, in Herzog's words, “as a drowning man clings to a plank,” just to keep the fragile shelter from being torn apart by the wind.
The evening before, Herzog and Lachenal had brewed a few cups of tea for dinner, but they had been too nauseated by the altitude to eat. In the morning, even making tea proved too arduous a task. At the last minute, Herzog stuffed a tube of condensed milk, some nougat, and a spare pair of socks into his pack.
It was June 3, 1950, and the monsoon would arrive any day, smothering the high Himalaya in a seamless blanket of mist and falling snow, prohibiting human trespass. For the past two months, the French expedition had wandered up one valley after another, simply trying to find Annapurna. The maps were all wrong because no Westerners had ever before approached the slopes of the tenth-highest mountain in the world.
At last, in late May, with less than two weeks left before the monsoon, the team had discovered the deep gorge formed by the torrential current of the Miristi Khola. Having breached its defenses, they had emerged beneath the north face of Annapurna. Racing up glacier-hung corridors, menaced at every hand by massive avalanches that thundered over the cliffs, the team placed four camps in a leftward crescent that followed a cunning line up the mountain. On June 2, Lachenal and Herzog, aided by Sherpas Ang-Tharkey and Sarki, slipped through a notch in the ice cliff the team had named the Sickle and crossed a steep, dangerous slope to pitch Camp V beside a broken rock band. Herzog offered a place in the summit team to Ang-Tharkey, the sirdar or head Sherpa, but the man, frightened by the cold that had already numbed his feet, declined. The two Sherpas headed back to Camp IVA, leaving Lachenal and Herzog to their windy ordeal.
Now the two men clumped slowly up the interminable slope,
shrouded in silence. Wrote Herzog later, “Each of us lived in a closed and private world of his own. I was suspicious of my mental processes; my mind was working very slowly and I was perfectly aware of the low state of my intelligence.”
It did not take long for both men's feet to go numb. Abruptly Lachenal halted, took off a boot, and tried to rub his stockinged foot back into feeling. “I don't want to be like Lambert,” he muttered. The great Swiss climber Raymond Lambertâa friend of Lachenal'sâhad lost all the toes on both feet to frostbite after being trapped in winter on a traverse of the Aiguilles du Diable, near Chamonix, France.
The climbers emerged from the mountain's shadow into the sunlight, yet the iron cold persisted. Again Lachenal stopped to take off a boot. “I can't feel anything,” he groaned. “I think I'm beginning to get frostbite.”
Herzog too was worried about his feet, but he convinced himself that wriggling his toes as he walked would ward off frostbite. “I could not feel them,” he would write, “but that was nothing new in the mountains.”
The men marched on, at a pitifully slow pace. Herzog's dreamy isolation reclaimed him: “Lachenal appeared to me as a sort of specterâhe was alone in his world, I in mine.”
Suddenly Lachenal grabbed his companion. “If I go back, what will you do?” he blurted out.
Unbidden, images of the party's two months of struggle flashed through Herzog's mind: lowland trudges in the jungle heat, fierce rock-and-ice pitches climbed, loads painfully hauled to higher camps. “Must we give up?” he asked himself. “Impossible! My whole being revolted against the idea. I had made up my mind, irrevocably. Today we were consecrating an ideal, and no sacrifice was too great.”
To Lachenal, he said, “I should go on by myself.”
Without hesitating, Lachenal responded, “Then I'll follow you.”
Herzog lapsed back into his private trance. “An astonishing happiness welled up in me, but I could not define it,” he would later
write. “Everything was so new, so utterly unprecedented.Â .Â .Â . We were braving an interdict, overstepping a boundary, and yet we had no fear as we continued upward.”
HERE ARE FOURTEEN MOUNTAINS
in the world higher than 8,000 meters (about 26,240 feet)âall of them in the Himalaya. The first attempt to climb one came in 1895, when Alfred Mummery, the finest British climber of his day, attacked Nanga Parbat. Radically underestimating the size and difficulty of the mountain, Mummery and two Gurkha porters vanished during a reconnaissance of the west face. Their bodies were never found.
By 1950, twenty-two different expeditions had tackled various 8,000-meter peaks, yet not one had succeeded. The boldest efforts during the 1920s and 1930s, on Everest, K2, Kanchenjunga, and Nanga Parbat, had been launched by British, American, and German teams. Although France counted among its climbers some of the leading alpinists of those decades, the country had made no great showing in the Himalaya, with only a single expedition to Gasherbrum I to its credit. For fourteen years, the highest summit reached anywhere in the world had remained that of 25,645-foot Nanda Devi in India, climbed by an Anglo-American team in 1936. The Second World War had interrupted the Himalayan campaigns, and it was not until 1949 that Europeans again turned their attention toward the highest mountains in the world.
Despite the fact that only one memberâcinematographer Marcel Ichac, a veteran of Gasherbrum Iâhad ever been to the Himalaya before, the 1950 Annapurna expedition comprised as strong a party as had ever been put in the field in Asia. Herzog himself was an accomplished mountaineer, with a number of daring climbs in the Alps under his belt. The two junior members, Marcel Schatz and Jean Couzy, showed great promise (Couzy would go on to rack up a roster of first ascents equaled by only a handful of his contemporaries).
But the heart of the Annapurna expeditionâits core of competence so assured as to verge on geniusâlay in Lachenal and his two fellow Chamonix guides, Lionel Terray and Gaston RÃ©buffat.
Throughout the 1940s, even during wartime, these men had pulled off one blazing ascent in the Alps after another. By 1950, they were unquestionably the three finest mountaineers in France, rivaled in the rest of the world only by a handful of German, Italian, and Austrian peers (no American or Briton was even in their league).
Yet through most of April and May 1950, as the team wandered aimlessly trying to sort out the topography and find its way toward 26,493-foot Annapurna, the expedition threatened to collapse into utter fiasco. With the solving of the Miristi Khola, all the expertise embodied in the team's six principal climbers came to the fore. The choice of which pair would make the summit bid had seemed to depend as much as anything on the luck of who happened to reach the right camp on the right day. That luck put Lachenal and Herzog in Camp V on the morning of June 3.
Now, well above 25,000 feet, sometime after noon, the pair traversed toward the right beneath a final rock band that blocked the way to the summit. Suddenly Herzog pointed, uttering a single word: “Couloir!”
“What luck!” rejoined Lachenal. In front of the men, a steep snow gully angled up through the rock band.
“Let's go, then!” Herzog urged, and Lachenal signaled agreement. “I had lost all track of time,” Herzog later recalled. Facing the couloir, he felt a moment of doubt: “Should we have enough strength left to overcome this final obstacle?” Kicking steps in the hard snow, their crampon points biting well, the men trudged upward.
Herzog later described those climactic moments:
A slight detour to the left, a few more stepsâthe summit ridge came gradually nearerâa few rocks to avoid. We dragged ourselves up. Could we possibly be there?Â .Â .Â .
Yes! A fierce and savage wind tore at us.