CHAPTER ONE: June 3
In the first light of dawn, at 6:00 A.M., 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 Lambert -- a friend of Lachenal's -- had 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 specter -- he 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....We were braving an interdict, overstepping a boundary, and yet we had no fear as we continued upward."
There are fourteen mountains in the world higher than 8,000 meters (about 26,240 feet) -- all 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 member -- cinematographer Marcel Ichac, a veteran of Gasherbrum I -- had 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 expedition -- its core of competence so assured as to verge on genius -- lay in Lachenal and his two fellow Chamonix guides, Lionel Terray and Gaston Rébuffat. 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 steps -- the summit ridge came gradually nearer -- a few rocks to avoid. We dragged ourselves up. Could we possibly be there?...
Yes! A fierce and savage wind tore at us.
We were on top of Annapurna! 8,075 meters....
Our hearts overflowed with an unspeakable happiness.
"If only the others could know..."
If only everyone could know!
As he stood on the summit, Herzog was awash in a mystical ecstasy:
How wonderful life would now become! What an inconceivable experience it is to attain one's ideal and, at the very same moment, to fulfill oneself. I was stirred to the depths of my being. Never had I felt such happiness like this -- so intense and yet so pure.
Lachenal, however, was in an entirely different state of mind. He shook Herzog, pleading, "Well, what about going down?"
His companion's impatience puzzled Herzog. "Did he simply think he had finished another climb, as in the Alps?" he wondered. "Did he think one could just go down again like that, with nothing more to it?"
"One minute," Herzog spoke, "I must take some photographs."
Herzog fumbled through his pack, retrieving his camera and several flags. For long minutes, he posed with one pennant after another attached to his ice axe, as Lachenal snapped photos. Then Herzog changed from black-and-white to color film.
Lachenal exploded: "Are you mad? We haven't a minute to lose: we must go down at once."
Vaguely, Herzog sensed that his friend was right. Glancing at the horizon, he saw that the perfect day had deteriorated. A storm was moving in -- perhaps the leading edge of the monsoon itself. Yet Herzog stood there, unwilling to let go of his transcendent moment, lost in a whirl of emotions and memories.
"We must go down!" Lachenal cried once more, then hoisted his pack and started off. Still Herzog lingered, drinking a bit of condensed milk, taking a reading with his altimeter. At last he put on his own pack and followed Lachenal.
Of all the qualities that had made Lachenal such a matchless climber, it was his speed on difficult terrain that was paramount. Now Herzog watched his friend dash down the couloir, then hurry along the traverse beneath the rock band. Stumping downward far more carefully, Herzog saw the gap between him and Lachenal grow.
At the base of the rock band, Herzog stopped to catch his breath. He took off his pack and opened it, then could not remember what he was about to do. Suddenly he cried out, "My gloves!"
To open his pack, Herzog had laid his gloves on the snow. As he watched, dumbfounded, they slid, then rolled toward the void below. "The movement of those gloves was engraved in my sight," he later wrote, "as something irredeemable, against which I was powerless. The consequences might be most serious. What was I to do?"
Thus the first conquest of an 8,000-meter peak began to take its toll on the victors. In his trance, Herzog forgot all about the spare pair of socks in his pack, which he could have used as gloves: instead, he descended barehanded. The two men regained Camp V only just before dark, in the middle an all-out storm that severely reduced their visibility. Lachenal had slipped and fallen past the tent before scrambling back up to the shelter. Left to their own devices, Herzog and Lachenal would probably have perished there. But during the day, Rébuffat and Terray had climbed to Camp V, hoping for their own summit push on the morrow. As Terray seized Herzog's hands to wring them in congratulation, he was struck with horror. "Maurice -- your hands!" he cried out.
"There was an uneasy silence," Herzog later recalled. "I had forgotten that I had lost my gloves: my fingers were violet and white and hard as wood. The other two stared at them in dismay."
Forgoing their own chance for the summit, Terray and Rébuffat stayed up all night brewing hot drinks for their comrades and whipping Lachenal's bare toes and Herzog's toes and fingers with rope ends, in an effort to restore circulation. (Because of the damage it does to frozen tissue and cells, the treatment is now known to cause more harm than help.)
The next day, as the storm increased its fury, the four men staggered down toward Camp IVA, just above the ice cliff of the Sickle. But in the lashing whiteout they lost their way. With dusk approaching, carrying no tent and but one sleeping bag among the four of them, the men circled helplessly looking for a familiar landmark. A night without shelter would undoubtedly prove fatal.
Then Lachenal broke through a snow bridge and plunged into a hidden crevasse. The mishap turned into salvation. Unhurt, Lachenal called out to the others to join him. The snow ledge at the bottom of the crevasse would serve for an emergency bivouac.
Huddled together for warmth, shivering against the snow that relentlessly filtered into their clothes, rubbing each other's feet to ward off further frostbite, the four men spent as miserable a night as mountaineers have ever endured in the Himalaya. After two nights in a row without sleep, Herzog and Lachenal had neared the end of their endurance. In the morning, Rébuffat was the first to poke his head out of the crevasse. Terray anxiously inquired about the weather. "Can't see a thing," Rébuffat answered. "It's blowing hard."
But after Lachenal thrashed his way to the surface, in Herzog's words, "he began to run like a madman, shrieking, It's fine, it's fine!" The day before, trying to find the route down, Terray and Rébuffat had removed their goggles. Despite the storm that smothered them, at an altitude above 24,000 feet the sun's ultraviolet rays had penetrated the murk and left the two men snow-blind. Rébuffat had mistaken the gray smear of his blindness for a ceaseless storm.
The weather was windy but clear. Yet now the four men faced a cruel fate: the blind could not lead the lame down the mountain. Pitifully, Lachenal began to cry out for help. The others joined in. And then they heard an answering call. It was Marcel Schatz, who had come out from Camp IVA to look for the companions he feared he would never see again. As Schatz clasped Herzog in his arms, he murmured, "It is wonderful -- what you have done."
Though the men were saved, the rest of the descent unfolded as a grim ordeal. At one point, Herzog and two Sherpas were swept 500 feet by an avalanche and partially buried. As the survivors approached Base Camp, even Terray -- the sahib whose strength had made him a legend among the porters -- had to be helped down the mountain like a baby, his arms around the shoulders of a pair of Sherpas who held him up and guided his steps.
Herzog and Lachenal could no longer walk. During the next month, a succession of Sherpas and porters carried the men through mile after mile of lowland ravine and forest. Jacques Oudot, the expedition doctor, gave them agonizing daily abdominal injections of novocaine in the femoral and brachial arteries. It was thought at the time that the drug could dilate the arteries and, by improving the flow of blood, forestall the ravages of frostbite; today, the procedure is known to be worthless. As their digits turned gangrenous, Oudot resorted to amputations in the field. Eventually Lachenal lost all his toes, Herzog all his toes and fingers.
The team members arrived at Orly airport in Paris on July 17, where a huge crowd hailed them as heroes. Paris-Match, which owned exclusive periodical rights to the story, rushed into print a special issue, with a cover photo of Herzog hoisting the Tricolor on the summit, that broke all the magazine's sales records.
As he recuperated in the American hospital at Neuilly, Herzog, who had never before written a book, dictated his account of the expedition. Published the next year by Arthaud as Annapurna: Premier 8,000, the book at once became a classic. The story Herzog had brought back from the mountain was a stirring saga of teamwork, self-sacrifice, and -- in the two-week push to the summit -- brilliant mountaineering against long odds. The descent and retreat from Annapurna figured as a tragic yet heroic coda, which Herzog narrated in a peroration saluting the highest ideals of loyalty and courage.
What moved readers beyond all else in Annapurna, however, was the transcendental optimism of the book. The euphoric trance that had seized Herzog on the summit persisted through all his convalescent tribulations. With only stumps left where he had once had fingers, for the rest of his life Herzog would find the simplest tasks -- tying his shoelaces, buttoning his shirt -- almost beyond him. Yet not a trace of bitterness or self-pity emerged in the pages of his book.
Quite the opposite. In the foreword, he wrote of his ordeal, "I was saved and had won my freedom. This freedom, which I shall never lose, has given me the assurance and serenity of a man who has fulfilled himself....A new and splendid life has opened out before me." Of his brave teammates, he wrote, "My fervent wish is that the nine of us who were united in face of death should remain fraternally united through life." And in the book's last pages: "Annapurna, to which we had gone emptyhanded, was a treasure on which we should live the rest of our days."
The book closes with a line as resounding and memorable as any in the literature of adventure: "There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men."
Fifty years later, Annapurna remains one of the canonic works in exploration literature. Published in forty languages, it has sold more than 11 million copies, making it the best-selling mountaineering book of all time. Though he would never again do any serious climbing, Herzog went on to become mayor of Chamonix and Minister of Youth and Sport under Charles de Gaulle. Today, at age eighty-one, he is the only surviving climber from Annapurna 1950 (the liaison officer, Francis de Noyelle, who never got above Camp II, also survives). In France, Herzog remains a household name, one of the country's eternal heroes of sport and exploration, in a league with the late Jacques Cousteau or Jean-Claude Killy. In contrast, as one mountaineering journalist estimates, only about five to seven percent of the French public has ever heard of Rébuffat, Terray, or Lachenal.
As for Herzog, the sense that despite -- even because of -- his personal tragedy, a marvelous new life had thereby opened to him seems to have tided him well into old age. In 1998, he published a memoir called L'Autre Annapurna (The Other Annapurna). In its opening pages, Herzog declared that nearly half a century after his "rebirth," the sense of having discovered a new life still infused him with an "indescribable happiness." He considered it his duty to share that revelation with his readers.
For this reader, growing up in Boulder, Colorado, in the late 1950s, Annapurna came as a stunning revelation. Since the age of thirteen or fourteen, I had checked out of the public library a number of classic Himalayan expedition narratives -- Paul Bauer on Nanga Parbat, Sir John Hunt on Everest, and the like -- and devoured their sagas of brave men at altitude. But mountaineering books were for me a kind of escape literature, not unlike the Hardy Boys mystery novels or Albert Payson Terhune's fables of faithful collies, such as Lad and Lassie. It never occurred to me, reading about Nanga Parbat or K2, that I might some day go on a mountaineering expedition myself.
Annapurna hit me hard. By the time I read the book, at age sixteen, I had started hiking up some of the inimitable "talus piles" of the Colorado Rockies -- shapeless lumps of scree and tundra strung along the Continental Divide, peaks such as Audubon, James, Grays, and Torreys. It took stamina to push on at 14,000 feet, and judgment to descend in the face of a July lightning storm, but I knew that what I was doing was a far cry from real mountaineering. Staring at a true precipice, such as the 2,000-foot-high east face of Longs Peak, I felt an ambivalent longing: surely it took the competence and arrogance of the gods to inch one's way, armed with ropes and pitons, up such dark landscapes of terror.
Annapurna ratcheted that uncertain longing into full-blown desire. When I put down the book -- swallowed in one sitting, as I recall -- I wanted more than anything else in the world to become a mountaineer.
Over the decades, Herzog's narrative has had precisely that effect on an inordinate number of adolescents of both sexes. It might seem curious that a tale fraught with near-death, with fearful trials by storm and cold, and finally with gruesome amputations of fingers and toes turned black and rotting, should encourage any reader to take up the perilous business of climbing. Yet so exalting were the ideals that Herzog lyrically sang -- loyalty, teamwork, courage, and perseverance -- that rational apprehension was drowned in a tide of admiration. Those Frenchmen -- Herzog, Lachenal, Terray, and Rebuffat -- were gods, or at least mythic heroes.
So I became a mountaineer, and then a writer about mountaineering. In 1980, having survived thirteen Alaskan expeditions of my own, I wrote an article for the Sierra Club's semiannual journal Ascent, called "Slouching Toward Everest," that tried to identify the finest mountaineering expedition books yet written, giving readers a taste of each. Summing up my roster of twenty-one classics, I concluded that Annapurna was the best of them all.
A decade and a half later, in February 1996, I met Michel Guérin for dinner in the French ski town of Morzine. A specialty publisher of mountaineering books based in Chamonix, Guérin and I had struck up an epistolary friendship based on many a mutual enthusiasm in the climbing world.
Our long evening's conversation took place mostly in French, for while Michel proved to be an elegant conversationalist in his native tongue, his spoken English tended to emerge in gnostic bursts of decidedly unidiomatic phraseology. Over our second Armagnac, the talk turned to Annapurna. Michel reminded me of my paramount ranking of Herzog's book in "Slouching Toward Everest," which he had recently read.
I nodded and said, "Don't you agree?"
It took a long moment for a wry smile to form around his cigarette; then he shook his head.
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.