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The First Eight-Thousander

On June 3, 1950, Frenchmen Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal became the first climbers to summit the forbidding Himalayan peak Annapurna I, in north-central Nepal.  This triumph, an unimaginable struggle against hardship (both interpersonal and physical), was completed without supplemental oxygen, and would mark the first of the world’s fourteen 8,000 meter peaks to be climbed.

Spectacular at 8,091 meters (26,545 feet), and for so long unscalable, Annapurna I is grouped among five numbered peaks in the Annapurna massif.  The tenth highest mountain in the world, it is considered the most dangerous.  More than 50 expert climbers have died on its icy face, and scarcely more than 100 have made it to the top and back.  These are bad odds, by any measure.

Despite the monumental struggle its first climbers faced in getting there, Annapurna would not stand long as the highest summit attained: a mere three years later, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay would summit the taller Everest, the “second” eight-thousander.

Rather a Difficult Time

Expedition leader Maurice Herzog’s best-selling account of the epic climb, Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8,000 Meter Peak, promotes him to the general public as the face of the quest.  But within mountaineering circles, everyone understands a more nuanced truth: Herzog summitted only because of assistance and loyalty from his French climbing partner, Louis Lachenal, an accomplished montagnard in his own right – and both were saved on descent by legendary alpinist, Gaston Rébuffat, for whom the climbing maneuver “to gaston” was named.  With Rébuffat was also the seasoned climber Lionel Terray, and several others, all French.

Looking back on the lives these men led after Annapurna, it is easy to say that Lachenal, Rébuffat and Terray – all serious mountain guides from Chamonix – were the pure climbers, while Herzog was the ambitious, entrepreneurial and self-promoting bully-athlete – a Lance Armstrong without the EPO.  By their account, Herzog was chasing less the purity of the climb and more its accolades and glory, along with a nationalistic chauvinism for France, all of which he achieved, and then some.  For indeed, these were the days when all of Europe was obsessed with “conquering” the world’s tallest peaks, a nationalistic arms race – with crampons.

What Herzog also achieved was best-seller status.  His Annapurna has sold over 11 million copies, and is considered the most popular mountaineering book of all time.  Remarkably, he dictated the book while recuperating from frostbite, multiple amputations and exhaustion at the American Hospital in Neuilly, France, where he (in his own words) was “having rather a difficult time.”  No doubt, one of climbing’s great understatements.

“If I Go Back?”  
Herzog’s account describes a nightmarish quest of (his) courage, camaraderie and also near catastrophe.  Opting for light leather boots on the summit dash, Herzog and Lachenal suffered severe frostbite on their toes, which, on descent, all had to be amputated – emphasizing yet again the crucial importance of proper gear.

In Gaston Rébuffat’s own magnificent mountaineering book, Starlight and Storm, first published in 1956, he recounts what may be the most famous (and fateful) exchange in all climbing, as Lachenal (in those thin leather boots) starts to feel his toes going numb:

“If I go back,” Lachenal asks Herzog, “what will you do?”

“I should go on by myself,” Herzog replies, ever determined.

“Then I’ll follow you,” says Lachenal, knowing that if he didn’t, Herzog would surely die, trading his toes for his leader’s life.

Not For Another Twenty Years

The hardship would not end there.  When Herzog insists on hoisting not one but three flags on the highest mountain yet climbed by a man – the French tricolor, the flag of the French Alpine Club, and even the flag of Kléber Colombes, the tire company for which he worked – Herzog loses his gloves.  This error would cost him his fingers, which went the way of his toes – amputated on the mountain.
Rébuffat then describes what, in retrospect, seems like Herzog’s altitude-induced hypoxia:

“After the sequence of the flags … Maurice organized his ecstasy. Losing, if not his reason, at least his sense of reality, he began … to soar, plunged into a kind of happiness, a beatitude of the moment when a sense of the real ought to have been primordial.” 
Only the cannier Lachenal sensed the absolute need to get down at once.  Left to his own “ecstasy”, Herzog would certainly have frozen to death.

Exhausted and frostbitten, as Herzog and Lachenal stumbled down from the peak in a storm, it is Rébuffat and Terray who are credited with saving their lives.  The four men would then spend the night bivouaced in a crevasse with only one sleeping bag between them – a night they would not likely repeat, nor forget.

The price Herzog paid (all fingers and all his toes) to bag this summit would almost be as steep as Annapurna’s face.  Considering the hardship, it is no surprise that the mountain would not be “conquered” for another 20 years.

Sworn to Silence

Translated from Sanskrit, Annapurna means “Goddess of the Harvests”, the mother who feeds.  What she fed, in this instance, would be an enduring debate over what actually happened on the climb.

We know that history is told by the winners, and because it was Herzog who got to tell his story first, it was, for over four decades, the only one people knew.  Eventually, in 1996, another less flattering truth would emerge when, more than 40 years after the climb, Lachenal’s posthumous letters were published.  Intriguingly, for decades, Lachenal’s writing had been purged of passages unflattering to Herzog by its “editor” – Maurice Herzog.

In Lachenal’s own words we finally learn that Herzog had ambushed his fellow climbers at the airport just before they were to leave for Nepal, demanding they sign a contract declaring they could not write about the climb for five years – perhaps mountaineering’s first non-compete clause.  Offended, Rébuffat and Lachenal were tempted to quit right there, but sensing destiny perhaps, they elected to go along.  Herzog could chase glory; they were in it for the climb.

Thus silenced, Lachenal melted into obscurity after the climb and died of cancer just five years hence.  And though Rébuffat would go on to burnish his cred as the pure mountaineer par excellence, and write extensively about climbing, his most famous mountaineering book, Starlight and Storm, would mention Annapurna only in passing, which is like Federer not talking about Wimbledon, or Jordan the slam dunk.   This, because of the onerous contract.

Metaphors of Conflict

Aware what Herzog had invented of himself for the world at large, Rébuffat, to his credit, allowed him to promote his personal (and national) chauvinism long after the five-year contract had expired.  He knew the French character all too well; to undermine Herzog’s “hero” construct would amount to a form of national apostasy.

Effusive and poetic, Rébuffat for his entire life remained ardently skeptical of all that was hypocritical, nationalistic and egomaniacal in mountaineering – especially the notion of a climb as an “attack” on a peak’s “weakness”, and the need to “conquer” a mountain like an enemy.

Rébuffat loved his mountains and his craft too much to embrace these metaphors of conflict.  And yet, on Annapurna, he could see all these characteristics in Herzog, as their leader consciously starting to orchestrate the “heroic” role he would play the rest of his life.

Society Judged Him To Be Good

In the end, little of this dispute actually matters.  The fact is, in June 1950, a handful of French men got the urge to try to defy death by attempting something that had never been done – scaling Annapurna – and they succeeded.  Without Herzog, regardless how driven to self-promotion he was, this climb would never have happened.  He organized it, he financed and led it, and in the end, because of his egotism and drive, controlled the narrative of it, much to Rébuffat and Lachenal’s chagrin.

Unpopular as revisionist climbing history may make him seem, Herzog still did summit Annapurna before anyone else could.  How many dare to dream that big?  How many can say that they went where even the great Rébuffat could not?

The fact remains: Herzog had the idea, grit and tenacity to be the first up that mountain; the vision to write (actually talk) exclusively about it while nursing his lost toes and fingers, and no character-downsizing or historical “correction” can take that from him.  It requires a human being of exceptional life force and physical and mental stamina to achieve something of this magnitude, and live to tell the tale.  And tell it Herzog did, again and again.

Predigested Happiness

Until his death in December 2012, Herzog remained unapologetic.  He maintained that on a stormy June day in 1950, on the summit of the first “eight thousander”, he felt “what we call happiness”.  And he believes that he felt it precisely because the “planned, organized, predigested happiness that the modern world offers is not complete”.  On that day, though, his life was.  Rébuffat’s description of his “ecstasy” seems to corroborate it.

Herzog’s talk of happiness is not the talk of a fantasist.  It’s the talk of a doer whose resume was complete when he hit what he aimed for: the impossible.  He understood that people need to dream, to reach for their impossible, and he was wise enough to graft this wisdom into the last line of his book, a line as immortal as his feat, and of course, the mountain on which he achieved it:

“There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.” 
For those who climbed with Herzog, there would be an “other” Annapurna.  But for Herzog there was no other.  He had found his.  And he had given more than his right hand to get it.