Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Annapurna story - unexpurgated

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the first time that man reached the summit of Annapurna, Nepal, and the first time, in fact, that any mountain over 8,000 metres had been ascended to its summit. The summit was achieved by Maurice Herzog, the leader of the French expedition, and Louis Lachenal. Herzog went on to write a best-selling account of the climb and was much feted, while Lachenal died a few years later in a skiing accident. A diary and notes kept by Lachenal on the expedition were published soon after his death, but in a much edited form, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that an unexpurgated publication of Lachenal’s records revealed a number of disturbing aspects about the Annapurna expedition.

In 1950, tor the first time in over a century, the Nepalese government granted permission for a French mountaineering expedition to climb Annapurna, at 8,091 metres (26,545 ft), the highest peak in the Annapurna Massif. On 3 June, Herzog and Lachenal reached the summit, though it was only with much help from their team that they were able to return alive, both suffering severe injuries from frostbite. Wikipedia has a detailed account of the expedition - here is a short extract from its description of the final push to the summit (after the sherpas had decided to descend).

‘Not understanding that being at high altitude without additional oxygen induces apathy, in a severe gale the climbers spent the night without eating anything or sleeping, and in the morning they did not bother lighting their stove to make hot drinks. At 06:00 it was no longer snowing and they ascended farther. Finding that their boots were proving to be inadequately insulated, Lachenal, fearing losing his feet to frostbite, contemplated going down. He asked Herzog what he would do if he did turn back and Herzog replied that he would go on up alone. Lachenal decided to continue on with Herzog. A last couloir let them to the summit which they reached at 14:00 on 3 June 1950. Herzog estimated the height as 8,075 metres (26,493 ft) - his altimeter read 8,500 metres (27,900 ft). They had climbed the highest summit ever reached, the first eight-thousander, on their first attempt on a mountain that had never before been explored. Herzog, writing in his characteristically idealistic way, was ecstatic: “Never have I felt happiness like this, so intense and pure.” On the other hand, Lachenal only felt “a painful sense of emptiness”.

Lachenal was anxious to go down as soon as possible but he obliged Herzog by photographing his leader holding the Tricolour on the summit and then a pennant from Kléber, his sponsoring employer. After about an hour on the summit, not waiting for Herzog in his euphoric state to load another roll of film, Lachenal set off back down at a furious pace. Herzog, swallowing the last of his food - from a nearly empty tube of condensed milk - threw the tube down on the summit as that was the only memorial he could leave and he trailed behind Lachenal into a gathering storm.’

Leaving the mountain proved very difficult with monsoon rains arriving; both climbers lost fingers and or toes to frostbite. The expedition, however, was deemed a great success in France, with the famous magazine Paris Match printing a special edition on the climb. A photograph of Herzog, taken by Lachenal (though mistakenly not credited to him), holding a tricolour flag at the summit, graced the cover - and would become an iconic image. Herzog was kept in hospital for the best part of a year where he dictated his book, Annapurna, premier 8000, which sold over 11 million copies worldwide to become the best selling mountaineering book in history. He became the first international mountaineering celebrity after George Mallory, and went on to be a successful politician.

Lachenal, however, died of a skiing accident in 1955. Before his death, he had been preparing his own book about the expedition, based on a diary and notes he had kept, as well as a commentary which was already in typescript form. These were inherited by Lachenal’s son, Jean-Claude. However, being friendly with Herzog’s family, he allowed his father’s project to be guided by Maurice Herzog’s brother, Gérard. The resulting book - Carnets du Vertige (1956) - had been purged and edited to remove several important and serious criticisms of the expedition and Herzog himself. It would be another 40 years - during Lachenal was largely forgotten - before his diary, notes and commentary were finally published in an unexpurgated form - Carnets du Certige (1996). This, and Herzog’s subsequent attempt to rebuff Lachenal’s version of events, caused a ‘storm of revisionism’ in the French press (according to Wikipedia again). For more details on this extraordinary episode in mountaineering history, see Sue Harper in Alpine Journal, Paul Webster in The Guardian, or True Summit: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent on Annapurna by David Roberts (Simon and Schuster, 2013 - some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks).

The latter is the source for the following extracts (which include translated examples from Lachenal’s diary).

‘[. . .] On June 10, Lachenal complained to his diary: “I have to ask for everything several times and wait forever before receiving it. Even the food - I must literally yell to get someone to bring me any. Everybody, sahibs and Sherpas alike, out of a natural attraction to the leader, fusses around Momo, who in my opinion knows how to make the most of it. All this might seem bad will on my part, certainly I probably shouldn't write it, but if not, will it be remembered afterward?” ’


‘Lachenal’s diary methodically records the daily tribulations. On June 12, “Momo was awakened by the need to piss, so I had to help him get it done.” The day before, “The descent for me was extremely painful, although a bit numbed by morphine.” On the 12th, Lachenal took the dressings off his feet to look at the damage. “They have a lot of swelling. I have to hold them vertical, exposed to the air, until the swelling almost disappears”

On June 14, Lachenal and Herzog got involved in a “violent polemic,” after disagreeing whether to camp at a notch in the ridge or, as Lachenal and Rébuffat desired, descend farther. Herzog’s wish prevailed. Lachenal's congenital impatience could not drive the stricken party’s retreat any faster than a halting plod. In one moment, he could take pity on the Sherpa carrying him on his back; in the next, he was fed up with everyone around him.

On the dangerous traverse to the pass on the south ridge of the Nilgiris, a laden porter slipped and fell to his death. Annapurna fails to note this tragedy, which only Lachenal’s diary documents.

With time heavy on his hands, Lachenal wrote lengthier entries in his diary than he had earlier, when he had still been caught up in the daily tasks of the expedition. Fully a third of the diary is given over to the retreat, and those passages abound in vivid detail. In 1956, however, Lucien Devies and Gérard Herzog condensed thirty-four days’ worth of entries into a scant two and a half undated pages in the published Carnets du Vertige. Those cobbled-together extracts disproportionately emphasize Lachenal’s occasional happy remarks, as when he notices a beautiful countryside or rejoices at receiving letters from his wife brought by couriers from distant outposts. Virtually all evidence of conflict, disgust, despair - or for that matter, morphine - has been expunged.’


‘Meanwhile, the down-to-earth Lachenal cursed the delay in Lété. All his frustration and suffering are packed into an extraordinary sentence he wrote in his diary on June 20.

“My feet give me a lot of trouble and I have truly had enough of this, of the noise of the Kali [Gandaki, the river the caravan followed], always the same, of listening constantly to people around me talking in a shrill language that I don’t understand, of suffering, of being dirty, of being hot, of being injected by idiots, of not sleeping, of not being able to move around, of being surrounded by no one who is kind to me, of passing whole days alone on my stretcher with at best one Sherpa as companion, with no sahibs, knowing full well that nothing will get done, not even ordinary tasks, without my having to ask many times and then to wait a long, long time.” ’

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