Friday, April 26, 2013

Book Review: True Summit

In June of 1950, a small French team made it to the summit of Annapurna under the leadership of Maurice Herzog. The mountain became the first 8,000 meter peak ever to be climbed and Herzog's best-selling account of his climb, Annapurna, is one of the most cherished mountaineering stories in the sport's history.

The summit of the mountain cost Herzog dearly. He lost all his fingers and toes to frostbite. Louis Lachenal, the man he went to the summit with, lost all of his toes. The other two climbers, Lionel Terray and Gaston Rebuffat, were forced to descend with the injured climbers after they made the summit, forgoing their own chances of success in order to provide the assistance that their teammates required.

Upon the team's return, Herzog was treated like a hero. He became an icon of the French mountaineering community and even held office as mayor of Chamonix. While hardcore mountain literature buffs know something about Lionel Terray and Gaston Rebuffat, most have never heard of them. And few know anything about Lachenal.  For all intents and purposes, the Annapurna experience placed Herzog squarely in the realm of celebrity, while the others drifted into obscurity.

Part of the reason that Herzog became so well known was because of the book that he wrote. Annapurna is a classic mountaineering tale, filled with bravado and legendary feats. It also paints Herzog as a heroic and intelligent character that kept a difficult expedition together and on track.

In True Summit, author David Roberts explains that he was very young when he first read Annapurna, and that the narrative had a profound effect on him. "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."

As an adult, a mountaineer, and a well-read author himself, Roberts befriended a French book publisher named Michael Guerin, who had knowledge of the Annapurna expedition. He noted that, "according to Lachenal and Rebuffat, 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."

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.

True Summit is the story of Annapurna told from the viewpoint of a meticulous researcher. It cuts through the idealized version of the story published in Herzog's tome and attempts to find the true narrative; the narrative where there isn't just one hero and those who would repress him, but instead the narrative where every character is shrouded in shades of gray.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the book is not that it takes Herzog off of his pedestal, but instead that it elevates Lachenal, Terray and Rebuffat to a level that they deserve. The trio worked hard to get to the summit, and two of the three worked hard to save their companions lives after they returned from the summit.

The true story of Annapurna is both fascinating and disturbing. Armchair mountaineers a have long relished in Herzog's self-promoted version of glory. Perhaps the time has come to hear a different version of the that is a little less biased...

--Jason D. Martin

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