On June 3, 1950, three years before anyone would stand on top of Everest, French mountaineers Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal knocked off the first of the 8,000-meter giants: 26,545-foot Annapurna.
For three years, Annapurna was the highest anyone had ever climbed on earth. The accomplishment would be overshadowed on the world stage when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay stepped onto the summit of Everest in 1953, but the Annapurna summit was groundbreaking and to this day commands the respect of mountaineers. The French team was in unknown terrain; it reconnoitered, planned and pulled off its summit attempt in one season; and it didn’t use supplemental oxygen. The French hadn’t even seen the mountain before deciding to climb it.
Faced with cold, then numb toes on their summit day, Lachenal and Herzog, seen above post-climb, knew what might happen as they charged toward the summit. In a poignant passage in Herzog’s classic book about the climb, Annapurna, he recalled the scene. Lachenal grabbed Herzog and asked, “If I go back, what will you do?” Herzog wrote:
In an hour or two, perhaps, victory would be ours. Must we give up? 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. I heard my voice clearly: “I should go on by myself.”
Lachenal, a career mountain guide and climber (he had made the second ascent of the North Face of the Eiger with Lionel Terray in 1947), would surely face the end of his climbing career if he went on and lost his toes. Uttering one of the most famous lines in mountaineering history, he replied, “Then I’ll follow you.”
Lachenal died skiing in Chamonix in 1955 when he fell into a crevasse, four years after Herzog’s Annapurna was published. It was translated to English in 1952 and went on to sell 11 million copies, making it the bestselling mountaineering book of all time. Its stark narration about the climb and disastrous descent made Herzog a celebrity.
The peak would not see a second ascent for 20 years, in 1970, when a British expedition summited. In the 62 years since its first successful climb, it has the highest fatality-to-summit ratio of any of the 8000-meter peaks: Through August 2010, 183 climbers had summited Annapurna and 61 had died trying. (400 people summited Everest in the 2012 season alone) Herzog and Lachenal paid the price on their descent; Herzog lost all of his toes and most of his fingers to frostbite and gangrene, and Lachenal lost all of his toes – to emergency amputations performed in the field, without anaesthetic.
Over the years, detractors would point out that Herzog’s narrative was romanticized, an account intended to paint a flawlessly heroic picture of the climb, glossing over bickering on the expedition, and focusing on its hero, Herzog – who had forced expedition members to sign contracts saying they would not write about the expedition. Journalist David Roberts published True Summit: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent on Annapurna in 2002, and Herzog’s daughter Félicité Herzog wrote in her 2012 autobiographical novel Un Heros, “Beyond the fabulous legend which he created for himself, which he fought to preserve every step of the way, he behaved as if he had no wish to hand anything down.”
Without his toes and many of his fingers, he largely retired from climbing, but continued to ski, travel, and fly airplanes. Herzog was France’s Minister of Youth and Sport from 1958 to 1963, mayor of Chamonix from 1966 to 1977, and served on the International Olympic Committee from 1970 to 1995, helping France land the 1992 Winter Games.
He died of natural causes at age 93 on December 13, 2012. In his obituary, the New York Times quoted an essay he wrote for the newspaper in 1953, reminiscing about his first climbing trip in the Alps:
“I believe what I felt that day closely resembles what we call happiness,” he wrote. “I also believe that if I felt such happiness in such rigorous circumstances it is because the planned, organized, predigested happiness that the modern world offers is not complete. It leaves certain sides of man’s nature unsatisfied.”
Photos: “Annapurna”/E.P. Dutton, Paris Match