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EXTREME ADVENTURE FOR THE GLORY OF FRANCE AT 8,000 METERS
on August 6, 2000
This book is a romanticized, sanitized account of the 1950 French expedition to the Himalayas by its so-called leader, Maurice Herzog. It is a book that is reflective of the times in which it was written. Still, it should be a must read for anyone who is interested in high altitude climbing.
I first read this book in the early 1960s as a young teenager. I recall being enthralled by it and amazed at the hardships the climbers endured to bring glory to France. In reading it again as an adult, I find myself still enthralled, but more attuned to the fact that it is written in a somewhat self-serving style.
The book itself chronicles the attempt by the French to climb an 8,000 meter peak in the Himalayas. They had two alternatives: Dhaulagiri and Annapurna. In those days, the Himalayas were largely uncharted and any topographical maps, which existed at the time proved to be largely incorrect. So, the French expedition spent a large portion of their time in reconnaissance. Not only were they there to climb the mountain, they had to find a way to get to it and then map out a route on the unknown terrain to the summit. Ultimately, they chose to climb Annapurna.
In reading this book, one must remember that the climb took place without the sophisticated equipment or protective clothing available today. This was before gortex and freeze-dried foods. This climb was made before Nepal or climbing the Himalayas became a major tourist attraction. The conditions for travelers were extremely primitive and difficult under the best of circumstances.
When the expedition finally finds a route to Annapurna, the reader almost feels like cheering for them. When they start to climb, one senses that, in comparison to latter day expeditions, they are not so well equipped or savvy about the dangers one can encounter during a high altitude climb or the risks in doing it without supplemental oxygen, as they did. Then one realizes that they were pioneers. They were paving the way for others.
The climb to the summit by Maurice Herzog and his partner, Louis Lachenal, is interesting, but it is their harrowing descent and return to civilization that is riveting. The two summiteers begin their descent but run into difficulties. They are fortunate to encounter two of their fellow climbers, Lionel Terray and Gaston Rebuffat, who are contemplating their own summit assault but, instead, choose to aid their comrades in the descent, foregoing their own quest for the summit.
The travails which the climbers encounter on the descent would have finished off less hardy souls. Maurice Herzog loses his gloves during the descent and has no spare pair. One of them falls into a crevasse which, believe it or not, turns out to be a good thing. They are caught in an avalanche. They get lost in a storm. They become frostbitten and two of them, are, ultimately, forced to endure amputations.
The medical treatment they received by the expedition doctor is unbelievable and almost primitive. Employing treatments for frostbite that have since fallen onto disrepute (excruciatingly painful arterial injections, for example), the doctor is almost frightening, at times. The reader cannot help but feel pity for the suffering the injured climbers endured: maggot ridden flesh, amputations without anaesthesia, and lack of proper medical care for a protracted period of time.
The heroics of some of the Sherpas, as on most expeditions, go largely unsung. One must, however, pause to reflect on the fact that as this all took place before airlifts were available, the injured climbers had to be carried. Their exodus back to the frontier took about five weeks. Who carried them down the mountain, over the moraines, on makeshift bridges over flooded, raging rivers, through dense jungle? Who else but the Sherpas. What thanks did they get? None, as usual.
Anyway, when the expedition finally return to France, Maurice Herzog is lauded as a national hero by the French. He becomes the media darling. The other three climbers, as are the rest of those on the expedition, are largely ignored and forgotten. Therein lies the tale. If you want to know how this polarization came about, I highly recommend that you also read 'True Summit' by David Roberts. It gives you the inside scoop about the expedition and how things really were.
Notwithstanding its idealization, romanticism, and everything is hunky-dory routine, Herzog's book is still a must read for all climbing enthusiasts.