Customer Reviews: Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8,000-Meter Peak
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on April 17, 2000
I wish I could give this book negative stars! Herzog's self-serving account of the Annapurna expedition has dominated a generation of climbing lore but it does not tell the real story. If you are considering reading this book, please find and read the accounts of the other Annapurna expedition members: legendary mountain guides Lionel Terray and Gaston Rebuffat .... and especially Louis Lachenal, "the panther of the snows," who was recognized (despite being crippled on Annapurna at only 28) as the most brilliant mountaineer of his generation.
Herzog was the least technically able member of the two lead ropes on Annapurna and the only amateur, but he was selected as the expedition leader by the organizers (i.e., financial backers). Before they left France, Herzog made the other climbers sign an oath of silence that they would not speak or write about Annapurna for five years after their return. The result: Herzog's lionization as the "Great White Chief" of the expedition--and, worst of all, Herzog's dastardly attempts to put down and silence Lachenal, who sacrificed his own feet to get Herzog to the summit and bring him off the mountain alive.
Herzog's account of the expedition in Annapurna played to the French public's need for heroes in the post-war era and established Herzog as a national idol (Rebuffat would later write disgustedly about Herzog's "miserable pedestal"). But Herzog told a nationalistic fairy tale that ignored the serious conflicts among the team members and the fact that (Rebuffat again): "Lachenal was the guide [on Annapurna], and Herzog the client."
When Lachenal died in 1955, only months before the end of Herzog's gag order, he was preparing to publish his own journals of the expedition ("Carnets du Vertige"). Herzog got control of the manuscript after Lachenal's death (another ugly story) and published a heavily edited posthumous version omitting all the parts that conflicted with Herzog's original account. Now, Lachenal's unedited journals have finally been published--and they are shaking up the climbing world by revealing the not-so-inspiring story of Annapurna that the other team members hinted at all along.
Lachenal's account makes clear that Herzog was delirious and totally disoriented long before they summitted. It also describes Herzog's insane obsession with taking photos on the summit (all of Herzog naturally!) despite Lachenal's warnings that they were getting more and more frostbitten, a storm was coming, and every second made it less likely they would get down alive. Most poignantly, Lachenal explains that he knew on the way up neither he nor Herzog were in fit shape to continue, but that Herzog refused to turn back. Lachenal went on to the summit, "though I knew it would cost me," because he also knew Herzog could never get down alive without him -- a pure and total sacrifice which had nothing to do with ambition and self-aggrandisement but was, in Lachenal's own words, "an affair of the rope."
Everyone who wants to know the real story of Annapurna should read Lachenal's journals -- and also Lionel Terray's wonderful book "Conquistadors of the Useless." Terray, who went on to conquer Makalu, the Fitzroy and other great peaks, gives perhaps the most knowleagable and objective account of the Annapurna expedition. He also tells the unforgettable story of the Lachenal-Terray rope -- the most famous climbing team of their generation -- from their brilliant ascents in the Alps, to the nightmarish retreat from Annapurna (where Terray gave up his own boots in a desperate attempt to save Lachenal's feet from amputation), to the travesty of their "victorious" return to France with Terray carrying the mutilated Lachenal in his arms.
Terray's heartbreaking homage to Lachenal--"the eagle whose wings were clipped on Annapurna"--gives a true picture of what the "friendship of the rope" is all about, from a legendary mountaineer who was ready to give his life for it every time he roped up.
So read them all -- Terray, Lachenal, Rebuffat, Herzog. Then make up your mind who YOU believe -- and who the real heroes of Annapurna were.
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on September 26, 2000
As an account of heroism, comradeship and self-sacrifice, this is a stunning book. It's inspired generations of climbers. If you're of a macabre turn of mind, it's worth reading for the frostbite scenes alone.
There's just one catch: It isn't really the truth. Beyond simply presenting the viewpoint of one participant, Annapurna involves whitewashing and even, more or less, lies. Dialogue scenes are Herzog's after the fact inventions, and events are manipulated to present a picture of unanimous heroism, with Herzog always in the lead.
I used to recommend this book as a matter of course. Now, I think anyone reading it should read Roberts' True Summit, and the writings of Herzog's team members, as well. That's the only way you'll get any picture of what the first ascent of Annapurna was really like.
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on December 10, 2011
I first read this book many years ago as a teenager and was enthralled by this story of adventure and tragedy in the exotic setting of the Himalayas. I had recently had the desire to re-read this exciting story and purchased the Kindle edition. The book was every bit as interesting and exciting as I remembered. The only flaw in the Kindle edition, although I have to consider it a serious one, is the lack of the many maps and photographs that were included in the original hard copy. The missing maps in particular made visualizing the descriptions of the expedition locations and routes almost impossible. For this reason alone I think it is worthwhile to hunt down a copy of the original hardback book.
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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.
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on June 12, 2004
When my Mum bought a beaten early edition back from the Hospital Auxillary Store it sat on my shelf for about a year before I decided to take it up. I had read tons of mountaineering literature before that time and much since, but this book is one of the benchmarks against which all others are measured. It is simply one of the greatest adventure stories. It is also proof that truth is indeed stranger than fiction. ( I am also aware of the fact that this is a very self-serving account of the expedition and that other players in this grande drama may have not recieved their due -- I will not address that in this review).

For those who are more familiar with all of the traditional British siege tactics used in the 50's, 60s and 70s will find French tactics and the general story familiar. What is different is the extended struggle for survival at altitude that is truly amazing. Having some mountaineering experience myself in extreme cold (though not at this altitude) I was constantly amazed by their ability to cheat death, just when you figure that they are all for the worms. Spending the night inside the crevasse is one of great fingernail biters of all time chapters. I am just left shaking my head that anyone could survive after a night without boots in extreme cold, at altitude --- and then attempt crawl off the mountain the next morning --- in stocking feet.

Of course they paid for it. Herzog himself supporating all over Nepal and Northern India, loosing digits and appendages for the glory of France.

This account is clearly colonial, sanitised in some points, and omits some of the fine climbing by other members of the group... so be it --- screw post-modernism, Jean Paul Sartre, and doubt. It is still one of the best ripping yarns in the mountaineering genre --- that modern climbers suffused with petty personal ego problems, the quest for personal gain and money could ever write so well --- that would be a miracle. Let the plain tales of the quest for rotten glory riegn.

Look for a worm eaten, faded copy. It will hold pride of place on your adventure shelf for many years to come.
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on May 2, 2003
This is perhaps the most famous and long lasting book in mountaineering. The account of how Herzog and Lachenal reached Annapurna's summit is the culmination of a long and difficult journey in which the team gets lost and found dozens of times.
I found most interesting to be the differences between an expedition in the 90s (such as described in Into Thin Air) and Herzog's expedition; it is hard to understand how they could ahve made it without the modern equipment, however they did pay the price through amputated limbs.
This is a mountaineering classic, perhaps the best one, despite the recent questions as to the veracity of the team dynamics described by Herzog. Herzog describes a team of selfless members that were working towards one common goal, to get one of them on the summit. Question have arisen on whether such dynamics were not exaggerated. Either way, it si a wonderful book to read, as Herzog takes us on a ride all the way to the summit and back. Highly recommended for the armchair mountaineer.
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on August 13, 2012
While considered a mountaineering classic, "Annapurna", or Maurice Herzog's account of the first expedition to successfully climb a 8000 m mountain is more a story of the expedition as a whole rather than a detailed account of technical climbing - the reader expecting a few hundred pages of which pitons were used, etc, may be a bit disappointed. I enjoyed the wider account of the expedition and the challenges associated with actually finding Annapurna (or the original objective, Dhaulagiri) and identifying a viable route up in poorly mapped country while racing the clock against the monsoon season - although Herzog's account has the relatively dry detachment I normally associate with the British upper-class explorer of the past and does not always succeed in conveying the immediacy or drama of the expedition. His account of the final stages of the climb and the near-disastrous aftermath is more compelling, although it is only through reading other works that I have been fully able to grasp the risks involved or the challenges imposed by the clothing and equipment of the day. The reader should be aware that there are other accounts of this expedition that dispute Herzog's version of events, and like the other reviewers of the kindle edition I find the lack of maps a considerable weakness.

Overall, an interesting account of an undoubtedly demanding and heroic expedition, although the reader who is looking for a more vivid picture of mountaineering of the era will almost certainly get more out of The White Spider. Probably a 3 1/2 star book, and an edition with the maps restored would almost nudge it up to 4 stars.
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on July 25, 2012
This book begins slowly and is quite dull for a very, very long time. And then, as those familiar with the first ascent of Annapurna will know, it gets interesting. Everything from the summit bid through the trip home is a great read. Unfortunately it's about a couple hundred pages in. Viesturs' book "The Will to Climb" brought on the urge to read this and, while I'm glad I did, I don't feel it lives up to the hype. That being said, it is full of some breath taking and horrific moments along with detailed accounts of post-frostbite treatment in the '50s that made my stomach turn.

In summation: read it if you love high-altitude mountaineering's history but take it with a grain of salt as Herzog himself has admitted that it's less than a literal account of the expedition.
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on October 31, 2010
The tale of the first ascent of Annapurna in the Himalayan mountains is as classic as it is fraught with problems. The journey took place in mid-1950 by a team of skilled Frenchmen led by Maurice Herzog who was the expedition leader, and climbing Annapurna would be the first 8,000 meter summit in history and therefore the highest peak reached to date. (Note: Mount Everest would not be summited until 1953 - three years later.)

The account is told from the perspective of the leader and the book's author, Herzog, and details the often routine and dangerous life of mountaineering pioneers in the mid-20th century. Their first objective was to scout out and attempt to scale another eight-thousander, Dhaulagiri, which stood at 8,167 meters. When that mountain proved too difficult and their time running out ahead of the monsoon season, they chose Annapurna, which stood equally formidable at 8,091 meters. Once the team located the best path up the mountain they hurriedly set about establishing the camps and making progress. The summit would be theirs, but not without considerable cost to their health and parts of their bodies succumbing to frostbite. The journey down would be agonizing for those in dire need and most affected by the elements.

My first problem with this book is the writing. Part of that is probably because it's been translated from French fifty years ago and part is probably because I am not a mountaineer and Annapurna was written by one. This story is for those who understand the heart of a climber; others will find it particularly self-absorbed. Another problem with this account, according to other reviewers, is that it is somewhat propaganda and not a true telling of what really happened. Herzog and Lachenal did reach the summit, but not necessarily in the heroic manner depicted in this book.

Annapurna is classic reading in the mountaineering genre, but that's probably because it was one of the first of its kind. It's status represents what it stands for and not what it says.
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on November 7, 2014
As someone who loves reading about the conquering of high peaks, I've been aware of this book for years but had never taken the time to read it until now. I'm glad I did. Maurice Herzog's account of the first conquest of an 8,000-meter peak starts a little slowly as we read about the organization of the trip, the long walk in, and the preliminaries as an alternate peak are discussed and investigated. Once the team finally settles on Annapurna as its goal, the pace picks up, and so does the tension as the men race against the first monsoon of the season. In an unbelievable push, Herzog and his climbing companion reach the top but are caught out on the way down by a massive blizzard created by the monsoon. It's only then that we see the true human cost of such daring as the two men and two others sent out to find them are forced to overnight in the elements. The trip back to civilization then becomes a race against time as the two men who triumphantly stood on the top of Annapurna suffer through multiple amputations of fingers and toes as gangrene sets into their frozen extremities.

This is not a perfect book. As I said, it's slow to get started, and the trip out of the mountains drags a bit, too. Of course, Herzog's account has subsequently been challenged by some of the others on his team and other authors (David Roberts' "True Summit"), as well. While I haven't yet picked up any of the other books on the subject, I have done more research, and if nothing else, I would have appreciated it if Herzog had added an afterwards telling what subsequently happened to him and his companions.

Obviously, Herzog knew he had to move quickly to cash in on his moment of fame, and he did. Considering that it took another 20 years for a second conquest of Annapurna, it's a feat to be proud of, and a book worth reading.
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