Published first in 1952, this fabulous and gripping read is the French expedition leader Maurice Herzog’s account of the first ascent of the mighty Annapurna (8091m) – the tenth highest mountain in the world and the very first 8000m peak to be climbed at that time – in the pre-monsoon season of 1950. The first ever ascent of an eight-thousander, made the French expedition team national heroes overnight. Their heroic conquest stirred up general mountaineering interest the world over.
Ever since it was first published more than six decades back, the book Annapurna, detailing the first conquest of an 8,000m peak, continues to be a bestselling classic of mountain and adventure climbing literature. Originally written in French language, the book was later translated into English language and subsequently into over 50 different languages. So far the book is said to have sold more than 15 million copies worldwide.
Positioned in the Himalayas in north-central Nepal that includes Annapurna I over 8,000 metres, thirteen peaks over 7,000 metres and sixteen peaks of more than 6,000 metres, Annapurna Himal is a Sanskrit designation to the massif that translates into “full of food” and is revered as Goddess of Harvests. The main peak is held to be an intimidating peak with a deadly reputation. Even to get a close view of the main peak is a no mean task; a fact which is upheld by the mountaineering fraternity and the Annapurna peaks are considered to be among the world’s most dangerous mountains to climb. With an overall fatality-to-summit ratio of 40 per cent, many world class climbers prefer the Annapurna to be their last option among the eight-thousanders. Just a couple of years ago, in October 2014, 39 people were killed as a result of snowstorms and avalanches in the Annapurna region.
Back in 1950, with numerous handicaps including that of any accurate Himalayan map, route guide, technological aids or technically sound gear, the French expedition led by the author Maurice Herzog set out to try their hands at either Dhaulagiri or the Annapurna. For more than a month, the team initially struggled looking for a feasible route to either Dhaulagiri or Annapurna. Just as they hear the arrival of monsoons, the group having decided the Dhaulagiri to be out of reach and way too difficult, fix and direct their efforts to the North Face of the mighty Annapurna.
The telling account begins with myriad nuisances of establishing base camp, provisioning foods and supplies as well as arranging porters and alliancing with locals. The team begin with multiple exploratory reconnaissance where each expedition member has a specific task assigned to survey the area around Annapurna and its neighbour Dhaulagiri; trying to find a feasible access to the top of either one.
Slowly but painstakingly, and at times frustratingly, the team arrives at a conclusion with respect to the routes and plans to conquer either one of the prized peaks. With the arrival of monsoons in Calcutta, the final assault starts taking shape to climb the Annapurna. After which the frustration started to peter out and pitches became more productive and realistic. With their expertise, enthusiasm and not to forget the exceptional camaraderie which is so uncommon in today’s world of mountaineering, the team quickly established the trail and camps up the mammoth Annapurna.
Against the overpowering odds of the harsh Himalayan terrain and weather, the determined team carried on with complete synchronisation keeping in mind the dangers ahead. The mannerism of planning and detailing to gain the height reflect on the fundamental discipline in French team members. With persistence they carried on successfully. The entire narrative is quite readable and realistically presents minor details seemingly live time.
On the fateful day of June 03, 1950 Maurice Herzog and his teammate Louis Lachenal reached the summit of Annapurna without any supplemental oxygen. The harrowing descent in the bad weather, however, turned into a nightmare with Herzog losing his gloves in excitement after which his hands became frostbitten. Lachenal’s feet too became severely frostbitten. As they both barely make it back to camp V, Lionel Terray and Gaston Rebuffat helped them to ease but the rough weather obstructed all their plans to descend the slope safely. The team wandered helplessly on the exposed slopes before finding a crevasse to spend the night. As they emerge out of it next morning, they get caught in an avalanche. The raw but expert medical treatment and care they both received right from camp II in the open to the plains, by the expedition doctor, was truly exceptional.
After descending from the sanctuary, the end part of the book deals with multiple amputations of the two infected climbers and village life as the author is carried on the back of a porter or on a stretcher through hills and jungles on their way back to civilisation of the plains. The book is a gripping account of the heroic climb and is definitely one of the best I have ever come across. Herzog’s masterful narrative makes it to be one of the greatest mountain-adventure stories of all time. The latest edition of the book in English featuring a foreword by the legendary Conrad Anker is averagely priced at Rs 900 at Amazon and Flipkart. I totally recommend this book to someone who is a keen enthusiast of the Himalayas and especially mountaineering.