Thursday, November 7, 2013

Book review: "Annapurna" by Maurice Herzog

In the world of mountaineering, 1950 is ancient history. Mount Everest had not yet been climbed. The use of oxygen on high peaks wasn't common. And some of the highest mountains in the world were still shrouded in mystery.

In 1950, a French expedition ventured into Nepal hoping to be the first to climb a peak over 26,000 feet. But with bad maps and no aerial photographs to guide them, they spent weeks just trying to get close enough to a mountain to climb it. The one they finally chose, Annapurna, turned out to be doozy.

"Annapurna" is an account of this expedition by its leader, Maurice Herzog. It's not a particularly well-written book, but it still has some fascinating history and exciting moments.

If you're only looking for climbing adventure, there's much in the book you can skip. Fast forward to the summit attempt by Herzog and Louis Lachenal. On the way down, they and two other climbers get lost in a storm and struggle to stay alive. This gripping section is the best part of the book.

Still, it's interesting to read other parts of the expedition as well. Today, mountain climbing has become almost ruthlessly efficient as small parties summit fast and get down as quickly as possible. The 1950 expedition, by contrast, had nine Frenchmen and employed scores of Sherpas and porters to move goods and supplies in a series of camps. It took it months from start to finish.

While Herzog does fine recounting events, he doesn't do well portraying the people of the expedition. The Frenchmen are all portrayed as hard-working team members who rarely, if ever, complain. It's hard to tell them apart.

The relationships between the French and the Sherpas and porters is interesting, though sometimes uncomfortable for today's reader. Herzog has high praise for many of them. But there's a section near the end where the expedition forces local men to carry their supplies. Herzog rationalizes that they all get well-paid in the end.

If you stumble over some of the mountaineering lingo ("bergschrund," "cagoule") in the book, note that there's a glossary in the back. I didn't discover it until after I was done reading!

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