Sunday, July 26, 2009
In 1950 Maurice Herzog lead a team of French mountaineers to climb the 26,250 ft peak Annapurna in Nepal. It was the first team in the history of mankind to scale a 8000 m peak. Also, the team completed the expedition without any oxygen supply. What makes this expedition more thrilling is, that it was carried out with sketchy
and inadequate maps. The team didn't even know the exact location of the peak. It sounds adventurous, but at the same time really scary to me and the team had their share of both during the expedition.
The book starts with a brief introduction of each of the team members of the expedition. If I am right, there were around six climbers in the team and they were the best in France. One of the climber was also a doctor. As you read further, you will realize that he played a very important role in the success of the expedition.
Most of the climbers had been on several expeditions in Alps and other European mountain ranges. So with a team of finest climbers, Maurice departs France to scale a 8000 meter peak in the Himalayas.
The journery to Nepal, is via India. The team lands in some airport in India and is supposed to take a flight to Nepal. But, the customs find out that the team is violating some regulations with respect to the amount of luggage permitted in the aircraft. Here Maurice makes a comment which goes something like "...in India all problems can be solved if you can deal properly..." It seems that the French team bribed the Indian authorities or used some influence to board the aircraft with their extra luggage. Anyway...things were not much different even half a century back :)
In Nepal, the team gets the desired permit and is accompanied by one of the King's officer, who will help them in getting porters and will also take care of other needs of the team. As the team hikes through different villages of Nepal, Maurice does a very good job of providing minute details of the village and the people around. If you have ever been to any of the villages in North Eastern states, you can relate to the narration very well.
After few days of hiking the climbers reach a place where they decide to camp for the next few days and finalize the route to the peak. Initially I think the team had planned to climb Dhaulagiri - another peak next to Annapurna. In a team of two, the climbers explore the region and create a topographical map for their reference. After days of exploration and careful analysis, the team concludes that Dhaulagiri is not a feasible peak to climb. Now, its destination Annapurna. At this point of time, you can see slight differences developing between Maurice and other climbers. Maurice believes in spending more time knowing the topography and understanding the routes, whereas others were eager to start the actual climb to the peak.
The team finalizes the route to Annapurna. There would be five camps en route the peak. Soon the base camp is established, and movement of each group along with the sherpas is planned, to ensure that everyone has enough strength and resources to finish the expedition. The team had lost a lot of time and monsoon was real close. Once it starts raining the climb would be impossible. Every single day was important. Two climbers along with some sherpas set out for the next camp. Three teams take turns in climbing and establishing the camp.
One by one, all the camps are established. Maurice and Lachenal are all set to make the final assault to the summit. Monsoon had already arrived in India and there might be storms any moment at Annapurna. After struggling through the climb, Maurice and Lachenal make it to the summit. Annapurna is conquered. Maurice is overwhelmed at the accomplishment and takes some pictures. Lachenal is equally happy but wants to go back to the camp as soon as possible. He fears that his feet has got frostbite. So when Maurice is still taking pictures, Lachenal rushes down. Soon Maurice follows him. Suddenly Maurice gets the shock of his life. One of his gloves is missing. He lost it at the peak. The weather was getting worse and there was no question of going back to get the gloves. Maurice knows what it means to expose your hand at this altitude, he will get frostbite for sure and thus risk his fingers.
Soon Maurice and Lachenal reach Camp 5 where they meet two other climbers from their group. The team is happy to have climbed the Annapurna peak, but at the same time no expedition is considered successful till you return to your base camp alive. One of the climbers who is a doctor works on Maurice and Lachenal. Lachenal's toes have turned blue but they will recover as they climb down. But Maurice is in bad shape. His fingers are dead and he might loose all of them. The worst was yet to come. The team sets out to return to Camp 4. Little did they know that it was going to be their deadliest night of their life. The weather continues to be worse. The team struggles to spot Camp 4 given its tricky location. The search continues for a while, but then the team gives up and to get a cover from the storm, all of them slip into a ditch just big enough for all four of them. The team spends the entire night in the ditch at freezing temperature. Maurice's condition goes from bad to worse and has actually given up any hope of making it to the base camp alive. Lachenal has got frostbite on his toe and can barely walk. The other two are also in bad shape, but at this point of time they gather all their energy to guide Maurice and Lachenal to Camp 4.
The climbers set out to find out the elusive Camp 4 and realize that they were actually just few yards away from the camp. Due to the storm the visibility was really low and their 'help' shouts were hardly heard. Maurice and Lachenal are again treated at the Camp 4. They are completely snow-blinded. Sherpas have to literally hold their hands and guide them all the way to the base camp. Maurice actually has to be carried on a make-shift chair by a Sherpa. Sherpas while climbing up, struggled on the slippery surfaces and difficult climbs. But they are quick learners and now they manage to get their snow-blinded 'sahibs' back to the base camp safely.
In the book, Maurice elaborates on how the strengths and the weaknesses of the Sherpa community.
Lachenal loses his toe, but Maurice is actually the one who suffers the maximum loss. His fingers has to be amputated. He will never be able to go on a similar expedition. He has to be content with smaller climbs at Charmonix in France, which has been his playground. Maurice is although happy to be alive and to have successfully climbed the highest peak in human history. He has engraved his name in the annals of mountaineering. Back in Nepal, Maurice is presented the highest honorary award by the Nepal King. People back home in France are delighted at the success of their team.
Two years later, Maurice incapable of writing, narrated the experience to his brother and thus came the book "Annapurna". The book has sold around 11 million copies - more than any other book on climbing. But the book also had its share of criticism. Some feel that Maurice has been very pompous in his writing and has not credited his teammates appropriately. Years later, the other team members have published their own account of the expedition. In spite of all the controversy surrounding the book, it remains one of the best books on climbing and provides a lot of inputs on what all goes into the preparation of a mountaineering expedition. Also, the book has been an inspiration to a generation of mountaineers.
I read this book for two reasons, first 'The Himalayas' and second 'Mountaineering'. I have never done any mountaineering, as in with all the gears, so it was difficult to understand all the terms, but still I enjoyed reading the book. The book is not just about the Himalayas and the climbing experience of the mountaineers, but its also about the attitude and mental strength of the individuals that enabled them to overcome all obstacles, to ignore all differences and achieve something that people just dreamed about.
The book ends with an inspiring quote -
"There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men"