Maurice Herzog was the first person to reach the summit of Annapurna, one of the 8,000 meter peaks. The expedition he guided in 1950 suffered tremendously on the way down, as did Herzog who lost all fingers and toes to frostbite. His account of the journey was a testimony to the team-building self-sacrifice and wonderful spirit of the four mountaineers (less was said of the Sherpas who carried Herzog and Lachenal for miles on the descent.) His colleagues, Lionel Terray, Gaston Rebuffat and Louis Lachenal, were successful climbers in their own right, and Terray’s and Lachenal’s mountaineering books are considered classics. Herzog’s book, which he dictated from his hospital bed, made him a national hero in France. The question Roberts raises in his book is whether Herzog’s account is true.
Herzog made himself into a hero with canny public relations and perhaps by not emphasizing the important role his colleagues played in the ascent. He made each of them sign contracts not to publish before they left. That he was self-aggrandizing is not in doubt. In my experience, mountaineers who write books about their feats all tend to have blinders on, completely understandable when you consider their isolation, even when in a group, as they make the climb.
David Roberts compared the individual accounts of each climbers diary with Herzogs published version and notes what Herzog changed or omitted. He intersperses his narrative with comments of his own reflections about climbing, and he then uses the other climbers' reports and diaries to dismantle Herzog's self-aggrandizing recollections. In the end, I think the author is perhaps making a mountain from a valley. He says it best himself:
Surely the discrepancies begged critics to accuse him of dishonesty. The new, more self- serving version might cast a better light on Herzog, but it was an open invitation to readers such as myself to call his rewriting bluff. The third possibility, I thought, was that this is indeed how memory works, in all its fallible reinvention of the past. After nearly fifty years, Herzog’s emotions about those dramatic days high on Annapurna had perhaps restructured his memories… These reconstructions need not be cynical, or even fully conscious, on Herzog’s part. They could be the fruit of memory’s seizing again and again on disturbing, pivotal events, reshaping them with each rehearsal, trying to find meaning where there was only happenstance.
A terrific book for anyone who likes to read about mountaineering and even, perhaps, those interested in the malleability (not to mention fallibility) of memory.
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