Maurice Herzog

 Mick Conefrey|   | 

Last week saw the death of one of the great figures in post-war mountaineering, Maurice Herzog. Famous for the first ascent of Annapurna, I would argue that he was equally important in his impact on mountaineering literature.

In 1950 Maurice Herzog led the French team which made the first ascent of Annapurna in Nepal. It was the first 8000m peak to be climbed, inaugurating a second  ‘golden age’ of mountaineering. Within a few years all the famous Himalayan mountains- Everest, Nanga Parbat, K2, Kanchenjunga- had been climbed. Annapurna was considerably lower than any of these but because Herzog did it first he will always be remembered.

Leading from the Front

Herzog led the expedition from the front. He and the mountain guide Louis Lachenal made up the first and only summit team.  They came back down with an iconic photograph of Herzog on the summit waving a French flag. And a very severe case of frost-bite. Their two friends, Lionel Terray and Gaston Rebuffat, had been intending to make a second summit attempt, but seeing the state of Herzog and Lachenal, they had no alternative but to help them descend.


The descent was sheer hell. Storms, snow blindness and bitter cold wrecked them. When they finally reached base-camp the expedition doctor, Jacques Oudot, began treating Herzog and Lachenal for severe frost-bite. By the time they returned to France, several weeks later Oudot had already amputated most of Herzog’s fingers and toes.

A National hero on the cover of Paris Match

The team, and Herzog in particular, were treated like national heroes with huge crowds greeting them at Orly airport. When the clamor died down, Herzog retreated to American Hospital at Neuilly. It was there that he dictated his classic book, Annapurna.  It would sell hundreds of thousands of copies all around the world, and be acclaimed as a mountaineering classic.


There was already a tradition of ‘painographic’ mountaineering and exploration books, from Edward Whymper’s Scrambles in the Alps to Apsley Cherry Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, but Annapurna was something else. The first half of the book which dealt with approach to the Annapurna was interesting enough, but the really compelling chapters came at the end as Herzog described the ravages of frostbite and the incredibly painful treatment that followed.

Mountain Sickness

Few moments are as memorable as when the bandages are removed only for dozens of maggots to leap out. But does this really have that much to do with mountaineering?

Touching the Void

Mountaineering literature is a strange genre in some ways. Even though it is a quite a specialist sport its audience includes many thousands of others who rarely set foot on a mountain. They are not drawn to the technical details of the climbing but rather the drama of it. Central to this drama are the risks and dangers involved. If one definition of drama, is exploring what happens when characters are put under pressure, then mountaineering clearly offers a lot of plenty of material


But there is another element of the high-pressure narratives of mountaineering literature: the vicarious enjoyment of human suffering. Maurice Herzog’s story of maggots crawling out of his wounds, like Joe Simpson’s story of hallucinating his way along a glacier with a broken leg in Touching the Void, both remind us just how resilient humans beings are and gives a horror film thrill. Today more than ever, painography is one of the defining feature of successful mountaineering literature- no narrative is complete without a few close encounters with death and a healthy dose of a frostbite or altitude sickness. Maurice Herzog's book on Annapurna set the standard which others followed.  He didn’t just inaugurate a new golden age of mountaineering, he also had a huge impact on mountaineering literature.


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