Monday, September 16, 2013

Something Old

This week’s “Something Old” is written by a guest reviewer, Hugh Major. He is an artist and designer whose volume of philosophical engagement Notes on the Mysterium Tremendum was reviewed on this blog in 2012 [look up the review via the index at right]. Hugh here considers a book that could be mistaken for a pure adventure story, but that presents an implicit philosophy of life. Its author Maurice Herzog (1919-2012) was a distinguished French mountaineer who later became French Minister for Culture and Sport.
“ANNAPURNA” by Maurice Herzog  (first published in French 1950; World Books translation and reprint, 1952)
Guest review by Hugh Major.
[page references in this review given according to the World books reprint]
            There was a period of a few months when I became obsessed with books on mountaineering, and that obsession had kicked in properly about 16 years ago when I was in Pokhara, quite close to the Annapurna range.  The clouds, which so often blanket these peaks, cleared for one glorious morning, and there was the majestic Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, and the crooked steeple of Machupuchare.  The stories of those who ventured above the clouds onto those perilous walls of rock and blue ice and survived, always seemed to combine a near-death experience and a transcendent one, commensurate with the vertiginous heights at which they stood.
            Matt Dickinson, who scaled Everest from the Tibetan side in 1996 (during the worst weather on record), was asked at the Edinburgh Festival to describe the conditions at the upper camps on the mountain.  He said that when he came out of his tent one morning, he breathed in, turned to look at the mountain vista and felt the flash-frozen breath in his windpipe crackle and shatter.
            Safe from frostbite, fatal slippage, avalanches, oxygen deprivation and snow blindness, I preferred to experience all this in the pages of a book, in a warm bed.
            Maurice Herzog’s account of the attempt on Annapurna by a French team in 1950 is a classic of mountaineering.  Constantly reminded as we are in this country about the achievement of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, those of their contemporaries such as Herzog and his party remain little known.  Instead of the ‘conquest’ of the highest peak, members of the French Alpine Club took on an expedition which was arguably more difficult and certainly as significant in providing knowledge of the roof of the world.
            From Eric Shipton’s introduction:
            ‘The approaches to Annapurna were quite unknown.  The expedition had not only to find a practicable route to the summit; they had first to find a way of reaching the mountain.  It is this triple accomplishment of successful exploration, reconnaissance and assault, all within the brief season between the melting of the winter snows and the onset of the monsoon, that places the achievement of the French expedition in a class by itself.’
            To this it can be added that following the climb, there was a barely adequate support team at base camp to provide food and medical treatment, and after the climb they had to walk back to Kathmandu.
            Herzog dramatises the account with a large proportion of dialogue.  Knowing it would be impossible to transcribe this, no matter how vivid his memory of the time, and knowing it is a convention belonging to fiction, we have to rely on his ability to make it as natural as possible:
            What’s your view, Matha?
            ‘I’m not here as a climber Maurice.  I’m your photographer.’
            ‘When you go out on a reconnaissance, you’re a climber all right.  What do you think, Oudot?’
            ‘It strikes me that Dhaulagiri is altogether too dangerous.  I’m for Annapurna.’
            Noyelle was of the same opinion.
            I turned to R├ębuffat.
            ‘Do you think there’d be any chance of getting up the Tukusha Peak?’
            ‘I’ve already told you, Maurice. I think we ought to have begun by going up it: the summit must be a perfect viewpoint.  But now it’s out of the question.’(pp..94-5)
            The term ‘death zone,’ the title of Matt Dickinson’s ascent of Everest, is comparatively recent, and refers to the final stages in summiting the Himalayan peaks, above 8000 metres.  Unsurprisingly, this is where just one obstacle or setback added to the strains already on the human body could prove fatal.  As if lack of oxygen, cumulative fatigue, snow blindness and sub-zero wind-chill were not enough, the chances of rope breakage, sudden storm, concealed crevasse or injury to another team member are as high as the slopes on which they’re standing.  Herzog and his men were obviously tough, but it is interesting when he describes the psychological effect of pushing further into the zone which offers ever-increasing resistance to its domain:
            ‘We took it in turns to make the track, and then stopped without any word having passed between us.  Each of us lived in a private world of his own.  I was suspicious of my mental processes; my mind was working very slowly and I was perfectly aware of the low state of my intelligence.  It was easiest just to stick to one thought at a time - safest, too.  The cold was penetrating; for all our special eiderdown clothing we felt as if we had nothing on.  Whenever we halted, we stamped our feet hard.  Lachenal went as far as to take off one boot which was a bit tight:  he was in terror of frost-bite.’ (p.189)
            The pain, exhaustion and fear the mountaineers endure gives back a clarity and elation of equal intensity.  It won’t ruin your read to know that Herzog’s party were successful, as the book is subtitled ‘The First 8000 Metre Peak,’ thus proclaiming their achievement.  But while Herzog is afforded the opportunity to behold the ‘quintessence of purity’ and radiant beauty of this ‘world of crystal,’ he knows that this shining reward is only the halfway point, and that (in the terminology of battle - knocking the bastard off, etc) their assault on its ramparts will be countered with merciless retaliation as they begin the descent.  Ironically, it is on the lower slopes that the high point of the narrative is reached.
            That Herzog spent three years in hospital following the expedition is a testament to the seriousness of the ordeal he faced during the retreat.  In the more reasoned and less impassioned stages of the climb, he had considered whether the risk of frostbite to his men was worth the ascent.  It seems that any code of safety, which would govern the climb, will be compromised by the importance of the objective, especially in the death zone where the lure of the summit is greatest.  Once the ‘world of crystal’ has been experienced then death is a consummation:  in the club of mountaineers, this is what Herzog admits to be ‘the finest end of all.’ Without the obvious advantage of mobile phones, the news media had to wait five weeks before any first-hand account of their time on Annapurna, but 5 years ago on K2, was another French climber.  He knew he would not be able to leave the mountain alive, and expressed something close to Herzog’s sentiments via mobile phone as his last night was closing in:
            ‘I would like everybody to be able to contemplate this ocean of mountains and glaciers.  I am suffering for it, but it is too beautiful. 
            The night will be long but beautiful.’

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