Pioneering Climber Maurice Herzog Dies
His first ascent of Annapurna inspired a generation of climbers and readers
Famous French mountaineer Maurice Herzog died on Friday of natural causes at the age of 93.
Herzog is best known for his 1950 expedition with Louis Lachenal to Annapurna, on which Herzog became the first person to reach the summit of an 8,000-meter peak.
The book he wrote about his experience, also called Annapurna, inspired a generation of climbers. It shared the glory and the risk (Herzog lost all his fingers and toes from frostbite on the way down) at stake in high altitude mountaineering.
The Active Times' contributing writer David Roberts shares more about Herzog’s accomplishments below.
The first ascent of Annapurna in 1950 was an astonishing performance. Not only was it the first of the fourteen 8,000-meter peaks to be climbed, but it would turn out to be the only one of the fourteen to succumb on the first attempt. Making the venture all the more extraordinary was the fact that the only existing maps were wildly erroneous. The French team wasted weeks simply figuring out which valleys led where. And the team spent all of April and the beginning of May trying to climb Dhaulagiri, turning to Annapurna only after deeming their first objective impossible.
The team reached the base of Annapurna only on May 18. The men had little more than two weeks before the monsoon would shut down the mountain. On the extremely dangerous north face, they pulled out all the stops and blazed a route across avalanche-prone slopes and through the great ice cliff called The Sickle. On June 3, Herzog and Louis Lachenal trudged to the summit—but in doing so incurred frostbite so terrible it would cost Herzog all his toes and fingers, Lachenal all his toes.
Herzog’s Annapurna was the book that turned me into a climber, at age seventeen. But that book, as I later learned, and as I argued in True Summit, amounts to a gilded myth. The true story of Annapurna 1950 was of constant conflict among members who somehow managed to cooperate in a brilliant ascent. In France, the elevation of Herzog to godlike status eclipsed the deeds of the other climbers, who (in my view) were the true heroes—Lachenal, Lionel Terray, and Gaston Rébuffat, in particular, but also Marcel Schatz and Jean Couzy.
The real story of what happened on Annapurna in 1950 is, I think, more interesting than Herzog’s fairy tale—and, ironically, even more heroic.
Whatever distortions of truth Herzog perpetrated in Annapurna, his role in the climb cannot be slighted. Though far less skilled or experienced than the three great Chamonix guides, Herzog always led from the front, and on the assault of the north face, he was as strong and climbed as boldly as did Lachenal, Rébuffat, and Terray. He was, when all is said and done, the driving force in one of mountaineering’s most legendary achievements.