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“Man overcomes himself, affirms himself, and realizes himself in the struggle towards the summit, toward the absolute.”
– Lucien Devies, French Committee to the Himalayas
There’s a reason this book has sold more copies than any other mountaineering tale on the shelves, over 12 million copies in more than 40 languages. It’s the story of a team of French mountaineers who, in 1950, became the first to summit one of fourteen peaks over 8,000 meters (26,200 feet).
Annapurna is now widely considered one of the most difficult and deadly of the 8,000-meter peaks, with one climber perishing for every three who manage to stand on the summit. This book lays bare the entire ordeal from the approach (it took the expedition a month to find the mountain), to the summit push and through the team’s overland retreat to India.
A great start for anyone who suspects they may be harboring the seeds of an interest in mountaineering, you’d probably struggle to find a serious mountaineer who does not at least know the story of this historic ascent. It’s a fascinating read not for its technical wisdom, but as an account of the tests of character that come with venturing into the unknown.
That’s not to say it’s not packed with lessons for life at high altitude. It offers incredible insight into the decision-making processes of these early expeditions. For example, Herzog is the first to admit he is far from being the most skilled climber of his group, but it’s agreed while the team is still in France that his word is law. Military-style discipline was essential to the team’s success.
It’s an also excellent introduction to the workings of expedition climbs. This “siege style,” consisting of establishing progressively higher camps that allow climbers to acclimatize more slowly and over shorter distances, remains dominant in the Himalaya to this day.
The American mountaineer Ed Viesturs writes in his book No Shortcuts to the Top that this book “changed his life as a teenager.” It inspired his own quest to stand atop all of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks, with Annapurna becoming something of a nemesis along the way. This is fitting because Viesturs often reminds us that reaching the summit means you’ve made it only halfway. The descent proved to be the most harrowing chapter of Herzog’s Annapurna siege, and the one that would leave the most lasting scars.
It would be improper to review Annapurna without mentioning that some doubt the sincerity of Herzog’s narrative. In the Amazon reviews, embedded among praise for the book, are complaints that his version of events is “self-serving.” Viesturs hints that it was only his personal connections that landed him the leadership role. He’s been accused of relegating hismore skilled teammates to the role of porters. Whole books have been dedicated to the truthfulness of his account. I hope that this book inspires you to explore the issue further, but until then I would encourage a reader to suspend cynicism.
The character Herzog apparently exhibits throughout the ordeal is a testament to nature’s ability to bring out the best in a person. If our own adventures bring out one sixteenth of the courage, selflessness and leadership recounted in Annapurna, then we’ve done ourselves a great service just by getting outside. Herzog’s goosebump-inducing final line- “there are other Annapurnas in the lives of men”- is a challenge to us all.
What’s your Annapurna?