Last week marked the passing of a mountaineering legend, as Maurice Herzog, the first man to summit an 8000-meter peak, died at the age of 93. Herzog, along with his climbing partner Louis Lachenal, secured their place in history on June 3, 1950, when they successfully topped out on Annapurna, a mountain that remains challenging to this day.
In the early 1950′s, the best mountaineers on the planet were in a race to become the first to climb one of the world’s fourteen 8000-meter peaks. Herzog and Lachenal were part of a team that elected to focus on Annapurna, the 10th highest mountain on Earth at 8091 meters (26,545 ft) in height. When summit day came, they were deemed the strongest and most fit to make the final push to the top and so the two men set off for the summit without taking supplemental oxygen. Along the way, Herzog also managed to lose his gloves, leaving his hands completely exposed to the elements. Despite the sub-zero temperatures and biting winds, he and Lachenal, continued all the way to the top, earning their place in history and proving once and for all that man could climb these massive peaks.
The descent was no less harrowing however. On their way back down the mountain, Herzog and Lachenal caught up with two of their teammates, but all four men were forced to spend the night high on the mountain without any type of shelter. In order to survive , they huddled in a crevasse with just one sleeping bag between them. The following day, they managed to return to Base Camp, but exposure to the elements would prove costly. Both Herzog and Lachenal had contracted frostbite in their fingers and toes and as a result, most of their digits had to be amputated on the spot by the team’s doctor.
When he returned home to France, Herzog was greeted as a hero, and the following year he wrote a book about his experiences in the Himalaya. The book, entitled Annapurna: The First Conquest of an 8000-Meter Peak, would become an instant classic, mesmerizing readers across the globe. In the years that followed, it was translated into more than 40 languages and sold over 12 million copies, making it the best selling mountaineering book of all time.
Later, Herzog would find himself at the center of controversy, as teammates accused him of exaggerating some of his exploits on the Annapurna climb. They said that his book diminished the importance of Lachenal and other members of the team, without whom the expedition could not have been successful.The accusations would dog Herzog for years, but did little to dampen his popularity with his countrymen. In his post-climbing life he would serve as France’s Minister of Youth and Sport from 1958-1963 and he was elected mayor of Chamonix from 1968-1977.
Herzog’s grand achievement of climbing Annapurna was an impressive one. To this day, that mountain remains an extremely difficult climb, even for the top mountaineers in the world. The mountain is notorious for its bad weather, tough technical challenges and a proclivity for avalanches. Those obstacles are so great in fact, that after Herzog and Lachenal’s successful summit, the feat would not be repeated for another 20 years.
RIP Herzog. You inspired generations of climbers who followed in your boot steps.
By Kraig Becker
[Photo Credit: Gianni Scopinaro, AP File photo]