The Other Face of “Annapurna”

True Summit: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent of Annapurna, David Roberts. Despite the tone of the subtitle, this book isn’t a revolutionary, revisionist look at Herzog’s Annapurna. By the time this book was written, the revisionism had very convincingly disrupted the long-standing story of the first ascent of an 8000-meter peak, when notable accounts of two of the professional alpine guides that were high on the mountain that day were finally published. One was the unedited diaries of Louis Lachenal (who summited along with Herzog), the other the biography of Gaston Rebuffat. Both accounts, and other information that began to come out in the 1990s, contradicted the exhilarated tenor of the official, original account and Herzog’s heroic account of his own performance as leader. An account of the expedition by Lionel Terray — who, as the third professional guide on the peak, supported the summit push then gave up his own summit bid along with Rebuffat to save the lives of Lachenal and Herzog — had been published in the late ’50s but did little to cause a stir.

Roberts drew upon these accounts, interviews with the climbers’ wives, an interview with Herzog and interviews with others familiar with the varying perspectives on that day. His book recollects the information that shatters the too-pure-to-be-true Annapurna account. The story is tied together by the fact that Roberts, as a climber a generation behind those who summited Annapurna, read the writings of these climbers as a boy and young climber and idolized them — especially the celebrated team of Lachenal and Terray and Annapurna itself. The personal story of his following of Lachenal and Terray keeps this book from being an academic compilation and comparison of the various accounts.

Annapurna is the thrilling, inspiring story of this climb. True Summit can’t come close to that, because Roberts is much more truthful than Herzog. However, this is a good look at what really happened in 1950 and it introduces the reader to the other main climbers (who were really outstanding, professional climbers, unlike Herzog) that were overlooked for a half century.

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