Another view of Annapurna

Annapurna: 50 Years of Expeditions in the Death Zone, Reinhold Messner.

Having recently discovered Annapurna I lurking in the overexposed sky of an early-morning shot I took ten years ago from Pokhara, Nepal, I’ve spent some time with Emily in her darkroom trying to come up with a decent print of it (below is just a rough attempt to fix the contrast using Paint.NET). We are still working on that, but in the meantime I finished Messner’s book, which had been sitting on my to-read pile for a few months.

Annapurna I is at the far left over the shoulder of Sarangkot, as seen from Pokhara.

The dedication reads, “For Maurice Herzog,” and the book ends, “[C]ongratulations, M[onsieur] Annapurna” (referring to Herzog). Annapurna is, surprisingly, in great measure a defense, fifty years later, of the actions taken by Maurice Herzog in leading the first successful climb of Annapurna — at that time, of course, the only 8000-meter peak to be successfully climbed. Messner’s is a well informed perspective, having the benefit of climbing hundreds of peaks of the course of a career as what many would consider the finest mountaineer, living or dead. He climbs without many of the expected modern conveniences, such as bottled oxygen, and thus has a better grasp than most on what an 8000-meter climb in 1950 must have looked like to those involved.

Further, his defense of Herzog’s behavior in 1950 and following is informed by the similarities between his own experiences and Herzog’s. Both have dealt with a high volume of criticism: Herzog for demanding complete loyalty, insanely pushing for the top without regard for safety and censorship following the expedition; Messner for pushing ahead without regard for his less prepared brother Günther during their successful 1970 ascent of the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat, during which Günther was killed on the descent. Both have parlayed their fame into both political and literary success, both of which escape most of their peers.

Still, this book is not what I had expected: the consummate mountaineer (Messner) spending paragraph after paragraph extolling the virtues, drive and leadership of someone who is more commonly believed to have arrived at his success somewhat illegitimately, not as an accomplished climber or mountaineer at all prior to the Annapurna expedition but as a top-down choice by a militaristic French Alpine Club. (To be fair, it was the trend in those days to take a militaristic approach and large, well organized expeditions in attempts on high peaks.) His language is too grandiose, too obsequious, too kiss-ass to be taken seriously. I tended to give the more outrageous portions (“congratulations, M. Annapurna!”, for example) a little credit for being written in German then translated to English, but the worshipful tone is definitely over the top.

After 80 pages, Messner turns to other ascents of Annapurna, including his own successful 1985 expedition that led to the first successful ascent of the Northwest Face, an enormous, 3000-meter wall of ice and rock. This was climbed in his usual way, with a relatively small group of climbers, each with a hand in advancing the climb. In total, though it had been fifty years from the French ascent to the time of this book’s writing in 2000, 120 expeditions had put 106 people on top of Annapurna, while over 50 had lost their lives. It’s not a long history, and Annapurna is no Everest, no tourist mountain for high-paying thrill-seekers or TV shows. But what a beautiful area, a lovely set of peaks rising from the Kali Gandaki where so many Nepalis live and so many tourists walk.

The book also includes many excellent pictures of the mountain and the region — far better than what you see above, these are very good examples of mountaineering photography.

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