Conquistadors of the Useless

Publication Year: 1964.

Conquistadors of the Useless by Lionel Terray. Translated by Geoffrey Sutton. London: Victor Gollancz, Ltd., 1963. 361 pages, 80 illustrations. Price 30 s.

This is a book which should fascinate anyone who is interested in mountaineering. M. Terray is surely one of the great climbers of this day or any other and it is our good luck that his skills are not limited to the mountains. For this is a very well written book and in it M. Terray reveals himself to be a person who has given a great deal of thought to the supreme passion of his life. He does not hesitate to make this book a very personal document, beginning with his earliest climbing experiences. He describes the difficulty he had in coming to terms with the standards of his day as a young climber. Holding the great climbers of the pre-war generation in awe, the young Terray and Rébuffat cautiously approached the great climbs of the Alps, hardly daring to believe their own timidity. Terray’s gradual discovery that the supermen of the previous generation were really only men whose accomplishments could be matched and surpassed is related with skill and modesty. Once the psychological barrier was breached by the ascent of the Walker, numerous great Alpine climbs in Europe followed. Descriptions of many of the most famous climbs of the last twenty years abound. But Terray is no mere technician concerned only with route descriptions and technical struggles. His friendship with Lachenal and his relationships with the hill people and clients who accompanied him on his great climbs reveal the warm human being which exists alongside of the human dynamo which Terray becomes on a climb.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the way in which it reflects the development of modern climbing in the post-war years. M. Terray has not consciously set out to write such a history but his connection with so many great climbs makes his personal history very revealing if one takes care to read between the lines. In relating the massive French effort to organize the Annapurna expedition he registered an objection to the presence of Couzy and Schatz who were at the time mere rock experts. He notes that “Virtuosity on rock is practically irrelevant to the ascent of eight-thousanders.” I should add that I heard Gino Solda make the same remark referring to K2 some years ago. Now what really interested me was the spectacle of the Terray-organized expedition to Jannu (the second one) in which the expedition members are found to be the leading French rock climbers of the present day. It seems significant that the requirements for success in the very high mountains has changed so radically in the course of a few short years. In fact if one stops to think a great many of the really successful ascents of the last few years were made by men who must be considered rock climbers. This is not to say that Buhl, Bon- natti, Brown, Whillans and the like are helpless as soon as they have to step off the rock, but the toughness of body and mind required to do the great rock climbs seems to be quickly translated to success in the high mountains. Despite the title which is a rather clumsy direct translation from the French I think that almost everyone will find something of interest in this handsome well-illustrated book.

James P. McCarthy