Annapurna: 50 Years of Expeditions in the Death Zone. Reinhold Messner. Seattle: Mountaineers Books. 173 pages. $24.95.
There are other Annapurnas in men’s lives, as Maurice Herzog wrote, and Reinhold Messner has found many on Annapurna itself in this 50-year history of the mountain. This is really many books in one, each of them extremely worthy. On one level it is an examination of the progression of Himalayan mountaineering overall during the past half century viewed through the lens of Annapurna, on which many of the trends were set, from the siege- style first ascent of an 8000-meter peak, through the big-wall era that began on Annapurna’s south face, to the lighter alpine-style ascents epitomized by Loretan and Joos’s 1984 traverse and Messner’s own Northwest Face route with Kammerlander in 1985. The one trend Messner pointedly observes Annapurna has avoided is the recent popularity of “consumerist” ascents by hordes of guided clients on prepared routes.
The contrast with Everest could not be more stark, but on another level this book reminds me of Peter Gilman’s classic resource on Everest, containing not only wonderful stories and photos, but a complete database of routes, expeditions, and climbers as well. That this is not in the same large coffee-table format as the Everest book seems more a reflection of the relative marketability of these mountains than of the (high) quality of this book.
Along with the progression of climbing styles, Messner considers the evolution of expedition leadership as embodied by Herzog during the first ascent, Bonington in the big-wall era, and himself as a leader of a fast and light expedition. His own humility and compassion are remarkable in these portions of the book, as he resists the current tendency of certain writers (perhaps most notably David Roberts) toward self-righteous judgement out of historical context and out of the crucible of the death zone. Messner is able to recognize “the many truths” (as one section is titled) of such situations, and the conflicting motivations of all of the players. He gives a thorough and fair presentation of the controversies surrounding Maurice Herzog and his expedition tale. While noting the poignancy of the situation in which Herzog has few if any defenders left from vicious attacks, his resounding and well-argued conclusion is that Herzog needs no defense. Many of the charges leveled at Herzog, it turns out, involved things he had little influence over, as much of the control of the story (and the money) were in the hands of Lucien Devies, then-manager of the French Alpine Club. (Not only did Herzog’s book inspire many of us to become mountaineers, the proceeds from sales of the book made a significant contribution to subsequent French expedition mountaineering.)
Herzog’s is just the most complex of the superb portraits of great mountaineers in this book. Messner’s portraits of many others, from Rebuffat and Bonington to Loretan and Kammerlander, are based on their personal friendships and his understanding of the extreme circumstances that cannot be avoided on Annapurna. Messner’s insights into these personalities and the epics and tragedies they faced, as well as into his own psyche, and the comprehensive view of their context through the entire sweep of the 8000-meter era, are treasures that only he could share so powerfully. In the shadow of Herzog’s classic, writing another Annapurna book would seem a daunting and fearsome task, but the feelings of awe, respect, and admiration this book evokes are not so distant from those of its namesake of 50 years before. I can’t think of a higher recommendation.