True Summit: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent of Annapurna

Publication Year: 2001.

True Summit: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent of Annapurna. David Roberts. New York: Simon and Schuster. 229 pages. $24.00.

True summit is an analysis of the controversy that erupted in France in recent years over alternate views of the 1950 Annapurna expedition made legendary by Maurice Herzog’s book. Unfortunately, in contrast to Messner, David Roberts has none of the Himalayan expedition experience necessary to put the events in context.

The revisionist view, which appeared in France not coincidentally with the commercial success of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, shared its penchant for villainizing climbers previously considered heroic by portraying them as selfish and commercially motivated. In this case, Herzog is accused of promoting himself at the expense of his teammates, and of the ultimate sin of taking photos on the summit that included the logo of his company, which donated 500,000 francs to the expedition. The other climbers came into possession of the film before it was developed and removed it from the photos they returned to Herzog.

In the end, True Summit actually makes Herzog look more heroic by the magnanimous way in which he helped these men (and supported their families when they died) in spite of their disagreements, and portrayed them as the self-sacrificing heroes they were, along with all their contributions to the expedition’s success, in Annapurna. His detractors only seem smaller.

The book jumps among so many characters and times (Roberts has gone so far as to include a full autobiography) that it is difficult to keep track of the flow of events. If you have not first read the original works of Herzog, Terray, Rebuffat, and Lachenal, you would be advised to enjoy them first, and see that while they all do in fact indicate difficulties, conflicts, and mixed motivations, they are the better for imposing their perhaps artificially positive hindsight on intense experiences. Afterward, if you wish to see the negative side from an equally unbalanced and out-of-context perspective, read True Summit.

Robert Palais