Thursday, January 28, 2010

Memories of Annapurna

My writing has been getting even more than usually whiny and trivial of late. One has to fight this mindset, so I am going to try to overcome it by doing some posts on hyper-manly topics.

When I was a boy, there was a picture in my set of old encyclopedias that always especially disturbed me. By good luck I have found another reproduction on the internet: This picture is actually quite a bit less disturbing than the one in my encyclopedia. For one thing the bottom finger on the left hand, which has the most grotesque growth of ice on it, is cut off in this image, and the light contrast of the ice on the other fingers in general is much more vivid in the encyclopedia picture. This gentleman is Maurice Herzog, a French mountaineer. In 1950 Herzog led a team of Frenchmen, along with eight sherpas on a climb to the top of Mt Annapurna in Nepal, which is over 26,500 feet high. At the time it was the highest mountain known to have ever been scaled by men, though of course since then most of the top peaks have reached many times, and some are even getting crowded. For people to whom the metric system means something, this was also the first mountain over 8,000 meters to be conquered. This seems to have been a big deal at the time.

The trip up seems to have gone well enough, but as often happens in mountaineering and travel to remote places, the way back was not so good:

"Many of the men suffered frozen feet and hands, and Herzog lost his gloves, which is almost the worst thing that can happen. The party was caught in an avalanche at one time. The doctor had to cut off most of Herzog's fingers and toes, because they had been frostbitten. Some of the men had to be carried most of the way."

That little section really worked on my imagination..."the worst thing that can happen...the doctor"...How did Herzog lose his gloves in such extreme conditions? Did he drop them over the side of a cliff? Did they fall into a swirling whirlpool of snow where they were impossible to find? Did the doctor stretch Herzog out on the ice on the trail and cut his fingers and toes off? Did he use a saw? Who else had to be carried? Why did some of the guys not have to be carried? Unbeknownst to me all the years of my youth these questions may actually be answerable, for when Herzog returned to France, he wrote an account of the journey, no doubt in the elegant pithy style all French schoolboys of his generation learned to write in, which sold over eleven million copies worldwide and remains to this day the biggest-selling book about mountaineering ever written:

Not surprisingly, enlightened contemporary opinion is that Herzog took great liberties with the truth in the book (translation: the expedition was much more boring and prosaic than its earlier renown made it seem). Herzog, remarkably, it appears is still alive, at the age of 90. If the United States is the best country to be (and stay) exorbitantly rich in, France seems to be the best country in which to be and stay renowned, at least if you are fond of recognition and being celebrated for your contributions to your nation. Herzog is a Grand Officer of the Legion d'Honneur, as well as a kind of emeritus member of the I.O.C., the former Minister of Youth and Sport for France, as well as the former mayor of the elite Alpine and Olympic town of Chamonix. Despite the loss of most of his extremities, he seems to have lived an enviably full life and achieved a high degree of self-realization. This is the kind of thing a strong cultural and educational upbringing and continued awareness of and attention to throughout life can do for a person, which very few people in positions of authority in America seem to have any sense of. There is a flaccidity, a lack of solid purpose or meaning in the details of American day to day life, as well as minute to minute thought, that one feels the lack of immediately in reading a few sentences of purposeful French writing or in an account of some commonplace activity, regardless of how otherwise annoying or tiresome the account may be.

My wife gets the family out during the summer to hike various mountains around New England, nothing so far much above 2,000-3,000 feet. At first I admit I was not overly enthusiastic about this kind of exercising--I frequently used to daydream about being in cafes in Paris and that sort of thing while on these hikes--but I am starting to develop a feel for what you are supposed to do, think about, notice, etc, on them. My spirit seems to be deficient pretty much all around, and that part of it that is acted upon by nature definitely needs to be cultivated, though I feel that part of me is still relatively small, and would just be an additional aspect I could draw on in work and social settings if I were fully developed in the ways most congenial to my temperament.

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