Farewell to Maurice Herzog

Last Friday, while waiting for my bus to start my morning commute, a new acquaintance sent an email to many of his contacts to share a news story from Le Monde: Maurice Herzog passed away. In Herzog’s 93 years of adventure, he is remembered for being the first person, along with Louis Lachenal, to stand atop an 8,000-meter peak, Annapurna.

I read the story of that 1950 first ascent written by Herzog the first time when I was a teenager and again late in college. Herzog lost cache with me sometime after the second reading when I learned more about the disputed elements of the story. Herzog may not have been so galante or brave so much as an egomaniac.

Regardless, I can’t deny the effect that the ascent and his book had on me and countless climbers. I read the book a third time on a recent vacation for just what it was and for the simple pleasure of an journey into the unknown. I’m grateful to him.

One thing I’d like to point out, is that Annapurna was the alternative objective of that 1950 expedition. A neighboring 8,000-meter peak, Dhaulagiri, was the primary target for the French that year. However, the mountainous terrain was virtually unknown and the maps were poor and often wrong. The exploration and the climbing that they accomplished was remarkable, especially in a mere few months. Herzog deserves credit for leading and managing his team through such a risky enterprise and for making the decision to shift objectives in a timely manner.

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Now is the Best Time to Be a Climber

If you’re not Sir Edmund Hillary or a member of Maurice Herzog’s Annapurna expedition team, you might have a longing for the time when giant mountains were mostly unclimbed and adventures of historic proportions were still ripe for the making. This is a sentimental perspective; one that doesn’t have to be so disappointing.

I used to be wistful about this notion but not any more. I used to wish I was born sixty years ago when world travel was a novelty and mountains were waiting to be summitted. When mountaineering was even more obscure than it is today and outfitting for an expedition meant contacting someone in Europe who would hand make your crampons and supply your rope. Travelling to the objective required trains with sleeper cars, flights with many landings for refuelings and long backpacking hikes into the wilderness. It’s romantic in many ways, but even more so in hindsight.

Actually, now is the best time to be a mountaineer. Now is also the best time to be an armchair mountaineer.

Remote destinations are more reachable than ever before thanks to modern airlines and travel networks worldwide. Photographs of mountains, beta and accounts from previous attempts (or at least observations about the possibilities for a fresh attempt) have never been more accessible thanks to the Internet. Lastly, it’s not so lonely any more being the only mountain climbing obsessed person within your circle of friends and family thanks to the spread of climbing gyms, outfitter chains spreading across the country, social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and the expansion in membership of the American Alpine Club.

The big routes have been done, but if you long for old romance, the stories are within reach on a book shelf. If you long for the challenging climb, they are waiting to be climbed by you. If you’re looking for a partner, he or she is probably looking for you too.

Now is the time to live as a climber, whether you’re actively climbing or just dreaming about it.

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