We All Have an Annapurna to Conquer, With God’s Help

COMMENTARY: We can’t leave this vale of tears without surmounting a mountain of challenges.

The Himalayas
The Himalayas (photo: travelphotographer / Pixabay/CC0)

“There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.” —Maurice Herzog

In the spring of 1950, a group of elite French climbers set out into the mountainous terrain of northern Nepal. Up until this point, of the 14 peaks in the world that stand taller than 8,000 meters, not one had been climbed with a successful descent. With eyes set on Dhaulagiri, a Himalayan peak of 8,167 meters (26,795 feet) above sea level, the group of climbers and porters from the surrounding villages set out on a reconnaissance mission to determine the best way to scale this mountain. 

After multiple scouting efforts, it was ultimately determined that Dhaulagiri was unclimbable. Left with the real possibility of defeat, they shifted their attention to Annapurna, a 26,545-foot (8,091-meter) peak found in the 34-mile-long massif by the same name. Yet days were followed by weeks, and the mountain could not be located. Finally, after realizing that the rudimentary maps they had been given were inaccurate, they made their way through huge valleys and gorges and over rushing alpine rivers to the face of this unknown mountain. 

The summer monsoon season was only weeks away, and faced with the unenviable task of attempting to climb an 8,000-meter peak on the first attempt (which would never happen again), they began their slow assault on this colossal mass of rock, ice and snow. More than a half-century later, this mountain would develop a reputation for having the highest summit-to-death ratio — far greater than Mount Everest, its giant cousin to the east. 

But on this occasion, these men and their Sherpa comrades slowly established increasingly higher camps on the peak, through the most dangerous climbing conditions that any of these expert climbers had ever encountered. On the morning of June 3, Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal left Camp V at 24,600 feet (roughly 7,500 meters). The previous night had been spent in a brutal winter storm, which threatened to tear apart the tent while burying the men in snow and ice on the edge of a precipice overlooking the vast expanse below. 

Through bone-chilling cold they set out in the deep snow, slowly making their way to the top. As they got closer, and with the risk of frostbite setting in, Lachenal turned to Herzog and asked, “What would you do if I go down?” Herzog replied, “I should go on by myself.” 

Both men would eventually reach the summit. Herzog said the accomplishment brought a state of rapture never before experienced in his life and compared it to climbing the ladder of St. Teresa of Ávila. “An astonishing happiness welled up in me,” he said, “but I could not define it.”

As fully detailed in his book, Annapurna — the best-selling mountaineering book of all time — Herzog and Lachenal would become the first human beings to summit an 8,000-meter peak and live to tell about it. Yet as quickly as they ascended to heavenly heights, hell would ensue in what became one of the most famous survival stories of all time. 

After weeks and months had passed, through numerous amputations and the constant threat of death, Herzog would eventually tell the story of what happened during those fateful days, the excruciating trek out of the mountains and the return to civilization. 

As the book draws to a close, Herzog anxiously anticipates the return to his homeland, both in triumph for what they had accomplished, and in horror for what his body had become. Yet in the final lines, despite the enormous price paid for the summit, he reflects on just what the mountain meant to him. 

“Annapurna, to which we had gone emptyhanded, was a treasure on which we should live the rest of our days,” he writes. “With this realization we turn the page: a new life begins. There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men.”

I was standing on the northwest side of our house, staring at this large mass of vines, roots, and poison oak and ivy. For more than a decade, this brusquely-woven biomass, which spread underneath a large, double-trunked pine tree, had challenged me. The previous year, a small section to the south had been cleared, and potatoes had been planted as a means of domesticating this wild patch. 

But the largest, most untamed section remained, as if taunting me. For years, I had just walked by it. But as the spring weather returned, the time seemed right to scale this mountain. Too thick and gnarly to be tilled, only long spades, sharp hoes, and a lot of personal toil would suffice. At times it was a family effort, at times a solitary climb. Hours rolled into days and a couple of weeks went by. My outdoor sweatshop (as I would joke with my family) repeatedly petitioned me to return.

Yet amid the achiness and the blisters, an undeniable satisfaction emerged. What on the surface appeared absolutely miserable began to take on a different form — one in which slowly, very slowly, new ground was uncovered. Yet even more than what could be seen, I found myself engaged and excited in the tedious struggle, looking forward to the interior mountain that I was ascending. Early one Saturday morning, under the brilliant, cool skies of an April day, I reached the summit. There was no fanfare, no congratulatory remarks, and with my younger helpers having left me to do the final touches, I stood there alone to revel in what had been a climb for the ages. Well, maybe just my ages. 

In all of our lives, there are Annapurnas to climb, most of which no one but you and I will ever know. Most of them having nothing to do with crampons, ice axes or mountain couloirs. But they are always there, beckoning us to consider the journey that lies in store — questioning whether or not a new life, once hidden ground, awaits. Each must begin from within. But just as Herzog reflected, a treasure can be found on which to live the rest of our days.