For several decades, Western nations have been competing in trying to be the first on top of one of the 8,000ers of the planet. From the K2 endeavor of Duke of Abruzzi, beginning of the century, to the English quest for Everest in the 1920s, each nation took a chance.
France was not outdone. Supported by the “French Himalayan Committee”, a first large-scale expedition targeted Gasherbrum I in 1936. At that time, GI was known as Hidden Peak. This adventure, under the management of Henry de Ségogne then President of the High Mountain Group, reached the altitude of 7,000 meters. After WW2, the French chose a new target and a new team.
Postwar time with Lucien Devies
At this time, Lucien Devies was Mister Mountain. President of the French Alpine Club, the High Mountain Group, the French Mountain Federation, the Himalayan Committee and a few years later head of the magazine La Montagne et Alpinisme, Devies was not just the boss! This Parisian was above all a mountaineer. In the 1930s, he collected summits, notably alongside Giusto Gervasutti or Jacques Lagarde. The 1950 expedition was prepared under his leadership. The French state as well as the French Alpine Club were financing this first French expedition of the post-war period. Companies were also involved, especially industry and banking worlds.
Herzog in charge: heading to Dhaulagiri!
Maurice Herzog was appointed chief of expedition. Next to him, we found some of the very best French mountaineers of the time. Jean Cousy, Louis Lachenal, Gaston Rebuffat or even Lionel Terray were part of the game. Nepal then allowed the French to attack the 8,000ers in the west of the country: Dhaulagiri or Annapurna. In a region almost never explored until then. After a first scouting of the slopes around the Kali Gandaki river, a Ganges tributary, Maurice Herzog decided that the efforts of his team would be focused on Dhaulagiri. A party led by Lachenal and Rebuffat began climbing, without much success. Another part of the team then started searching for a route on the Annapurnas. In mid-May 1950, Dhaulagiri did not seem to give away. Herzog took the decision to shift all of his group’s efforts to Annapurna.
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After an unsuccessful and very hazardous attempt on the northwest ridge, French mountaineers understood that the north face would be the easiest to climb. A base camp was set up at an altitude of 4,400 meters, on the shore of the glacier coming down from the face. At 5.110 meters, Camp I was quite precarious, in an avalanche-prone area. The following camps were more reliable and on May 28th, Camp IV opened its doors! The boss’s initial plans were not followed by the book, but Herzog along with Louis Lachenal, set out on a summit attempt on May 31st.
The summit of Annapurna, first 8,000er!
On June 2nd, they succeeded in establishing Camp V, starting point for their final assault. The weather forecast was not good and the two men did not have many options. The two Sherpas who had accompanied the French so far chose to give up. On the morning of June 3rd, the two men set off for the summit. Lachenal, fearing frostbite in his toes, thought of turning around. Herzog was focused on the summit and of the French flag that he might plant at the summit. At 2 p.m., they reached the 8,091 meters summit of Annapurna. It was the very first 8,000er climbed in human history. Unlike Everest a few years later, this ascent was done without bottled oxygen.
Time flied and Lachenal began the descent while Herzog was still on the summit. A few hours later, Herzog joined camp V where he found Terray and Rebuffat. His hands had been frozen after losing his gloves. Lachenal was not there. He was found later, below Camp V, with very damaged feet. During the night, Terray and Rebuffat watched over the two summiters and tried to warm their frozen toes and fingers. They continued the descent the next day but the weather was so bad that they did not find camp IV. They were forced to sleep in a small crevasse. Once again, exposing themselves to the very cold weather of the Himalayas.
The next morning, with great luck, they managed to carry on with their descent to Camp I. They wrote a telegram for Paris from this camp. The news would take several days to reach the ears of Lucien Devies. The expedition would take several weeks to come back to France. Their plane landed at Paris Orly airport on June 17th.
Annapurna 1950, a controversial summit!
Since the return of the mountaineers on French soil and the publication of the first photos of the summit, doubts have appeared. Did they really reach the summit? And for good reason, the photos that go around the world are not taken from the top, but below. Near or far from the summit, hard to say. The character of the expedition leader, Maurice Herzog, quick to claim all the glory of this adventure, complicated the case. This figure, erected as a hero on his return from the Annapurna, purely and simply overshadowed Louis Lachenal, a mountain dweller certainly much more discreet. Building a brilliant political career on the basis of his success in 1950, Herzog would not really give Lachenal the opportunity to share his own version of the adventure. The latter reportedly told relatives that they had not reached the summit. Who knows?
When Maurice’s daughter Félicité Herzog published Un héros in 2012 to tell her story, she scratched the brave Annapurna winner. Claiming – without further explanation or proofs – that he didn’t reach the top. She did not believe this fabricator who “staged his legend” any longer. Herzog died a few months after this book has been published. Lachenal fell in a crevasse in the Vallée Blanche in November 1955. The two main characters of this Annapurna adventure are no longer there to clarify the story.
Regardless, with this ascent – confirmed or not – France would have initiated a very active period on the Himalayan peaks. Nanga Parbat and Everest would soon follow a few years later. Twelve of the fourteen peaks over 8,000 meters would be conquered during this decade, opened by the French.
With this success and the money raised by the books and dozens of conferences, the Himalayan Committee would have piled a real treasure. It would finance other expeditions in the following years, including the first ascent of Makalu in 1955.
Credits Annapurna 1950 © DR