Friday, November 19, 2010


This book I've been recommending hopelessly for almost a decade. It's about the first expedition, in the 1950's, to ever reach the top of an 8,000 meter peak. It's written, originally in French, by the expedition leader, Maurice Herzog. The horrific frostbite suffered on a disastrous descent cost him, oh I don't recall exactly, but something on the order of 43 toes, half a dozen legs, and two of his noses. And his best pipe. The tale is astounding. It begins in the lowlands, with the arduous hiring of some eighty five thousand locals who are willing to haul 1,400 lbs of equipment on each of their backs, probably including chests full of their native coin with which they will be paid each day they survive on these slopes which they generally avoid because, well, they aren't mad. It ends, as you now know, with Herzog relating how nice the nurses are as they massage the blood back into his elbows and knees. I mean, his extremities.

But the middle part, oh the brief, high middle part.

As Herzog approaches the summit; as his oxygen-starved brain tries to reckon with where he is about to stand, the prose flies free. As his steps, slowed to the pace of perhaps one every twenty seconds, bring him closer to the literal pinnacle of human exploration, it's like the man's soul leaps into the air and off the page.

That middle part is one of the very best things I've ever read, and it is the one and only account that has ever made me want to leave behind the comfortable little rocks and pebbles I have scaled with my tight pointy boots and set foot on the path to the high, cold, pointy places which scratch the outer rim of our world.

And all these years the book has been out of print. I've told thirty or forty customers that they must keep an eye out for this book that they have never heard of, and then, then, today a woman comes in search of this very book. LA LA LA LA LAAAA! (choruses of angels) "Oh, Annapurna, I can't believe you are asking for that book, oh goodness it is one of my very favorite books! " And I look it up as I tell her that it is so long out of print...Wh-wh-what!?!?! It's on our shelves. It. is. here. again.

That's all.

Oh, and there's an old playground slide in Newton that is just over twice my height. I turned around and saw my four year old boy walking up it with no hands, and Herzog's narrative sprung to mind. Except Herzog had no hands on the way down, so I guess it's not really the same.

1 comment:

Karen said...

One of my favorite books EVER. And the best part? I read it in Pokhara, Nepal, at the base of the Himalayas, looking right at Annapurna as I read. How about that for surreal. I'm really looking forward to a second read! - Karen Boss, JP