Annapurna: First Conquest of an 8000-meter Peak by Maurice Herzog, translated from the French by Nea Morin and Janet Adam Smith, 4/5
I’m not particularly interested in the topic of mountaineering, but have read a wide enough variety of books to realize that a good author can make any subject fascinating. My gamble paid off in this case; Herzog is a competent writer and his passion shines clearly in this intense tale of the 1950 French Annapurna expedition’s journey to the heart of the Himalayas, preliminary exploration, eventual summit, and harrowing return to civilization. The more dry, technical sections are supplemented by helpful maps and photos, including a large map of climbing routes printed on the inside of the dust cover. This is clearly a high-quality book that was prepared with great attention to detail.
I would recommend this book, along with Kon-Tiki, The Voyage of the Beagle, and Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic as great for armchair adventuring and representative of a golden era when unthinkably brave men put their lives on the line in the name of exploration and were heroes to the general public. One can only assume that such people still exist, but they certainly aren’t making the front page of the news like they used to. While I appreciate living a life of safety and comfort, there is something about the concept of risking it all to find ultimate fulfillment, so well-expressed in Herzog’s foreword, that strikes a chord deep inside me.
In overstepping our limitations, in touching the extreme boundaries of man’s world, we have come to know something of its true splendor. In my worst moments of anguish, I seemed to discover the deep significance of existence of which till then I had been unaware. I saw that it was better to be true than to be strong. The marks of the ordeal are apparent on my body. I was saved and I had won my freedom. This freedom, which I shall never lose, has given me the assurance and serenity of a man who has fulfilled himself. It has given me the rare joy of loving that which I used to despise. A new and splendid life has opened out before me.”
-Maurice Herzog, foreword to Annapurna
And that language from a man who lost all of his toes and most of his fingers from frostbite!
Further research revealed quite a bit of controversy about the accuracy of Herzog’s account, but I’m willing to chalk any inconsistencies up to fallible memory, oxygen deprivation and extreme trauma.
Why I read it: A thrift store find, I think. The cover is very heroic, so I thought it might be worth a try.
Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic
Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic by Vilhjalmur Stefansson, 4/5
Written by a bona fide Arctic explorer, this book reflects a bygone era of exploration, when sane men packed up and left on insane adventures into unexplored territory from which they well knew they might never return. Indeed, every one of the five stories in this book involves death or disappearance, often punctuated by the horrors of starvation, betrayal, cannibalism and pure ineptitude. The author is not shy in drawing his own conclusions for each scenario and though his writing style is not the most entertaining, his first-hand experience and rational approach to the information available at the time make for a fascinating read.
I learned a lot from this book, such as that the Arctic, which I once imagined to be an abandoned ice desert, is (or at least, was) actually livable land, teeming with life. Unintuitively, the Inuit would move north during winter due to the abundance of game in the frozen landscape, killing everything from seals to polar bears without the aid of guns (often in territory in which well-armed Europeans managed to starve to death). I also learned a lot about scurvy, its causes and surprising psychological effects. According to Stefansson, scurvy plagued those explorers who tried to maintain a European diet, even when supplemented by fruits and vegetables. It was the author’s strong opinion that a diet consisting solely of native, fatty meat was the best way to stay healthy in the Arctic. It’s strange to think that the ketogenic diet is still controversial after over 80 years of arguments and studies.
Why I read it: an impulse buy in a used book store; for $3, who could resist?
The Ra Expeditions
The Ra Expeditions by Thor Heyerdahl, 4/5
Heyerdahl is at it again, living out a real-life adventure story as he sails across the Atlantic in a boat made of reeds and rope. I love how the author researches and resurrects ancient technology, but I didn’t find this book to be as fresh and compelling as his account of the Kon-Tiki expedition. This was just a bit more calculated and agenda-driven, lacking the magical sense of adventure and soul that infused Heyerdahl’s earlier portrayal of his journey aboard the famous balsa wood raft. I suspect it was the Kon-Tiki fame and corresponding sense of responsibility that stole away some of the spontaneity of his earlier adventures.
N.B. I would suggest nobody buy this 1988 Scribner Laidlaw edition, which not only lacks the original photographs but, annoyingly, still includes captions for them.
Why I read it: My brother intended to reread it during our trip to Norway, but I hijacked it.
Aku-Aku: The Secret of Easter Island by Thor Heyerdahl, 5/5
This account of the first serious archaeological expedition to Easter Island could not be more exciting if it were set on a different planet entirely. Heyerdahl and his crew unearthed ancient statues, carvings and structures that had never been seen by outsiders before and some of their finds amazed the native residents as much as themselves. Even second-hand, the thrill of exploration and discovery was intoxicating. I did experience moral qualms caused by the author’s sometimes manipulative approach to wheedling secrets out of the islanders and it was a bit disturbing how willingly they seemed to trade their ancient artifacts for cigarettes. Still, it wasn’t a completely one-sided relationship–the expedition uncovered new statues, shed light on the island’s history, corroborated some of the local legends and encouraged the native people to remember their past and even revive some almost-forgotten traditional skills.
Why I read it: I’ve been an admirer of Heyerdahl since reading Kon-Tiki and wanted to read this book also before visiting the Kon-Tiki museum in Oslo, Norway, with my brother next month.
A picture quote I made: