Annapurna ascents celebrated

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 08/11/2010
Upper South Face, Annapurna. Lindsay Griffin.

The Mount Everest Foundation annual fund raising lecture, which took place on the 4th November in the Royal Geographical Society, celebrated the 40th anniversary of the second and third ascents of Annapurna.

Guest of honour was to be Maurice Herzog, who exactly 60 years ago with Louis Lachenal had made the initial ascent of this Himalayan giant - the first 8,000m peak in the world to be climbed.

Herzog is now over 90, extremely frail and unsteady on his feet, and his attendance was never guaranteed. Sadly, he decided a few days before the event that he simply wasn't well enough to travel.

But the audience could hardly have been too disappointed with the two excellent but contrasting lectures that formed the bulk of the evening.

Henry Day, who led the British-Nepalese Army expedition that made the first repeat of the 1950 French Route (with a major variation), described with characteristic understatement and humour his successful ascent.

The French made two major mistakes: they failed to drink enough fluid at altitude, and did not mark the route, both eventually leading to an epic descent. The team narrowly escaped disaster in bad weather and both Herzog and Lachenal would subsequently undergo severe amputations.

Day's team were neurotic about both drinking and marking, and about trying to avoid, as much as they could, the considerable objective dangers of the avalanche-prone and serac-threatened North Face.

It is worth remembering that although the technical difficulties on this route are moderate, the equipment of the day was rudimentary.

The push from the top camp began with Day first having to clean, prick, prime and then gently coax a traditional Primus stove into flames, inside the tent. He and Gerry Owens then waited until the sun's rays had reached them before leaving, and with the assistance of oxygen reached the top before midday.

The team then evacuated the mountain in good order with all digits intact.

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the mountain, some of the most talented British alpinists of their era were making history, completely raising the bar in Himalayan mountaineering by climbing the steep and impressive South Face via a prominent buttress leading more or less directly to the main summit.

While the ascent of Nuptse in 1961 may arguably be the first serious Himalayan face climb on a very high peak, by comparison with Annapurna the difficulties were really quite moderate and at lower altitude.

Confidence was high and the British Annapurna South Face Expedition was entirely underwritten by the MEF. It marked the first in a long series of British expeditions to the Himalaya led by Chris Bonington.

With a relatively small team and no Sherpa support above the lower camps, the expedition very nearly failed. The climbers were overworked, and most burnt out carrying loads high on the face.

In what was a controversial leadership decision, Bonington gave Haston and Whillans, who had rather "paced themselves", the first summit shot. But as Bonington recounted, had he not made what was to prove an unpopular choice to a number of team members, the South Face simply would not have been climbed.

Recounting the events as if they were only yesterday, Bonington described with no little emotion the successful summit day and heartbreaking clearing of the mountain, when in the very last throes of the expedition, close friend Ian Clough was killed by a falling serac.

Over 300 tickets were sold and four paintings/photographs auctioned on the night, all profits going to the MEF for continuing its support of exploratory expeditions to high or remote mountain areas.

The MEF and BMC liaise closely when it comes to awarding mountaineering grants. For full details of work carried out by the MEF, and how to apply for an expedition grant, visit www.mef.org.uk
 



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