Mountain Literature Classics: Conquistadors of the Useless by Lionel Terray

© Lionel Terray

At first glance this one's rather similar to Gaston Rébuffat's 'Starlight and Storm'. Both authors were outsiders who became official Chamonix Guides. They climbed at the same time, just after WW2, sometimes roped to each other. The Walker Spur and the Eiger are in both their books. They both climbed on the Annapurna expedition of 1950; together they received the returning summit pair at the highest camp. They both got snowblinded on the descent, but still retained the full complement of 40 fingers and toes between them.

And yet the two books are pretty different. One is a classic rock-climb: half a dozen pitches of clean rock, steep all the way but sound, and satisfyingly varied. The other is a mountain expedition: some rough going, some boring bits, relentless step cutting and surprising airy arêtes… The former being Rébuffat: the second is Conquistadors.

Lionel Terray after climbing the Walker Spur  © Ronald Turnbull
Lionel Terray after climbing the Walker Spur
© Ronald Turnbull

Conquistadors, battered Turnbull family copy  © Ronald Turnbull
Conquistadors, battered Turnbull family copy
© Ronald Turnbull

And if Conquistadors is a mixed mountain ascent, the hill's a big one. Terray's career runs from the second ascent of the Eigerwand through to the first 8000m peak, and then to the start of lightweight ascents on the greater ranges – the preliminary Whymper, as it were, to the climbs of Boardman and Tasker.

The Alps

So here we have an account of the climber's early years – and honestly, I didn't really need to know Lionel's birthweight. (What, you really need that info? A heavy fellow, Lionel, 5kg…) A scrappy set of early climbs, but then his bizarre army service, where (for a while at least) warfare emerged as mountaineering by another means, with the world emergency giving the excuse for some dangerous, dodgy climbing. Thus an avalanche couloir in the depths of winter and a whole lot of iced-over rocks, just to give a bit of a fright to some Germans on a col that wasn't really within range and anyway the machine gun jammed up In the minus 30 temperatures.

Lionel Terry, a heavy baby useful for bicep curls  © Lionel Terray
Lionel Terry, a heavy baby useful for bicep curls

Then comes a philosophical account of just why it is that climbers do such dangerous stuff:

I began to realise that the mountain is no more than an indifferent wasteland of rock and ice with no other value than what we choose to give it, but that on this infinitely virgin material each man could mount, by the creative force of the spirit, the form of his own ideal.

Okay, so he doesn't know what mountaineering's all about. Join the club… That's followed by the ascent of the Walker Spur of the Grandes Jorasses, in a wild and dodgy style quite different from Rébuffat's disciplined ascent. Terray, with Louis Lachenal, climbed it very fast, in cobbled-together boots, hardly anything in the rucksacks, lost and off route for the top third of the climb. Followed by (yawn) another account of the early deaths on the Eiger – but this was back in 1961, and that story had only been told over once before already, In The White Spider.

Next up, that second ascent of the Eiger's North Face.

Terray: It looks impossible from here. We'll have to go and get a closer look.

Lachenal: Nasty! Nasty! It's as smooth as my arse!

They romped up it over two and a half days, tracing the route by the occasional rusted piton or empty sardine can. This is all the more interesting if you've already read The White Spider, so you're going No No Lionel the exit cracks are not going to be a simple scree gully…

The style of the book is direct and unselfconscious. Terray records as an interesting oddity that on coming down the Eiger, he couldn't enjoy his usual hearty supper. Well yes. Three days, under not just the threat but the actuality of stonefall. Frequently climbing at, or beyond, his limit, on compact but crumbly limestone, with, effectively, zero protection. Hasn't he heard of post-traumatic stress disorder? Well no; he's a Frenchman of the mid-twentieth century, of course he hasn't heard of PTSD.

Then there's the astonishing 300m cable man-hauled on the Eiger summit to rescue Italian Claudio Corti from the White Spider. (Corti's comment: does this count as the first Italian ascent? Does it?)

Annapurna and after

After the Walker Spur and the Eiger: "Now that we had climbed the highest and hardest faces in the Alps we had nothing left to hope for." The Alps, basically, were all used up… Luckily, there's the Himalayas, and all the unclimbed 8000m peaks.

The Annapurna chapter adds some details to expedition leader Maurice Herzog's account:

But it follows the same line, roped up behind the earlier book – the script was checked over by Herzog himself. Terray has his own lyrical moment, not at the summit (which he didn't reach, being diverted into rescuing Herzog and Lachenal) but in an improvised bivvy at Camp I in a snowstorm:

If I opened my hood to breathe my face would be withered by the cold and snow; if I closed it to get warm I would start to suffocate…A clear dawn revealed me buried in new-fallen snow, shivering despite all my warm equipment. I curled up in a ball and waited for the sunlight to descend to my level…. I felt no regrets. On the contrary, I blessed the providence which had vouchsafed me to experience this marvellous adventure. In my wildest dreams I have never imagined so much beauty and grandeur. My whole lifetime of platitudinous mediocrity seemed as nothing...

I said that Gaston Rébuffat's book is about the climbs, while Terray's is about himself. But also, it's about his climbing companion Louis Lachenal. And Lachenal is a true tragic figure. Mercurial, irresponsible, and the finest climber of his generation. Reading between the lines, Lachenal was not really liked on Annapurna. But Herzog manoeuvres to get him as partner on the summit push. And on the descent, the two of them lose most of their toes, and with them their futures as climbers and in Lachenal's case his career as mountain guide, all swept out in a nasty little pile on a railway station somewhere in north India.

Another uselessness conquistadated: reading 'Conquistadors' on Meall nan Tarmachan  © Ronald Turnbull
Another uselessness conquistadated: reading 'Conquistadors' on Meall nan Tarmachan
© Ronald Turnbull

The book ends on page 300, four years after Annapurna, with the death of Lachenal in a skiing accident. The death that, in a sense, has already taken place four years before on the summit slope of Annapurna.

Or rather, page 300 is where it ought to end. In fact the final 46 pages are a rushed account of perhaps the most significant, and by his own account the most intensely enjoyable, years of Terray's life, as he combines his Himalayan know-how with his fabulous Alpine skills to achieve fast, lightweight ascents of very difficult peaks in the Andes and Patagonia. And by fast, I mean one every couple of pages… Oh, and the first ascent of Makalu is in there as well ("one might even have wished for a slightly tougher adversary").

As the book ends (for the second time…) the 39 year old Terray is trapped in an avalanche on the Fresnay Glacier. His client has been killed, and Terray finds himself five metres down a crevasse trapped underneath large blocks of ice. Using a pocket knife and his piton hammer he manages to carve his way free. For another writer this could make a chapter on its own – or even, in the style of Aron Ralston and the boulder in his Utah canyon, a whole book. For Terray, it all takes place in a single paragraph.

Si vraiment aucune pierre, aucun sérac, aucune crevasse ne m'attend quelque part dans le monde pour arrêter ma course, un jour viendra où, vieux et las, je saurai trouver la paix parmi les animaux et les fleurs. Le cercle sera fermé, enfin je serais le simple pâtre qu'enfant je rêvais de devenir.

"And if truly no stone, no tower of ice, no crevasse lies somewhere in wait for me, the day will come when, old and tired, I find peace among the animals and flowers. At last I shall be the simple shepherd I dreamed of as a child.."

But the man's like Beethoven: he just doesn't know how to stop. In a postscript added in 1962, he's leading three major expeditions on two continents in a single year: Jannu, Chacraraju's east peak, and Nilgiri – as well as knocking off 'Conquistadors of the Useless'.

"It is possible to climb hard for twenty or thirty years," says Terray, "and still die of old age. The hardest part is to survive the first four or five years." But if he was going to join the flowers: it was only from underneath. He died in 1965 on a rock climb "Fissure en Arc de Cercle" (TD+; 6b+) on Le Gerbier near his home town, Grenoble. He's buried at Chamonix.

17 Nov, 2022

Suprised there's no mention of how good the translation is. Has Lachenal's Carnets du vertige been published in English ? Another point of view to many of the same events.

17 Nov, 2022

Very pleased to see this book highlighted, I read it as an impressionable newbie loaned out from the local library and it made a big impression. A nice counterpoint to the WH Murray my group was knee deep in at the time. Happy to see it republished (what would we do without the excellent Vertebrate Squadra?) and it worked second time around. Just the title alone is genius.

17 Nov, 2022

One of my favourites. Lots of interesting background, his time at the boarding school in Villar de Lans and other early influences, some of the friends he makes over his climbing life. There is a lot here besides the early ascents of major North Faces. And of course all told in a very different style to Rebuffat. It must have so good to be at the forefront of Alpine mountaineering in the 50's. For me, one of the all time classics!

17 Nov, 2022

I really enjoyed the book, especially as it was more than just the climbing. I have given up on some books that seem to focus too much on the specifics of climbing each route they mention.

17 Nov, 2022

It's a long time since I read it, but my memory was of loads of freezing cold bivvies!

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